For certain species of north-siders, suburbanites, and tourists, Chinatown might as well be in China. The reasons are manifold. The very idea of navigating the Land Rover around the south side is out of the question. Didn’t someone say someone found bedbugs on the Red Line? Why spend money on an Uber when you could drop it on that sweet Tilted Kilt wife-beater?
That’s why Stephanie Izard has people lining up at 4:30 PM outside Duck Duck Goat on Restaurant Row. It’s why an Indonesian chain is making rainbow-colored soup dumplings at Imperial Lamian in River North. And it’s even why Tony “the Mayor of Chinatown” Hu has held on to his Michigan Avenue outpost of Lao Sze Chuan after getting sentenced in federal court for tax fraud. These savvy professionals all know that there are a lot of people (mostly white people) who won’t ever learn a thing about the one neighborhood in our city that—through its restaurants alone—opens a window onto China itself.
Consequently, these folks also know that if you want to open a Chinese restaurant that absolutely nobody will be afraid to go to, you put it on the Mag Mile. Or in River North. Or on Randolph Street, which is where Austin Baker planted his new Chinese restaurant Won Fun, in the space that once stored dried beans, canned tomatoes, olives, and cheese for the great and venerable Italian grocery store J.P. Graziano. Jim Graziano now collects Won Fun’s rent check, and Baker wants to know if the Fulton Market District is ready for some fire fish and biang biang mien. Are you ready, Fulton Market District? Are the dan dan noodles, Chongqing chicken, and ma po tofu two blocks away at Duck Duck Goat growing tiresome?
Gee, the neighborhood’s starting to look like a little town in China or something. Maybe one in Sichuan Province? One that has a karaoke machine, and a chef who actually served in the army under General Tso.
OK, I don’t know if that last part is true about Ben Ruiz, but I do know he’s been the chef at Bar Marta for a while. That’s the Humboldt Park restaurant Baker and others opened when they left the nest at Brendan Sodikoff’s Hogsalt Hospitality. They have great steak frites at Bar Marta. But they don’t have fried rice.
They do at Won Fun. It’s in this opium den send-up that Ruiz offers four kinds on a menu that largely hews to an approximation of the food of China’s southwestern Sichuan Province, home of buzzing peppercorn ma la, blazing chile heat, and deep fermented funk.
There’s still some of the Old World left in this space. On the second-floor lounge, which is named 2Fun and which hosts karaoke and serves tropical drinks, the original wood floor remains, freshly hand sanded. And the faces of the bars upstairs and down are the old steel plates that once supported Graziano’s weighty inventory. The brick is raw. The front doors are original.
Otherwise the space could be meant to replicate a Hong Kong whorehouse. The red lanterns are raised. You could safely expose film in the ambient lighting. And the scarlet leather booths are tall and private enough to host a secret assignation with O-Ren Ishii.
It’s either that or the bar, part of which offers a direct view of Ruiz’s crew, toiling amid a rising haze of steam and fryer oil to ensure your table’s ticket for a second round of Chonqing chicken is just as hot, crackly, and spicy-sweet as the first one.
If you get in a certain mind-set, there’s something about eating Sichuanese food that does feel a bit like walking over hot coals. You reflect upon the tiny flame icons signaling the spice levels on specific dishes and you wonder, “How much can I take?” And then your central nervous system reminds you what endorphins do and you order the ma po tofu, dan dan noodles, dry chile prawns, and fiery fried chicken all at once.
At Won Fun, your jones may or may not be satisfied, depending on what you order. That ma po tofu is respectful of its elders. Old Pock-Marked Ma herself might appreciate the way the silky bean curd slides down the throat on an oily lava flow of chiles and fermented bean paste abuzz with Sichuan peppercorns. Then there’s the “mouthwatering rabbit,” a dish whose Chinese name can also be easily read as “saliva rabbit,” a plate of cold shredded leporid flesh bathed in a fragrant and stinging chile oil. Normally there are tiny bones among the meat, which can make for sporting eating, but here it’s been thoroughly worked over and goes down without a fight. Dry chile prawns are butterflied and armored in a crunchy bodysuit; if you fail to eat the shatteringly crisp heads and tails, you’ve failed the dish and yourself. A heaping mound of fresh cucumber quickly absorbing a shower of black vinegar provides a false sense of cool relief when its garlic-chile dressing makes its presence known.
To be sure, there are some thrilling dishes on the menu, but others won’t scratch the itch. House-made dan dan noodles are so delightfully fat and chewy that it’s almost easy to overlook their lack of adhesive properties, which allows most of the minced beef-chile sauce to settle at the bottom of the bowl.
Relatively mild catfish is subbed for muddier, more aggressive freshwater fish like carp and snakehead that are typically used in the dish the menu refers to as “Fire Fish,” which sounds a lot more appealing than “boiled fish–Shui Zhu Yu Recipe,” which is what you’d call it in Chinese. If Baker and Ruiz wanted to swing their balls around, they could use one of the invasive Asian carp currently terrorizing the Mississippi downstate—but that’s hardly the problem here. It’s the volcanic brew in which the fish is suspended that’s lacking much of the heady spice ideally provided by anise, cinnamon, and black cardamom, but most importantly a baseline of fermented broad bean paste that should give the dish its foundation. Without doubanjiang it’s not powered with the deeply umamic engine that delivers a lot of the soul you should taste in this intense food.
That’s odd, because doubanjiang is name checked across the menu. It’s in the ma po tofu, it’s in the Sichuan fried rice, and even its exalted extra-aged brother Pixian is in the almost pillowy-tender beef short ribs with cracked rice.
About that fried rice. For ballers Won Fun offers a $24.99 plate with roasted duck and foie gras, but a few of the more prosaic versions, like a basic egg-and-scallion variant ($11.99) and one with shrimp missing some promised smoked catfish ($19.99), are priced at a level commensurate with the rents this neighborhood commands, while offering little in terms of execution or quality of product to recommend them over anything you can find in Chinatown.
That’s the big question that hangs over Won Fun: Is it worth it? You’ll find puzzling price points across the menu, from a $9.99 plate of sesame-dressed raw napa cabbage to three saturated pork wontons bobbing in admittedly rich stock for $8.99 to blistered string beans stir-fried with oil-sodden pork floss for $11.
Sure, it has those lanterns, a rocking soundtrack, and a sophisticated cocktail program by former Gilt Bar alum Remy Walle. It also has one peacock of a dessert and nothing more—a cement-colored pile of mildly sweet taro-root-flavored shaved ice garnished with various fresh and preserved fruits. But there isn’t much else to undermine the case for conquering your fears to walk the coals of less simulated Sichuanese food just a few miles to the south in Chinatown. v