I can make OK dumplings, I guess, but I wouldn’t dream of letting my mother-in-law try them. Her daughter makes them way better than I do, but there’s nothing like Omma’s mandu, which have nostalgia on their side.
Daniel and Eric Wat learned to make dumplings from their grandmother while growing up in the western suburbs. She learned to make them from her mother while growing up near Shanghai and brought her skills along via Hong Kong. “I started cooking because of my fear my family would not be able to eat my grandmother’s food as she got older,” says Eric Wat. The Wat brothers’ dumplings are at the practical and spiritual heart of their new Ukrainian Village restaurant Lao Peng You, which means “Old Friend.” But they’re not exactly their grandmother’s dumplings: “My Nai Nai always said if we knew how to make her food we wouldn’t need her anymore,” he says. “So she wouldn’t tell me what she was doing. I made jiaozi my whole life just trying to re-create something that was close to what she’d do.”
With at least one variety for each letter of the alphabet (quenelle, xiao long bao, zongzi)—and their ubiquity on almost every continent—dumplings are a virtual human right. But here in Chicago, real, handmade Chinese dumplings of quality are rare outside of Chinatown. Apart from specialists such as the great Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings, they’re not terribly common there either.
But these are jiaozi—silky, two-pleated, half-moon purses clutching firm, often fragrant fillings: beef and cilantro; pork and dill; egg, mushroom, and chive; among four others. They come ten to a bowl swimming in an inky bath of soy and black vinegar, shimmering with amoebas of chili oil that in composite isn’t nearly as fierce as it looks. It doesn’t matter. The broth is an ideal amniotic waiting room to stage these delicate dumplings, bobbing safely until plucked by chopsticks and swiped through the clear, ruby-red housemade chili oil, which is also not as savage as it looks. This liquid presentation solves the problem of perishability in an item that may be just as delightful when steamed or pan-fried but is more prone to drying or tearing.
The brothers say they’re not focusing on any particular regional Chinese cuisine. “We are Chinese Americans after all,” says Daniel. “We grew up eating a mixture of different regional Chinese dishes.”
But at the moment, Lao Peng You does have a particularly northern Chinese bent (the Wats’s grandfather hailed from the north). And among the northern Chinese restaurants that have taken hold in Chinatown over the last eight years, they aren’t the first to strike ground outside of Chinatown (Lincoln Park’s relatively new Xi’an Dynasty Cuisine was first, along with a similar dumpling soup).
Two varieties of bing are of a northern style themselves: chubby coiled flatbreads rolled and pan-fried to order with a thick, crackly exterior and slightly gooey doughy interior studded with cumin-y lamb bits or green onion. Swipe these through your preferred blend of soy, vinegar, and oil available at the utensil station next to the counter.
The brothers adhere to a template—aromatic-infused soy, black vinegar, and chili oil—that’s present across their menu. “If you like one thing you should probably like everything we offer,” says Eric. “The concept was sort of modeled after a taqueria, where you use a few ingredients and create a multitude of dishes. You only have to decide what kind of textures or fillings you want.”
But it is dough that distinguishes Lao Peng You, which extends to noodles as well, from a pile of chewy, cold shoelace-gauge tentacles showered in peanut, cilantro, and green onions, deployed also in chicken and vegetarian mushroom broth soups; to wider slippery ribbons swimming in a beef noodle soup fortified with fermented broad bean paste, the deep bowl sprouting with a bouquet of fresh, green cress.
There’s a handful of familiar smaller plates: sliced beef shanks in chili oil; cold chicken spiced with citrusy green peppercorns; cold steamed eggplant; or creamy housemade tofu.
Along with its focus, there is a pervading restraint across Lao Peng You’s menu. Sichuan peppercorn freaks, chili fiends, and tweakers might look at some of these dishes and expect the electric ma la buzz common to that region, but it’s not there. Similarly, a few beverages hold back on the sugar that might otherwise obscure the light tannic pleasures of milk tea with herbal jelly or a fizzy pink soda derived from salty preserved plums. What comes across with everything—apart from soy, chili, and vinegar—is extraordinary technique.
People seem to appreciate it. When they opened, the brothers hoped they’d sell about 1,400 dumplings a week among seven varieties. Presently they’re cranking out 1,500 to 2,000 of each in that time, and they’ve still had to close early on occasions when they run out. With the brand new Year of the Rat starting last weekend, there is no more auspicious time to eat these dumplings.
But the big question is: What does Nai Nai think? The brothers laugh sheepishly. She’s been in for lunch but hasn’t eaten the dumplings. They’re not eager for her feedback.
“It’s the most terrifying thing we could do,” says Daniel.
“The best way to describe it in Chinese is bucuo. It’s never ‘good.’ It’s always ‘not bad,’” says Eric. “If we ever thought we did something good, it would make us feel lazy.” v