Chinatown is full of excellent restaurants. Many serve similar if not the same dishes so it comes down to quality of ingredients, execution and of course service and ambiance. We discovered Chi Cafe (2160 W. ARCHER Ave.) through a friend and have been hooked ever since our first visit. First of all, they are open until 4 in the morning during the week and run 24 hours on weekends; an ideal trait for those of us in the restaurant industry, often getting out after midnight.
We’ve dined at Chi over a dozen times and have sampled some 25 dishes I’d imagine. We’ve gotten to the point that we know what we like while still trying some new items on each trip. The menu is, to say the very least, extensive. Beginning with a “snack” section, it moves into soups and stews including congee, a thicker Chinese soup with unique texture. Then pork, chicken, beef and noodle dishes. But it’s their House Specialties section that has some of the most desirable bites they offer.
But this place also serves some of the city’s best roasted meat dishes which are displayed on a special menu back by the kitchen. I only mention this menu because it houses the Pork Belly. This is some of the best and absolutely THE cheapest pork belly dish in the city. You can snab a half pound portion (displayed below) for $5.00!
The belly is chopped up into cubes. The top is super crispy like a chicharron while the bottom is tender and rich with fatty goodness. The textural experience of having the rendered fat melt in your mouth while leaving behind a crispy treat is exclusive only to great Chinese style pork belly. It is served with a duo of hoisin sauce and sugar.
There’s a method to their sauces. You dip it in the hoisin sauce then the sugar and you are transported to a happy place called fatty, tangy, sweetland…it’s one of the most balanced single bites of food around. The sugar is what really takes the belly to another place. Well done.
Their hot and sour soup is one of my favorite versions in the city. It’s always consistent and stays RIDICULOUSLY hot throughout the entire meal – great insulation going on . The flavor is a 7 out of 10 on the spicy scale, but it has a nice tangy almost slightly sour bite that I have grown to enjoy a lot. I’m pretty sure I’ve ordered a cup of hot and sour soup ($2.45) on each and every one of my visits.
Crab rangoon is usually just your standard crab rangoon at most Chinese restaurants. I can admit this to a point. Friendship Chinese (I’ll get there soon) has the best in the city; I’m sorry, not giving details yet. For the price, however, the CR at Chi is top notch. It always comes to the table piping hot and crispy on the outside. Their sweet and sour sauce is thick and homemade. I order rangoon all the time so I can confidently say this one is well executed.
The hand shredded chicken is half of a bird that’s been shredded by hand seasoned simply with salt and served cold. There is a combination of white and dark meat as well as some skin that’s well rendered but not really crispy – again, it’s served cold. I recommend mixing it with some of the chili sauce that’s their staple condiment found on the table.
Overall, it’s not the best dish at the restaurant – maybe not even the best chicken dish – but it’s simple and a nice alternative to your standard Sesame or Kung Pao Chicken.
Jill ordered a new dish on this trip – the shrimp with egg sauce on fried rice noodle. Essentially, it’s a wide rice noodle with seafood that’s been tossed in a gelatinous egg sauce. It’s not for everyone as it has a unique texture. But the seafood is fresh and surprisingly large for the price. There’s more than enough to take some home. It took a few bites to get into the dish and get used to the unusual sensation in my mouth but in the end it was pretty tasty.
On past visits I’ve tasted the tea smoked duck. You have to work a bit to get the meat off the bones, but the tender meat you do get is well endowed with smoky, earthy flavor. Enough to share, it’s hard to find duck of this tenderness and quality at such a low price. I like Chi because I trust them when it comes to high quality protein all around.
Their soups are layered with flavor. I prefer the spicy beef noodle soup. Loaded with red hot chili peppers this beefy, herbaceous stew is not for the faint of heart. The beef is cut thin and is cooked in the broth itself so the meat isn’t tough.
The noodles have a slight chew and pick up the flavor of the brother really well. The veggies in the bottom of the bowl are a nice surprise to those not expecting anything but the beef.
Our go to dish that we didn’t enjoy on this trip is the sizzling eggplant with garlic sauce. It’s out of this world. The eggplant is sliced into strips and comes saturated in sauce and soft. The texture is something unique and really just great. The sauce itself, however, is the boss here. I wish they would bottle the garlic sauce that comes sizzling on an iron skillet. You MUST order this dish when you visit Chi. This dish has turned me onto other eggplant dishes found within Chinese cuisine.
It’s hard for me to visit Chi without enjoying a fruit smoothie with tapioca pearls. I usually shoot towards tropical flavors like mango or lychee – sometimes the two combined. But one must always add the tapioca. They’re like little balls of joy that are soft and chewy almost like a gummy, but even more tender and melty. They squish in your mouth unlike any other food. It’s a delicious refreshing treat you can only experience in an Asian food establishment.
We haven’t even scratched the surface of what Chi has to offer. I assure you a follow up visit is right around the corner. Get down to Chinatown and check out the stretch of Chinese shops and restaurants off Archer Avenue around the corner from the main stretch.