When you walk into Emperor's Choice in the "old" section of Chinatown, you get confronted by an impressive collection of framed reviews, including an inclusion in the top 25 restaurants of the year by Chicago Magazine. Only close examination will reveal that these write-ups came over ten years ago.
Of course this speaks a bit to certain frustrations with Chicago food critics. We all know that today, any place like Emperor's Choice would not be worthy of a full review. Rather, it would be tossed off to the cheap reviews (and I mean that as it sounds). What would critics find today? They would find a room filled with non-Asian diners? Would that make them a bit leary, like me? These are people still firmly in belief that Emperor's Choice offers the finest of Chinatown. Should we dissuade them?
In some ways, I can see what makes Emperor's Choice appealing. The room is a cut above. Decorated with a bit of glamour, highlighted by framed antique prints and a framed royal gown. It looks upscale. Emperor's Choice also gives you a seperate menu filled with dishes that give you the impression of adventure. And some of these dishes, advertised as "may need aquired taste", are not standard Schaumburg fare: serpent soup, ostrich with leeks (talking 1989!), pork bellies with preserved greens. Coming home, the Condiment Queen wondered that if someone ordered one of those dishes, would Emperor's Choice need to run across the street to get the ingredients. We heard no one want these things.
What we did was order from another menu, a menu of pre-set meals. Our dining companions last night are not especially adventuresome, but they like the set menu's at Emperor's Chouice. It allows us to at least take a stab at the real things without excessive bargaining.
We ordered a meal for four, plus an extra noodle dish for three kids. The meal starts with soup, advertised as soup of the day or hot and sour. The choice ended up being hot and sour or egg drop. Hardly authentic. The hot and sour was fairly hot, not especially sour and overly thickened, a trend that would rear up again as the meal proceeded. The other dishes included lobster baked with onion and green onion, poached shrimps, pike fish with vegetables, pea shoots with crab sauce and shredded chicken. This all, without the extra noodles was $75. I will get back to that in a second, but quite pricey, no?
I asked if we could substitute crispy chicken for the shredded chicken. After a bit of consternation, they agreed. Good thing, as the chicken was superb, the best dish by far. Franchise worthy. They must have used especially fatty chickens. The skin was crisped almost like roast pork. The spiced salt accented just right. It was downhill from there.
The shrimps had a great sauce, dark, mixed with herbs and dried peppers, but the main player itself, was extremely mushy (if well fatted). The fish fillets had tons of garlic, but the flavor was lost in a slew of slurry. Ditch that corn starch please! Lobster's lobster, but the lobster expert in the family, Ms. VI, said she's had better in Chinatown. The peashoots were good but tasted a bit out of season, i.e., not quite that clorophyl rush this dish sometimes produces.
The price matched the decor, not the quality on the plate. Amazingly, they charged for an extra bowl of rice. The service was hardly elegant or warm. They rushed us incessantly, seeking to turn our large table. We did get a big plate of hardly greasy almond cookies (before the main plates had been cleared). Nearly everything on the menu's reaches into the two figures too. I do not think that Chinese food has to be cheap per se, I just found little at Emperor's Choice to justify the higher prices. I appreciate the touches that made it the critics choice in 1989, but I appreciate even more the food, service and prices at other places in Chinatown.
2238 S. Wentorth