A beautiful and warm Saturday for the month of February and my appetite had been reminding me that the bagel and tea that I had earlier in the day was not enough to carry me through until dinner. I was on the Northwest Side of Chicago and wondered what I would eat to please the monster — my hunger, that is. I pulled out my trusty cell phone and accessed Yelp to get recommendations for some eateries in the nearby area. One listing that showed up was for a Singaporean restaurant. Hmmm. I did not know that Chicago had a Singaporean community, but I have managed to find a lot of ethnicities all over the great city of Chicago. The restaurant, Jess Cafe at 5819 W. Belmont Avenue, is actually Pan-Asian. I heaved a heavy sigh, as Pan-Asian restaurants tend to be more about quantity than quality per se. They will cover everything from Japanese to Chinese to Vietnamese to Thai to Malaysian to Indonesian to Cambodian to Mexican and Italian. Unless the cuisine is explicitly listed in its own section, you could be mislead into thinking you are eating something authentically representative of any of the Asian ethnicities when it could be a concoction instead of a dish from “the old country.” And I thought again about how I would label Jess Cafe on Chicago Alphabet Soup. This left me wondering if I should consider Pan-Asian as an ethnic listing for some restaurants.
On initial entry into Jess Cafe, I was certain that the whole experience was going to be a complete racket. While not bustling with patrons, there appeared to be the entire kitchen staff at a table having an afternoon meal and siesta. The wait staff was all over the place. And the individual at the front counter was having a rather casual yet engaging conversation on the phone. Remember the saying “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”? After standing for a couple of minutes — not knowing whether I was to seat myself or not — I took the initiative to secure a nearby booth. I sat for a while before someone brought me water and after sitting some more looking through the colossal menu, I managed to get the eye of someone so that I could place my order. Let me just add that the menu was extensive to the point where I think the restaurant covers every recipe known in Asian cuisine. I eyed shrimp tempura and another dish of salt and pepper soft shell crab.
The shrimp tempura reminded me more of coconut crusted shrimp rather than thinly battered tempura shrimp. One thing I must say is that I was glad the shrimp was plump and succulent in the batter. And the shrimp seemed to have been seasoned well, as it was not just merely shrimp in a crispy batter. There was some pop to the dish. Perhaps their take on tempura was different than what you get in Japanese cuisine. The salt and pepper soft shell crab was outstanding. This came with steamed rice and a vinegar-based dipping sauce that reminded me of a salt and pepper chicken dish that I had eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood several years ago. What I will add is that I have yet to have any soft shell crab that I did no like. One would think that salt and pepper only would not be enough to season anything such that it would be flavourful. That was not the case with the soft shell crab. That was all the seasoning that was needed and my empty plate was testament to that.
Surprisingly, Jess Cafe was worth the trip. The reviews that I had read were mixed, waffling between devoted love of the restaurant and utter disgust. Minus the sketchy service, the food and the price make Jess Cafe an eatery worthy of a return. In the reviews, there were a lot of plugs for how awesome the bubble tea and the smoothies are. Well, on my next visit, I shall have to see if there is truth to those assertions. And at the end of the day, I returned home to make plans for my next food adventure. Hahaha. Insert sound byte of me saying, “Yum,” with exaggeration.
Arigato. She-she nee. Gam si hapni da. Thank you.