Monday, January 19, 2004

Always Happy at Happy Chef

Cantonese food too often gets dismissed, associated unfortunately with all that crappy stuff long unpopular: chop suey, chow mein, moo goo gai pan, etc., etc. Yet, the real thing, the real Cantonese, presents one of the most delicious brands of Chinese food. Few spices play a role in Cantonese food. Instead, Cantonese style Chinese food emphasizes clean preparations, where you can see the underlying food. Seafood, popular in all aspects of Chinese food, is especially important in Cantonese food. It is expected that Cantonese food is all stir fried, but great Cantonese food uses a bunch of preparations including steaming, baking and cooking in casseroles. I fully expect a good Cantonese meal to wow me from all sides of the kitchen, and one kitchen that always wows me is Happy Chef.

I had the good fortune of dining with a very large group at Happy Chef the other night. As always, it was a great meal. Too much food, so I have to run through the list pretty quickly, what we ate. All meals at Happy Chef start with complimentary soup. Perhaps my sucker-ness for freebies influences my love of Happy Chef, but the soup always puts me right for more to come. Since the soup contains a few spare chicken feet and other odds and ends, I always jokingly call it leftover dim sum soup. Actually, the dominant feature of the soup is big chewy, whole pieces of conch, looking very much of the shell. Not a pretty soup, but a nice soup.

Did I say quick run? I'll try again. Crabs AND lobster stir fried in ginger and green onion and impossible to eat with chop sticks; green beans dry cooked with sliced pork, straying to the mainstream; pea shoots with more conch, getting back to the more authentic; tofu stuffed with shrimp paste in hot pot, the blander course; clams in a tiny wok of broth; beef in sizzling platter with too much black pepper and thin pork chops in a honeyed brown sauce, both dishes belying the notion that Cantonese dishes are all plain; soft boiled chicken with a dressing of ginger and green onion; and finally, Peking duck served in 2 courses. The meal ends with a second soup, red bean with sweet balls. A soup I like better for its complimentary nature than its succor.

I love Happy Chef so much that I can safely say that a couple of things were not perfect. I really dug the clam preparation. It left the clams soft but with integrity, but the clams themselves were overly gritty. Great dish that could have been greater. The pancakes for the duck were not the usual rubbery moo shu things. Rather, smaller discs, studded with seeds, breadier, but also dry and flour-y in parts. Because it was such a large group, service was a non-factor. In past visits, I have always felt comfortable at Happy Chef. It is easy to order here without any language skills.

Happy Chef fits into all the stereotypes of no nonsense Chinese eating. Decor would be the tanks with live seafood. Lighting makes no woman look pretty. Best (worse?), the tables are covered in a mille feuille of plastic. When one table finishes, the staff rolls up everything not worth keeping, ties it into a knot, and prepares for new eaters.

Happy Chef
2164 S. Archer Ave (Chinatown Mall)
Chicago, IL

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