Like Thanksgiving, Christmas is another tradition-laden holiday. For seven or eight years now, one of our traditions has been to go to Chinatown for dinner on Christmas Eve. It started when Marion’s sister Lena told us in an offhanded, “isn’t that interesting” kind of way that two of her coworkers did this every year. We are HUGE fans of Chinese food—and of Chicago’s Chinatown—so any excuse to go there is fine by us. Thus, a tradition was born.
Christmas is not a Chinese holiday, so it’s business as usual on Christmas Eve for all the Chinatown shops and restaurants, no early closings. Still, the Chinese living in America are on our holiday calendar, like it or not. Many Chinese families are home for the holidays, and the restaurants are filled with these families; the mood is quietly, wonderfully festive without any of the usual holiday trappings. Of course, restaurants are also bustling as a result, with the better ones having long lines and long waits for tables. The past two years, we’ve actually made reservations to get in where we wanted to go.
But an advantage to places we’ve wanted to go getting crowded, and not just for Christmas Eve, is that we’ve been challenged to explore more places. And we’re liking what we find. For years, our go to place year ’round was Hong Min, a crowded, noisy Cantonese place on Cermak with formica tabletops, “wood” paneling and an eggplant stuffed with shrimp dish that made even me like eggplant. Hong Min was nationally known among foodies and food editors alike. Then one evening we showed up for dinner, wine bottles in hand, to find that Hong Min had burned down. Plywood covered the windows of the two storefronts it had occupied, and the smell of smoke still hung in the air.
Just like that, we were set adrift. I don’t even remember where we ended up eating that evening. But soon, it was Marion and the Internet to the rescue. Together, they unearthed Lao Sze Chuan, a lovely Szechwan place with a far less feral decor than Hong Min and its own transcendent dishes. Even as we lamented beloved lost dishes at Hong Min—alas, no eggplant stuffed with shrimp—we found ourselves falling hard for the food here. In the many, many meals we have eaten here, we have not had one bad dish. Not one. And led by Marion’s adventurous palate, we’ve been all over their menu. Often as she orders, the waiter’s approving smile grows broader with each dish. And on at least one occasion, a waitress not serving us actually stopped at our table to tell us we’d ordered well—”That real Chinese food,” she told us.
Even with two floors, though, Lao Sze Chuan has become impossibly popular and crowded at times, particularly weekends—and Christmas Eve. We’ll still take a number and wait in line if we’re not famished and the weather isn’t horrible, but we’ve once again started exploring. We’ve been to a decent little restaurant called Spring World a couple of times, another decor-challenged place with great food and that quirky Chinese approach to service: Dishes appear at your table when they’re done cooking. If you order five entrées, they will appear one by one throughout dinner—and you can be sure that at least one will arrive at the table when dinner is almost over and everyone is full and has forgotten the very existence of this dish. Still, you know it is going to be wonderful, so you somehow make room. And you’re right, every time.
Our newest discovery is Lee Wing Wah. Located in the same two-story courtyard as Lao Sze Chuan and Spring World [Chinatown Square, just north of Archer], its cuisine defies categorizing. They boast many Szechwan dishes on their menu, but also serve Cantonese and Hong Kong dishes. This is where we had Christmas Eve dinner this year, Marion, daughter Laurel, the aforementioned Lena and two great friends we keep promising ourselves to see more often, Emily and her mother Jilla.
An el riding acquaintance who comes from Hong Kong had recommended it to us as his favorite restaurant in Chinatown. In conversations about Chinese food with him, he has come across as… what’s a polite word for picky [there are certain dishes he will only order in Toronto, for instance]. So we knew it would be good before even trying it. We’ve eaten there twice now, and it blows right past good. If anything, though, the service is even more haphazard. We’d brought wine. The waitress said there would be a $5 per bottle corking fee, which was reasonable. It was another five or ten minutes before glasses arrived. And then another five or ten before it occurred to anyone to bring a corkscrew. Still, once the wine started flowing and dishes started appearing, I knew we were in for a fine night. And we were.
After dinner, we went to Emily and Jilla’s lovely apartment right off Michigan Avenue for dessert—pastries bought in a Chinese bakery before dinner.
Which brings me to a Christmas morning tradition. From our first Christmas Eve dinner in Chinatown, another tradition spontaneously sprung forth. We took a walk down Wentworth after dinner, poking into shops and enjoying our happily full bellies. We popped into one of the numerous bakeries along the street, mainly just to ogle, but you know how that goes. Chinese bakeries, at least the ones here, sell a curious mix of East meets West. You’ll find luscious, shiny fruit tarts and perfect slices of German chocolate cake and chocolate mousse cake wrapped in cellophane sleeves, for instance, right along with red bean cakes, moon cakes made with lotus seed paste and barbecued pork buns—small, round, golden loaves somehow filled with chunks of savory meat and sauce. And with the Western-style sweets going for about $1.75 apiece and the heartier Chinese goods like the very filling pork buns clocking in at about 75¢ apiece, how could you leave empty handed? We couldn’t. What started out as “well, maybe a couple cookies” turned into a white cake box filled with cream horns, assorted cookies, moon cakes and some barbecued pork buns and neatly tied with white string.
As we left the bakery, I carried the box carefully, not wanting to jostle the contents—whipped cream doesn’t sound like it would play nicely with the pork buns, which were to be our Christmas morning breakfast as the presents were opened. Three young men were coming in as we were leaving. As they passed us, one of them turned to his friends and said something in Chinese, but ended in English with, “…Christmas gifts. Hahahaha!” Even though I didn’t understand the words leading up to the punchline, I understood the joke. And it was just as funny to me.
Barbecued pork buns for Christmas breakfast has only become a semi-tradition for us; we don’t have them every year. But when we do, we always remember “…Christmas gifts. Hahahaha!” And it’s still always funny.