What does it say that two restaurants specializing in the relatively obscure food of the far reaches of northeastern China have opened within a month—within blocks of each other, no less? This hasn't even happened in Chinatown, but in neighboring Bridgeport, where there's been quite a bit of demographic spillover but hardly the wall-to-wall restaurant density of the Chinatown Square mall. And Tony Hu has nothing to do with it.
China's three northeasternmost provinces, collectively known as Dongbei, don't even rate inclusion among the country's eight great regional cuisines (Cantonese, Sichuan, Shandong, etc). And yet earlier this month, just east of the corner of 31st and Halsted, Northern City opened its doors and started dishing out "stupid chicken," cumin-and-caraway-seasoned lamb, and smoked pork pancakes. That was just a month after Homestyle Taste put out the celebratory flowers and lanterns and opened for business a few blocks south on Halsted.
The two spots have much in common in addition to their regional affiliation. For one, they're both helmed by chefs native to Shenyang, the region's largest city. Second, both spots bracket, geographically speaking, Chicago's first northern Chinese restaurant, Ed's Potsticker House, which—while not strictly Dongbei in style—has a number of the region's dishes on its menu. Is there a Shenyangese enclave growing in Bridgeport, homesick for chewy, cold, mustard-spiked mung bean noodles? Probably not, but in their early days both places are bustling with an almost exclusively Chinese clientele.
It is certainly interesting that Northern City chef Cheng Hai Wang was a three-year veteran of Ed's. Nancy Wu, owner of Homestyle Taste says her chef (and uncle) Aiken Zhou also cooked in restaurants in Chicago, but, mysteriously, she declines to say where.
Neither Northern City (which you can read more about on our blog, the Bleader) nor Homestyle Taste is even Chicago's first Dongbei restaurant (the late, short-lived Dragon King was ahead of its time). So beyond the novelty, what's particularly special about their food? Well, being that Dongbei—the once geopolitically contested region you might have known as Manchuria—is flat, windswept, and exceptionally cold in the winter, its hearty, heavy food is exceptionally suited to relieving the primal anxiety that you might freeze to death. And that's also why it's exceptionally suited to our own oncoming deep freeze. Good timing.
They cook with a lot of lamb in Dongbei, indicative of its proximity to Mongolia. They also cook with vinegar and eat loads of pickled vegetables, especially cabbage, or suan cai, which isn't surprising due to its proximity to North Korea. And unlike a lot of other regional Chinese cuisines, the Dongbei diet isn't based on rice. In its place, farmers grow wheat and the people eat bread, which takes the form of stretchy shredded pancakes that you tear apart with your fingers and dredge through rich, soy-based sauces and oily braising juices. Among its variants at Homestyle Taste, this flatbread is sliced into wide noodles and stir-fried with cabbage, carrots, and your choice of meat or tofu. That's number C108 on the dim sum menu (which is available any time), described—unhelpfully for non-Chinese speakers—as "choice of pork, beef, chicken, & vegetable fried cake."
That's the challenge of eating at Homestyle Taste. Even if you have some familiarity with Dongbei food, if you don't speak Mandarin, your best MO is to rubberneck the tables around you and take note of what everyone else is eating.
Probably what you'll see more of than anything else is folks hunched over shared plates of long, thick, springy, translucent mung bean noodles served cold atop a radiant arrangement of wood ear mushroom, bits of pork, julienned carrots, and cucumber. Fans of Chicago's small roster of Chinese-Korean restaurants will immediately recognize this as a cousin to liang jang pi, itself an export of Shandong Province, just across the Yellow Sea from Dongbei. Here it's called da la pi, or "colorful wide cold noodle," and when you order it you should ask for extra hot mustard, the indispensable condiment that brings this slippery, snappy, vinegary riot of textures into focus.
That might be the least wintry dish on the menu—I could see its refreshing potential during Dongbei's equally punishing summers. These days, your neighbors at Homestyle Taste are perhaps more likely to order something stewy from an iron cauldron, much like the chilied whole-fish hot pots so popular in Chinatown lately, or something more distinctly Manchurian, such as the stewed bird referred to as "stupid chicken" for the free-range, slow-growing variety used in this star-anise-scented broth thickened with wiggly mushrooms and slippery tendrils of mung bean vermicelli (C03). It's a tactile dish, topped with absorbent slices of yellow corn cake. Expect your shirt to be thoroughly noodle whipped, and to spit out significant osseous shrapnel from the hacked chicken bits. The pork and cabbage variant (C02) goes down easier, brimming with mild, house-made kraut, poached pork belly shavings, and thick, ruddy rectangles of pockmarked tofu that harbor reservoirs of the clear, rich broth.
The Chinese are a people unafraid of eating their way around bones—that's where flavor concentrates—and a certain degree of dental and digital dexterity is required to extricate them in a number of important dishes, such as chunks of bone-in lamb in a rich brown sauce with sweet, soft blocks of daikon radish (that's a special listed on the wall in pinyin). But the flesh slips easily from the skeletal frame of a whole tilapia smothered in brown sauce, tarted up with lightest touch of vinegar, and surrounded by cubes of jiggly pork belly, fat rehydrated mushrooms, and whole cloves of softened garlic (C88). Brown is dominant in this culinary spectrum, and though dishes often appear as if they might be a viscid, cornstarch-fortified mess, they usually turn out to be incredibly satisfying and rich, none more so than one of the region's best-known offerings, di san xian, a simple stir-fry of green peppers, eggplant, and hard-fried potatoes that hold their own against this sauceslaught (on the wall again).
Balance the brown with dry, stir-fried shreds of lamb heavily seasoned with caraway and cumin and tossed with carrot and bloodred dried chiles, a milder version of a dish common in Sichuan restaurants (C22). Noodlewise there's no more pleasing textural surprise than one deceptively titled dish listed near the bottom of the menu: "stir-fried pork with dry bean curd and jalapeno." It's a slightly spiced and generous tangle of pressed tofu ribbons that have the same width and tensile snap as properly cooked pappardelle.
You could spend weeks exploring Homestyle Taste's menu, which lists hundreds of dishes. Not all are endemic to northeast China, but before resorting to General Tso's chicken or ma po tofu you'll exhaust yourself checking out dense pork and cabbage dumplings, similar to Russian pelmeni, dipped in black vinegar (D02); tofu tossed with snappy green preserved duck eggs (A19); spicy Korean-style noodle soup (D20); lightly smoked slices of pig heart (A13); or whole grilled squid impaled on skewers (268).
Northeastern Chinese restaurants have been lauded in the Los Angeles and New York food media for years, and this sudden burst of activity in Bridgeport is surely the happy, if indirect, result of ballooning Chinese immigration to Chicago in the last decade or so. And it's encouraging that the surge is happening beyond the borders of Chinatown. But can Bridgeport support two northeastern restaurants? We'll know for sure when Tony Hu opens Lao Dongbei. For now, as the winds start whipping the first snows across your soft bodies, just be glad they're here.