CHICAGO - The Chinese New Year is underway. The Year of the Dog brings with it special celebrations and, of course, a parade this weekend in Chinatown.
And while our Hungry Hound says there are plenty of great places to eat well there, he's going outside of Chinatown this year, for a pair of regional styles - Cantonese and Szechuan - as good as anything in Chinatown.
Up until recently, you couldn't really find great Chinese food anywhere outside of Cermak and Wentworth. And since that area is going to be busy this weekend, i thought I'd send you to a pair of places outside the usual boundaries, each cooking with a very specific region in mind.
We begin with the fiery, chili-and-peppercorn-based dishes from Szechuan, served in a Bridgeport strip mall. Then travel to Hong Kong - metaphorically - where dim sum is a Cantonese tradition being replicated each day near UIC's Circle campus.
You can almost see the steam rising from the customer's heads. Eating at A Place By Damao is not for the timid, since the entire menu is influenced by the Szechuan Province's capital of Chengdu.
"I'm from Chengdu, so I'm trying to bring the most authentic small plates food from my hometown, also a little bit street food, street-style, spicy food," said Damao, the namesake owner.
That could mean a vermicelli noodle soup, or other deep bowl, laced with a ton of spices.
"Many spices, like dried chili pepper, crushed chili pepper then dried, crushed Szechuan peppercorns; a lot of peppercorns actually," she said.
A chicken and bone broth helps reduce the heat somewhat, before the mild won tons are added to the top.
They also make handmade noodles; kneading, cutting and then slapping and stretching them, before boiling them for a few minutes. They're coated with a secret soy sauce, another with sesame and peanuts, then the homemade chili oil and a scattering of peanuts.
"Americans, they are really curious about Chinese food. I mean before they had orange chicken and fried rice - they thought that is Chinese food but that is actually not - so they are trying to find the real Chinese food right now," said Damao.
Over on UIC's campus, just off the Eisenhower, Jade Court is run by the family who used to run Phoenix in Chinatown for years. They recently brought over their dim sum chef, who is making the traditional Cantonese snacks each day.
"Like a Chinese tapas. It's a meal that consists mainly of small dishes. Comprised of steamed items, baked items and fried items," said owner Carol Cheung. "The classics would be the har gao, which are the shrimp dumplings, or what we call shui mai, which is usually shrimp, minced pork and diced mushroom and it's topped with a bit of tobiko."
Turnip cakes are delicately pan-fried, chicken feet are steamed and potstickers get both the steam treatment to cook the inside, then some crisping-up in a hot pan. Dipping sauces are a must at the table, as are some desserts, like goji berry-laced chrysanthemum jelly or oozy, rich sand buns filled with sweetened egg custard. Cheung says each item is made in-house, everyday, because freshness is key.
"Dim sum is so meticulous, because there's so many small bites; a lot of little folds and the doughs are actually very delicate," said Cheung.
In Steve's Extra Course video, he goes back to A Place By Damao to try some of their Chengdu-style street snacks.
A Place By Damao
Extra Course: Chengdu street food
2621 S. Halsted
Jade Court Chinese Cuisine
626 S. Racine Ave.