Monthly Archives: January 2010

Chicago Dishes a Shanghai Favorite

Xiao Long Bao is a special kind of steamed dumpling you’ll only find on dim sum menus in Shanghai. It’s made of a thinner, chewier dough shell and filled with soup and a ball of pork (like what you’d find in a wonton), and is served with vinegar and hot sauce. Traditionally, it’s eaten all in one bite, but if you’re having trouble you can bite off the top of the dumpling, suck out the soup, and then put the rest in your mouth.

 

Xiao Long Bao at Lao Shanghai in Chicago

 

So where can you find these delicious Shanghai-style soup dumplings in Chicago’s (frozen) Chinatown?

I grabbed my friend Chenault, who spent over two months eating Xiao Long Bao in Shanghai this summer, and we set off to satisfy the craving.

The Contenders:

Phoenix Restaurant has long been applauded as one of Chicago Chinatown’s best — just ask anyone in the dim sum lines for Saturday and Sunday brunch (…when it’s not frigid outside). You’ll find a solid portion of guests in the large dining room are speaking Mandarin or Cantonese — always a sign of authenticity — but you won’t be lost speaking English to your waiter or describing the dish you want.

Lao Shanghai is a part of a Chicago Chinatown chain — on your way there, you’ll pass sister restaurants Lao Beijing and Lao Sze Chuan. The majority of the clientele are white, and most of the menu seems to try to introduce Shanghai dishes to people who’ve never been to China. But Time Out Chicago is a fan, and the food is good albeit much higher priced than most in Chinatown. The place is small but quiet, and you’ll dine atop white tablecloths.

The Bao:

On paper, Lao Shanghai offers more authentic Xiao Long Bao: The dumpling shell was thinner, and it was accompanied by the traditional vinegar dipping sauce. An order of eight will cost you $4.95.

 

Inside Xiao Long Bao at Lao Shanghai in Chicago

 

At Phoenix, the dumpling shell is a little thicker than it should be, and the accompanying sauces are just soy sauce and hot sauce. But the taste was more authentic: The broth and meat had the right combination of spices to bring Chenault straight back to her days in Shanghai. Lastly, the temperature — burning hot — was also authentic. And we can’t read the dim sum sheet, but grabbing whatever you want off the dim sum carts will leave you satisfied for $15 or less.

The Verdict:

While Lao Shanghai had a lot of the authentic touches, taste is everything — and in that respect, Phoenix had all the spices down. Chenault and I will be returning to weekend dim sum at Phoenix, and we will continue to flag down the first waitress who leaves the kitchen announcing she has Xiao Long Bao.

Tara for TKGO

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Salsa Sundays

We’ve found a cure to the Sunday night blues, thanks to our friend and kindred, Allie (who is quite the salsa reina, might we add).

Cubby Bear in Wrigleyville is a de rigueur sports bar any other night of the week — it’s right across from Wrigley Field — but every Sunday night transforms into salsa central. The middle of the spacious bar is free of tables, stools and chairs to make room for men and women of all ages and skill levels. Really, all sorts flock to Salsa Sundays, which makes for a fun hodgepodge of characters who are all just looking to dance. It’s an energetic, free-for-all atmosphere and free to enjoy if you arrive before 9:30 p.m., and try out the free lesson, which is pretty basic, at 7 p.m.

Once the free-for-all salsa began, one of us was a little more self conscious about her steps, but the words “I’m a beginner” were almost magical; everyone was more than happy to share their rhythm and knowledge. Check out our video below, which has clips from the lesson and DJ’d portions.

After our time at Cubby Bear, we couldn’t help but draw comparisons between our favorite East Village NYC salsa spot, Plan B, where salsa goes down on Wednesdays. It’s a smaller venue than Cubby Bear and with the live band (rather than a DJ), the blaring brass of the music is inescapable — in a good way, of course. Let your geographic location dictate which you visit, because both are great spots to let loose and move, even if you’re uncertain about your steps.

Tara and Karina for TKGO

Sport Remixes

As of late, my nights out have taken playful turns. Last week I experienced glow-in-the-dark miniature golf for the first time — which I highly recommend, by the way — and then a few days later I found myself bowling at a bar. Just to clarify, it wasn’t a bowling alley with a bar (which is pretty standard); it was a bar with a bowling alley.

Putting Edge is a psychedelic, indoor mini golf course (and arcade, but I didn’t care as much about that). Now, I’ve always found mini golf pretty dull, but apparently all I needed was some glow-in-the-dark paint, golf balls and black lights to start liking the recreation. Who knew?

 

The Putting Edge course

 

As for Seven Ten, it’s a hybrid bowling alley, lounge and billiards hall, being almost equally those three parts. The different features of the venue blend together well, though, and the slamming around of bowling balls is hardly heard. The decor is Art Deco, amping up the classiness of the space, which is large yet still intimate. (The three separate but connected sections probably help that.)

 

Seven Ten

 

This post wouldn’t be complete without at least a mention of Whirlyball, which I didn’t discover until settling in the Chicago area but love. It’s somewhat a combination of bumper cars and basketball; you zoom around in bumper-like cars (there are two teams) and use a scoop to collect, pass or shoot the wiffle ball into an elevated hoop. Check out this link to see a video of people playing.

I wouldn’t mind continuing this sporty(-ish) streak, so let me know if you have any recommendations!

Karina for TKGO

Chinatown Kitchenware

If you spend a lot of time in the kitchen, you can easily get sucked into buying a $3 soup ladle somewhere along China Place or Wentworth Avenue in Chicago. But if you’re looking for value, selection and great service? The list is slim, and at the top: Woks ‘n’ Things.

The high-quality, low-price knife selection is the reason to make the trip to Chinatown, but you won’t leave without a few other goodies. Find every size of dumpling steamer on one wall (under a paper mache dragon) and a wok of every size and style on another, all on a budget. You’ll find a stone and mortar grinder for $19.99, plastic rice molds to aid in sushi-making, tea pots with four matching cups for under $30 and bulk chopsticks for $2. If you need help choosing the right steamer or wok, the staff is friendly, patient and fluent in English.

For those who aren’t into cooking, Woks ‘n’ Things offers inexpensive but well-made cooking utensils, pots and pans. (You’re going to have to heat the marinara and boil the pasta in something.)

Woks ‘n’ Things, 2234 S. Wentworth Ave., Chinatown, Chicago, IL 60616; (312) 842-0701; CTA: Red Line to Cermak-Chinatown.

Tara for TKGO

Winning Big in Atlantic City

Well, relatively big.

In a moment that perhaps sealed my entrance into true adulthood, I gambled for the first time this past week. By now all of my close friends from home are now 21, so society therefore has given us all permission to be reckless with our money. We decided to do it together and took a road trip down to the East Coast Las Vegas: Atlantic City.

We secured a room at one of the larger hotel/casino resorts on the strip, the Tropicana, for much cheaper than I had expected. (Check online for A.C. hotel rates in January; it’s super cheap to get a room for the night!) The ride also was much shorter than I had thought it would be — only 1.5 hours from our town in Central New Jersey. So far this quick one-night trip was turning out pretty good! We didn’t spend any time really outside of our resort, because when you have multiple restaurants, clubs, shops, and IMAX theater and a casino under one roof, why would one need to go anywhere? Also, while the Trumps and Caesars of Atlantic City shine bright in their glitz and glamour, it’s a stark contrast to the streets and life of the city itself, which could really use the revitalization the casinos were supposed to bring.

After settling in, we headed down to the casino. We knew we were walking dollar signs for these casino operators, so we all tried to keep each other in check when gambling. I, one of only a few first-time gamblers, decided to bring only $20 cash (no credit cards) downstairs. My friend and I plopped down in front of two slot machines to try a few bucks. Maybe I’m disillusioned, but I had romantic visions of level pulling and coins spilling out, of which there was none. All slot machines nowadays operate on a bunch of buttons you push, and they only take paper money. From there you can play smaller denominations, but still! Tricky tricky. The other sneaky part of the slots I discovered was that you don’t really know when you’ve won, and you never know how much. After spinning a couple sets of sevens in a row and seeing some lights blink, I decided to cash out to see how I had done. The receipt the machine printed read $53.And I had only played $2!

As I headed over to the cashier station, I was thinking that had been my big win for the night. I took my cash and went to rejoin more of my friends. I soon realized less than an hour had passed, the night was young and friends were still at tables and machines. How could I be done gambling already? I couldn’t just sit and watch all night! Peer (and environmental) pressure won out and some of us decided to claim spots at a roulette table. I wasn’t familiar with the game, but a friend gave me a quick breakdown and deciding it was an objective game that didn’t require much thinking, I placed my $25 minimum down on the table to play. Sure, $25 is a lot, but I didn’t come to A.C. expecting to win, so if I lost $25 I was still up a nice little $25. Plus, there were cute guys at this table!

I arbitrarily placed my chips on the board and somehow maintained enough winnings to play a few times. Then after one round in which I continued my joke of a strategy (there really was none except spreading my chips out somewhat evenly and choosing a few favorite numbers), the dealer looked at me, laughed and said, “You just won big.” Then he pushed stacks of $25 and $5 chips at me. I was elated. I have no idea how much I had at that point, but I stashed most of the chips in purse to become untouchables and left out enough for another round or two. In the end I lost the chips that remained on the table and was able to pull myself away when that happened. I walked upstairs that night with a net gain of $150 and feeling like a pro.

My night in Atlantic City was a fun foray into the gambling world, but not one I’m allowing myself to think my winnings could become regular. Because as hard as it is to walk away when you’re winning, it’s even worse to walk away realizing you just lost a lot.

Tropicana
Tropicana Casino & Resort, courtesy of destination360.com

Karina for TKGO

I apologize for the lack of multimedia on this post, but for obvious reasons cameras are not allowed in casinos.