A pretty common conversation with someone who is kind of into food and wants to have their first meal in Chinatown goes like this:
First timer: Where should I go in Chinatown?
Friend (who’s been to Chinatown a couple times): Definitely go to Lao Sze Chuan. It’s like the first place that pops up when you do a google search on Chinatown. The food is really neat, but watch out, it can be spicy!
First timer: Sounds great! I’ll take my 7 friends and go there this Friday at 7:00.
Herein lies the problem. Lao Sze Chuan is pretty darn good and there are some awesome dishes on the menu. However, it is always a zoo and the inside of the place is just ok. If you go there on a weekend at a normal dining time, good luck getting a table.
Here’s the solution: Lao Shanghai. You can get most of the best dishes from Lao Sze Chuan here (including dry chili chicken, boiled beef in sze chuan sauce, and Sze Chuan string beans), it’s right across the alley, and I’ve never had a problem getting a seat. Plus, all the restaurants in Chinatown that have “Lao” in front are owned by the same restaurant group, and they share recipes. I think other people who are familiar with Chicago have figured out the secret, too. The last time I went to Lao Shanghai, Rahm Emanuel sat at the next table.
The preceding paragraph was just a comparison to Lao Sze Chuan, but the kickers are the menu items that you don’t find so often in Chicago: very, very good dumplings. The Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings, an awesome experience if you haven’t tried it), Pork Shao Mai, Shrimp Dumplings and Pot Stickers are all highlights and, other than the pot stickers, these do not grace the menus of any of the other Lao restaurants.
You know what, actually, now that I think about it. Don’t go to Lao Shanghai, I don’t want it to be discovered. I think I’ll go there for lunch before publishing this, actually.