The Shanghai jellyfish at Lao 18 (Kaitlyn McQuaid/For RedEye )
Review: Lao 18
18 W. Hubbard St. 312-955-8018
Rating: !!! 1/2 (out of 4) Heating up
The mission for Lao 18, the new restaurant from Chicago's regional Chinese cooking master, chef Tony Hu, is simple: "I want to bring Chinatown downtown."
And with Lao 18, Hu's 11th restaurant, that's exactly what he's doing. River North's Hubbard Street corridor is known for many things: free-flowing cocktails, drunken walks in perilously high heels and tipsy bachelorette parties singing rousing piano bar choruses of "Livin' on a Prayer." And, although I hear El Hefe Super Macho Taqueria, across the street from Lao 18, makes a killer elote dip, Hubbard has never been a destination for those in search of Chicago's very best authentic eats. By offering a distillation of the best offerings of Hu's other Chinese restaurants, including the chili-spiked fare of Lao Sze Chuan, the excellent dim sum of Lao Beijing, and more stylized interior at Lao Ma La, Lao 18 bucks that trend. While his Chinatown locations mostly attract hardcore foodies and Chinese folks, the mix at Lao 18 attracts an interesting assortment of moneyed, older Gold Coasters, dudes getting their pre-club grub on, gourmands in the know and Mag Mile tourists.
Chicken crack is not wack
They say weed is the gateway drug to bigger and badder things. Lao 18 is the restaurant version of that. It starts newbies out slowly, offering familiar dishes such as crab rangoon ($5) (which actually isn't Chinese, but American, popularized by tiki bar Trader Vic's) and sesame chicken ($14) and transitions diners in to more adventurous, signature offerings such as Tony's Three Chili Chicken ($15). In foodie circles, Tony's chicken has a street name: chicken crack. On this particular block of Hubbard, the goods are very addictive. Bits of juicy, luscious wok-fried chicken are coated in a crust so cracklin' that it doesn't wilt under a sauce of lip-tingling jalapenos, dry red chilis, sweet rosemary-perfumed simple syrup and a drizzle of sesame oil. My friend and I attacked this plate, jousting each other with our chopsticks for every last morsel. Before we left, my friend ordered a second take-out helping of "chicken crack" to eat for breakfast the next day.
The exotic meats are offal-ly good
If you scoff at the chili spice in Tony's chicken, don't worry. Hu has come to play. He pulls very few punches at Lao 18, saying, "Many of my customers know my food in Chinatown and have certain expectations. I want to honor that." Those expectations that Hu speaks of are aggressively spiced regional Chinese dishes that often include cuts of meat (tendon for example) or exotic vegetables (funky mountain mushrooms from China's Yunnan province) that many Westerners don't regularly eat. Hu honors this in spades with Szechuan beef and tripe, tender skeins of beef shank (the same cut used in osso bucco) and thin strips of bible tripe ($8), aka cow's stomach, tossed in a fiery pepper oil featuring the licorice tones of star anise. If the chicken is lip-tingling, the tripe is tongue-searing. After a few bites, sweat will likely bead on your forehead and your body will hum with an oddly soothing chili buzz known as a capsaicin high.
Ready for this jelly?
Then again, with Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern (of "Bizarre Foods") preaching the gospel of organ consumption, even tripe-eating is a bit pedestrian. I bet you haven't had Shanghai jellyfish ($11). Don't worry, no one's gonna have to pee on you after you eat it. The stinging tentacles are removed, and it's the dome-like body known as the "bell" that's sliced into thin strips, then boiled, chilled and tossed with scallion batons and wisps of carrot. The jellyfish strips offer a chewy cellophane noodle-like contrast to the crunchy scallion and carrot. If the thought of eating stinging sea creatures makes you cringe, stick with the plump, briny curls of salt and pepper shrimp ($16) tossed with a confetti-dice of jalapeno and red pepper and showered with Chinese five-spice powder. The dish wafts a heady mix of cinnamon and clove.
Service is mostly just a smile.
With the choice to order the salt and pepper shrimp with the shells on or off, I went with on; I love the salty potato chip-like fried shell. Unfortunately, they arrived at the table shell-off. While our server was friendly, when I asked her why they serve Japanese sake at a Chinese restaurant, she grimaced, paused for a long time and then finally said, "I think they serve it in China too." (Hu later clarified that while Sake is Japanese, it's one of the few alcohols that pairs well with Asian flavors. The Dewazakura Oka Ginjo ($12) has nice cherry, pear and flower notes.) My server also had a tough time telling us which dishes were exclusive to Lao 18 and which were served at the Hu's other restaurants—and also didn't know many of the ingredients in the dishes. The manager did alleviate some of this knowledge gap by visiting tables throughout the night to check on diners.