If you’re not adept at Pinyin, one of the fun things you can do at Tony Hu’s Lao You Ju is spend a few minutes dreaming about what “Healthy Stuffed Corn Bons” could be. I asked a few times, but I never got a clear answer, and the kitchen in the back of this hallucinogenically overdecorated lounge was never able to produce them anyway.
That’s not an unheard-of experience in all kinds of places, and unless you’re uncomfortable getting lost in translation, it’s part of the adventure of trying new stuff. But even if you do know Chinese, there’s plenty of novelty on the menu at Hu’s fourth restaurant in the Chinatown Mall, where he’s forgone the regional approach he took with Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Beijing, and Lao Shanghai.
Instead, he’s created a Weird World of Hu, a dream chamber governed by a mystifying concept identified on the menu as “NeoChinesism.” As far as I can tell, that’s some kind of merging of the modern with the traditional, an inclusive philosophy with room for both straight jazz-vocal covers of Culture Club, Prince, and Clash songs and a glow-in-the-dark bar stocked with $3,000 bottles of 30-year-old rice whiskey.
Hu’s image is projected around the Chinatown Mall like a beaming Big Brother, and he’s a gregarious, hands-on owner in all of his spots. But when you see him here it’s unlike you’ve seen him anywhere else, holding court at the bar, swirling a glass of red wine, and yukking it up with his pals. He still chats up the tables, offering reminders that there’s late-night karaoke on the weekends or assurances that despite all the glitz this isn’t an expensive restaurant. And it isn’t.
It’s also not strictly the small-plates joint it’s hyped as. There are plenty of straightforward family-size regional dishes like sizzling, incendiary Lamb With Cumin, sweet-and-spicy fried Three-Chili Fish, and Numbing Spicy Fish Chongqing Style, laden with pickled cabbage. These won’t be unfamiliar to fans of Lao Sze Chuan.
And there are plenty of Chinese standards. Pot stickers, egg drop soup, and fried rice are all present, though they arrive on modish angled plates monogrammed with the Tony Gourmet Group logo, and steamed rice is served in something looking like a wine barrel.
But the real sport here is gambling on some of the peacocky dishes supposed to exemplify this “whole new chapter” in Chinese food. Cartilaginous “Extremely Spicy” duck tongue tossed with fat-absorbing crinkle-cut fries spills dramatically out of a crunchy battered nest that looks like Mushmouth’s hat. Marrying American frozen foods to Chinese like this might be a hallmark of NeoChinesism, though it’s done much more successfully in Stir-fried Tofu With Duck Eggs, a thick, yolky bowl brightened with a heavy dose of frozen peas and diced carrots. It sounds horrible and looks inedible, but it was the richest, most comforting thing I could have draped over a pile of rice on that frozen night.
In a way it doesn’t matter if you win or lose these bets; choosing your own way, consequences be damned, is the fun part of exploring any of Hu’s long menus. The now-infamous World No. 1 Bone is a long pork shank section standing a pool of starchy abalone sauce with a straw sticking out of the top. I’m generally pro marrow, but this dish taught me something: when I grow up, I don’t want to be a liposuction machine. Jellyfish cucumber roll is the clean, briny, and pretty obverse of the Dragon Beard Beef, a pubic-looking fuzz of dried meat on a bed of cold cucumber that oozes red oil when disturbed. A similar presentation, Hand-pulled Fish Fillet, features neatly sliced cold, piscine slices that need only a dab of chile or hot mustard to come to life, while Preserved Pork With Cauliflower is a murky, garlicky hot pot of mushy vegetables interspersed with bits of Chinese bacon.
The staff, alternately AWOL and hovering, provides little help in navigating any of this. One dining companion contemplated the service style with a koan: “One soup. Three waitresses.” But zen calm is a good attitude to bring. As long as you’re willing to submit to and calmly accept the vagaries of NeoChinesism, you’ll eventually be rewarded.