At the far end of the Chinatown Market, past the array of dim sum restaurants and gift shops is Lao Sze Chuan. This medium sized restaurant consisted of seating for about 50 people ranging from two tops to large group round tables with those Lazy Susan setups. There's not much space to wait in the restaurant, but don't worry, they've got one of those miniature folding room dividers which totally doesn't make you feel weird. They do take reservations, which I would recommend for a group, but the three of us got sat right away as walk ins. As for the service, the wait staff is Chinese, and our waitress spoke sub par English, although this didn't prevent her from making some excellent suggestions for our order. The food came out very quickly, and there was never a shortage of water or tea at the table. For the high quality of the food, the total bill was pretty low which is also a plus. Finally, it's always good to see Chinese people eating in a Chinese restaurant (since I'd like to assume they have a better sense for their own cuisine than I do), and there were plenty.
Chinese Fried Bread
One big reason that Lao Sze Chuan is so popular is their Hot Pots. From what I can gather, these are basically Chinese fondue with a variety of meats and seafood and a broth (chicken or tomato base) instead of oil. You get the raw protein and a pot of this broth with a burner for the table. It seems like this pretty much serves your whole table as well. Now, I had a test to study for, my dad had plenty of work to do, and neither of us wanted indigestion from some new food to get in the way. Hence, we went with the more "traditional" items, but I'll be back soon for the Hot Pot.
Appetizers (starting bottom left and going clockwise):
Wonton Soup, Spring Rolls, Hot and Sour Soup, Spicy Cabbage, Egg Drop Soup
Among Lao Sze Chuan's awards was one for "The Best Egg Roll," so I figured we'd start with those. Interestingly enough, they don't even have egg rolls, but rather crispy spring rolls. With a flaky wrapper and a large filling to wrapper ratio, these were better than most egg rolls I've had anyways. Also, each of us got a soup (me: egg drop, mom: hot and sour, and dad: wonton). With a focus on lots of the money ingredients and broths that were thick and not too oily, these soups got slurped down pretty much as soon as they got on the table. If these appetizers weren't enough, each table also gets a free plate of spiced cabbage to warm up your taste buds for the scrumptious entrees to come.
As I said before, we went with the "traditional" entrees, and by that I mean what white people usually get (like the Chinese version of tex-mex). Our order consisted of Mongolian Beef, Orange Chicken, and Pan Fried Noodles with Shrimp, Beef, and Chicken. On top of that, after inquiring about an interesting looking dish at another table, we surprisingly ended up with an order of Chinese Fried Bread. The Mongolian Beef had a rich thick sauce over a hearty portion of thinly cut beef and mushrooms, and the Pan Fried Noodles were a nice balance between crispy and chewy with lots of the "combo" ingredients. The Chinese Fried Bread was basically a bun that was crispy on the outside and sugary on the inside with a gooey sugar sauce for dipping. It was sweet and delicious, but I'd suggest it more for a dessert style course, unless fortune cookies already have you covered. So basically, we ate all this food and then the orange chicken comes. The good thing about Chinese food is that you're full one minute and hungry the next. This Orange Chicken may have been the best I've ever had. It was crispy, but there was way more meat than crisp. All of the chicken was white and juicy with no overcooked pieces and none of those accidental pieces that are entirely batter and no chicken. The sauce had a strong orange flavor and a good, thick consistency.
Pan Fried Noodle Combo
When in Chinatown eat as the Chinese do, and that's at Lao Sze Chuan. From the authentic cuisine to the "gringo" food there's no way to go wrong. Also, I've said it before and I'll say it again, the more your clothes smell after your meal, the better the food usually is, and boy did my clothes stink. However, after four years of eating mediocre Chinese food in Champaign (Lai Lai Wok just doesn't cut it after a while), I'll gladly welcome the need for an extra wash cycle. The food is great, the atmosphere is relaxed, the cost is low, and it encourages a social eating experience like only good Chinese food can.
There's probably going to be a little break during Passover, but maybe I'll have a special issue on the Barb Pearl Kitchen with it's excellent gefilte fish, hard boiled eggs, and hillel sandwiches