You can’t pitch a chile-crusted pork rib in Chinatown these days without hitting a Sichuanese restaurant. I’m always yammering to whoever will listen about how Chinatown and soon-to-be-annexed Bridgeport are consistently the most interesting and dynamic food neighborhoods in the city. But lately things have been looking a bit one-dimensional.
Before the collapse of Tony Hu’s Chinatown-based restaurant empire in the wake of federal wire fraud and money laundering convictions, he could always be counted on to represent different and new-to-Chicago regional Chinese foods. He even stepped outside the so-called eight great cuisines of China when he opened Lao Shanghai, a move all the more remarkable given that Shanghai’s sometimes been derided for not having an original cuisine (this despite being the home of xiao long bao—soup dumplings, for the uninitiated).
Hu introduced the city to the Shangahainese predilections for cooking with sugar, alcohol, and vinegar, and to the meaty soy braises known as “red cooking,” installing handy table buzzers so you could annoy your server with requests for more red-braised pork belly, stir-fried eels, and drunken chicken.
Lao Shanghai closed in fall 2016, but about eight months later La Mom Kitchen opened its doors on Wentworth, offering a curious combination of Sichuan and Shanghainese dishes, Tawainese shaved ice, and boba tea. I failed to notice it at the time, and it seems many others did too, because it closed after less than a year in operation.
Then in late June, it reappeared in Bridgeport on a strip of Halsted that’s become a showcase for regional variety: there’s the Sichuanese A Place by Damao; the venerable, pioneering northern-Chinese Ed’s Potsticker House; the Shenyang street food at Xiao Mei Ming; the Taiwanese hot pots at Taipei Café; the Dongbei-style Northern Taste, and even Big Boss Spicy Fried Chicken, for a weird and wonderful collision of Chinese-Belizean and southern-fried poultry.
La Mom’s menu is Sichuan dominant, even featuring a subsection of “Modern Szechuan Dishes” like a stack of chile-crusted grilled pork ribs, deep-fried and weeping with scarlet oil. And there’s another regional twist: ten different bowls of rice noodles, a specialty of the southern city of Guilin, which is nowhere near either Sichuan Province or Shanghai. If that combination already throws you off-balance, take a seat: at lunchtime, there’s a steak or chicken burrito with lettuce, tomato, cheese, sour cream, and rice. I’ll have to report on that one another day, because it’s the 28 specifically Shanghainese dishes listed on the menu—from pot stickers to walnut shrimp to sweet glutinous rice balls in wine sauce—that set La Mom apart.
Some of the more compelling among these are wide bowls of savory braised-beef soup swimming with thick, pappardelle-like hand-shaved noodles, a great centerpiece for any meal here. Jerkylike slices of mock “smoked” fish are marinated in five-spice powder, deep-fried, then marinated again in soy sauce, rice wine, and star anise until dyed a deep amber. There’s a “braised chopped meat ball” some might recognize as Lion’s Head meatball, a soft, almost silky amalgamation of pork and tofu glazed in a glossy brown sauce. Just as familiar is La Mom’s Hong Sue Pork, jiggly chunks of red-lacquered hong shao rou, otherwise known as Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork Belly, a name Chiang Kai-shek—hanging in portrait above the dining room—surely disapproves of. There are no xiao long bao, but the half-moon-shaped pork dumplings are loaded with enough dispersed hot liquid that they could be counted as almost soupy.
Admittedly, one of the more iconic Shanghainese dishes at La Mom is also one that gives Shanghai its reputation for co-opting the foods of other places (see also the soup section for the Shanghainese take on borscht); it’s no less worth your digestive real estate. Peking duck service at La Mom’s is a two-course, $33.95 value that begins with a platter of thinly flensed waterfowl with a glassy, shattering skin, followed by a stir-fry of the knobbier bits, wok tossed with onion and peppers.
That being said, at La Mom, Shanghai is stuck in the back seat relative to the increasingly familiar array of Sichuanese fireworks. I never thought that would be something to complain about in Chicago, so I’ll just encourage you to turn to page four of your menu. v