Leaving behind their family-style Chinese carryout joint, Mandarin Garden, in Evanston, the Lin family–Chen Shing, his wife, Hui Chu, and their son Jun–opened the pan-Asian GREEN GINGER in Wicker Park this September. “It gives my dad a chance to cook the upscale traditional Chinese food he was trained to cook in China,” says Jun, who designed the new restaurant’s interior, painting the dining room olive green, covering the back wall with overlapping scales of gold wallpaper (“It looks like ginger to me,” he says), designing the steel-and-wood furniture, and placing lucky bamboo around the space. Hailing from Wenzhou, a coastal town in China where seafood is a staple, Chen devotes a good half of the menu to dishes like braised oolong-tea-marinated salmon with five-spice powder, macadamia-nut-encrusted halibut in a tangy soy-garlic sauce, and Dover sole in black bean sauce, and he carves tiny rabbits, dogs, and lions out of turnips and carrots for garnish. Chen also cooks up a few of Jun’s childhood favorites–pancakelike scallion bread and tender pork chops with caramelized onions. Spicy Szechuan garlic eggplant and baby bok choy with shiitake mushrooms satisfy vegetarians, and for vegans there’s a tofu sesame seaweed salad. Less appealing are the appetizers, the majority of which are breaded and deep-fried–chicken egg rolls, blue crab and cream cheese wontons, sweet coconut scallops, and lumpia-wrapped stuffed shrimp. Jun’s brother Jack created the dessert menu, which includes tempura chocolate cake and mango-coconut rice pudding. Bubble teas and fruit freezes are selling well while Green Ginger awaits its liquor license. Green Ginger is at 2050 W. Division, 773-486-6700.
The short-lived Don Juan on Halsted has quietly morphed into BOKA, a superhip restaurant and lounge, the first Chicago effort by partners Rob Katz (current owner of the bar Katacomb and owner of Elbo Room until 1999) and Springfield native Kevin Boehm, who’s owned restaurants in Nashville and Florida. Their clubby new restaurant is designed in shades of black and gunmetal (except for the huge white mesh tarps stretched oddly across the dining room ceiling). A front lounge area, which doubles as an extra dining room on busy nights, is separated from the main room by a long, frequently packed bar. Recessed lighting and a modern-rock sound track complete the swanky ambience. The ambitious menu by chef Giuseppe Scuarto (Postrio, Spago, MK) delivers unpretentious and nicely executed small and large plates of grilled baby octopus with preserved lemons and saffron aioli, grilled quail with heirloom tomatoes, and an outstanding pan-roasted gulf snapper with olives and young onions. The wine list is broken down by grape, with two options for each, one by a female winemaker, the other by a male (gimmicky, sure, but interesting). More than 20 are poured by the glass and 75 are available by the bottle. Boehm plans to include more half bottles in the future, a wise move in lean times. Boka is at 1729 N. Halsted, 312-337-6070.
There’s not a job in a restaurant that Jimmy Espinoza hasn’t worked during his 34 years in the business. “I’ve done it all–dishwasher, waiter, host, bartender–and now I have my own place,” he says. All along he saved menus from the places he worked, and some of his favorite dishes show up on MITAD DEL MUNDO’s menu, which blends cuisines from Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and Espinoza’s native Ecuador. The restaurant’s royal blue walls are covered with pictures of Espinoza with his arm around Latin music stars like Tito Rojas, Frankie Negron, Oscar de Leon, and Tito Puente, taken when Espinoza worked at such high-profile places as Chez Paul and Tanya’s. “I always kept a disposable camera with me, because you never know who might come in,” he says. Mitad del Mundo’s specialties are mostly seafood based: seviche de camaron estilo ecuatoriano (Ecuadoran-style shrimp salad), zarzuela de marisco (seafood stew), and paella Valenciana (the traditional Spanish seafood-and-rice dish takes more than 30 minutes to prepare). Most orders come with rice, beans, and sauteed sweet plantains. There’s a whole section of the menu devoted to steak, such as churrasco, bistec de Palomilla (butt steak), and carne asada. Lechon asado, baby roast pork, is another Latin classic, and while it’s slightly overcooked, it’s still tender and tasty. Appetizers include tostones, yucca con mojo, empanadas, and tamales. Espinoza is a frequent, cheerful presence in the dining room. Mitad del Mundo is at 2922 W. Irving Park, 773-866-9454.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.