It's been several years since anyone posted to a "Best Chinese Restaurants" topic here, and quite a few notable restaurants have opened during that period. So that, combined with having lunch at Double Li today, made me realize that maybe it's time to start a new Best Chinese topic. Here's what I've got; feel free to add to it, with recommendations for great Chinese food in the city and suburbs!
Lao Sze Chuan
2172 S. Archer Avenue
Chicago IL 60616
Lao Sze Chuan is perhaps the best-known Szechuan restaurant in the Chicago area. It's located on the end of a long building called Chinatown Mall, just a short walk west of the Cermak-Chinatown stop on the CTA Red Line. It's open for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. The décor is rather drab. The menu, which you can view on their website, is HUGE. When you are seated, they bring a complimentary, very hot (spicy hot) cold slaw. I've found that the wait staff is not overly helpful in providing suggestions and guidance regarding the menu selections, but as it turns out, I've always been quite happy with how my own selections turned out (the sole exception being when someone else was choosing a large banquet meal and chose ~15 dishes which were all unrelentingly hot and not particularly tasty either). My two favorite dishes are Tony's Chicken with Three Chilis, which is rather hot (although not as hot as the slaw), and shrimp in mayonnaise sauce, which is a mild (not hot) dish.
Today was my first visit to Double Li and I liked it a lot. I hesitate to categorize it as necessarily better or worse than Lao Sze Chuan; I think they are both worth trying, and I plan on returning to both in the future.
Double Li is a storefront on the north side of Cermak (22nd Street), about half a block from Lao Sze Chuan and also just a short walk west of the Cermak-Chinatown stop on the Red Line. It's open for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. The first thing I noticed is that the décor is much brighter and more classy than Lao Sze Chuan; the walls are painted in bright shades of yellow and purple, and tasteful modern paintings hang on them, and the seating is more comfortable as well. Their menu is also huge; it is comparable in size to the Lao Sze Chuan menu, and far, far larger than the rather short version shown on Menupages, so don't use that as a guide. No slaw. Ben Li himself came over to take our order, and was extremely helpful in guiding our menu selections. His recommendation for a starter was the Szechuan dumplings, and these were really excellent. Compared with the more conventional pan-fried pot stickers you find here and elsewhere, these were more like wet won tons, served IN liquid similar to the sauce served on the side with pot stickers, i.e. with some hot oil in it and just the right touch of ginger taste to the dish. Yum!
We then had three entrees. Oddly, none of them had any liquid sauce to the dish, so there wasn't any for the rice on our plate to soak up. The first dish was Crunchy Garlic Shrimp. These consisted of 11 nice-sized shrimp, lightly fried, and served over noodles that had been cooked with garlic, green pepper, and onion. Very nice indeed. This was the mildest dish of our three entrees, and though it was marked with zero chili peppers on the menu - rather than one to three peppers denoting how hot the dish is - it still had a slight amount of spice to it. The second dish was the Black Pepper Garlic Beef Tenderloin which had been mentioned in one of the reviews, and this was nice also. It was just slightly sweet, and quite tender. It was fairly spicy and personally I would have given it two peppers rather than the one shown next to it on the menu. The third of our three entrees was the Dry Chili Chicken. This consisted of chicken chopped to "popcorn" size and deep-fried with dry red chili peppers. A LOT of peppers. In fact, this dish could have been called dry red chili peppers with some chicken thrown in. I looked at the plate and estimated that there were close to one hundred dry red chili peppers on the plate, averaging 1.5 inches long. That's a lot of peppers! And as you might expect, this dish was very, very hot indeed. Not too hot to eat, for anyone who likes hot food (and I do), but about as hot as the slaw at Lao Sze Chuan, i.e. pretty darn hot. Actually, though, I think I like the three-chili chicken at Lao Sze Chuan better, because it's more flavorful, more tender, and more moist. All in all, we loved the dumplings, liked the shrimp and noodles a lot, liked the beef, and the chicken was just okay. On a return visit, we would definitely order the dumplings again, but would try to avoid ordering three entrees that all involved deep-frying in the preparation, which was an unintentional mistake on our part this time around.
108 East Superior Street
Chicago IL 60611
We ate at Shanghai Terrace last year. Shanghai Terrace is located in the Peninsula Hotel, one of the top luxury hotels in the city. It's open for dinner seven days a week, but is currently not open for lunch, although they plan to serve lunch again starting in April. It's unlike any other Chinese restaurant in the Chicago area in that it's an upscale, luxurious restaurant, and it's priced to match. The food, which is predominantly Cantonese although it has quite a variety of influences from other Chinese regions and Asian countries, is consistently excellent, in taste as well as presentation. The level of service is what you expect in a luxury hotel, rather than what you expect in an ethnic restaurant; many people are at your beck and call. Typical attire is "business casual". Because of the pricing, this is more suitable for a special occasion; at most Chinese restaurants, you might spend $10-30 per person including tax/tip, whereas at Shanghai Terrace, with wine and tax/tip, we spent somewhere in the $100 neighborhood per person. That price level is consistent with our contemporary American "casual fine dining" restaurants like Aigre Doux, Blackbird, or North Pond, and so is the nature of the dining experience. But if you consider the prospect of paying that much for Chinese food to be shocking, then perhaps you might not want to go there. I enjoyed it, and I'm glad I tried it.
So those are the best Chinese restaurants I've eaten at in the Chicago area in recent years. I've tried some others in other parts of the city and suburbs, but haven't found any others that I've enjoyed consistently enough to recommend them here.
Anyone who would like to add recommendations for these or other Chinese restaurants, please feel free!