A few years ago, I left a company that was couched in political maneuvering and led by a chief executive officer who let it be known that the employees’ “measly” 2% pay increases were a small sacrifice — so that the Board of Directors could get their 25% pay increases. It was on to another company that was couched even deeper in political madness with a revolving door of contractors and permanent employees who came and went, and a management staff that consisted of supervisors and managers in title only. About two years ago, there began flight from the latter company and recently the company had a reduction in workforce. Several of us who had become good friends while working together had fled and we all remained in touch. We decided that it was time for a gathering. You can never have a proper reunion without food. And with one of us knowing the owner of one of Chicago’s most popular Chinese restaurants, a date was set and there were a Chinese, an African-American, an Indian, a West Indian, and a Filipino walking into Lao You Ju at 2002 S. Wentworth Avenue in Chicago’s Chinatown. Sounds like the introduction to a joke, right? No, it was just five former colleagues gathering for laughter and some authentic Chinese food.
Lao You Ju boasts a swell menu of dim sum, Hong Kong style. There are indeed some exotic menu items that the modest palate may find visually intriguing, but not necessarily tasteful. For the five of us who had gathered, our palates are varied, so we played it safely while indulging one or two items that are more commonplace in the Chinese culinary space. Because we had opted mostly for dim sum, we started with satay chicken and preserved egg pork congee. Satay chicken is nothing more than well-seasoned chicken skewered onto wooden sticks. Many of you will have had satay chicken with peanut sauce at Thai restaurants. There was no sauce with the dish at Lao You Ju, as it was rather flavourful sans it. The congee came in a communal size bowl, rice porridge for an insatiable appetite. We filled our cups and went to work.
While talking about another former colleague who used to take random vacations “off the books” and then return 3 to 4 weeks later as though it was “only a thing,” there arrived cheese rolls with shrimp and shumai. The cheese rolls were like crispy egg rolls that encased cream cheese and plump shrimp. At a lot of Americanized Chinese restaurants, some syrupy dipping sauce would have accompanied the rolls. For those of us at the table, we were quite glad to not have some side order usurping the flavour of the rolls with a punch of unnecessary sweetness. Along with the cheese rolls with shrimp came some shumai. Having forgotten that pork was a heavy staple in the Chinese diet, we tackled them anyway. Rather than requesting that the recipe be modified and erasing authenticity, we gobbled the shumai without complaint — and then realized after we had completed them that we didn’t dunk them in any sauce before devouring them.
We laughed about how the business analysts, Business Intelligence analysts, and quality assurance team could never seem to work as good as they could have together thanks to interference from management and the fact that information technology is becoming more about service than it is about solutions. Right about this time was when we got to indulge ourselves in some jin-sha shrimp. General chicken what? Kung pao chicken what? Beef with broccoli what? I am in love with this whole concept of fried corn with peppers and breaded shrimp. Put some orange chicken in front of me and I will be inclined to throw it against the wall. To make matters ever more tastefully exciting, there were crispy papaya pastry served. They looked way too twee to have experienced the grinding of our teeth on them. The natural sweetness of the papaya made them that more pleasing to the palates because we got to taste the fruit in all of its bloom.
Two weeks after I had left the company, I got a text message from one of my friends who was at dim sum lunch with us. He had left to go abroad to get married and to have his honeymoon with his wife. When the text message had come across and he discovered the address of where I was working, it turned out that he had accepted a position with a company across the street. Not only is the world flat, but it is indeed very small. We all laughed about that story and chuckled when the small dish of beef tripe was placed in front of us. Tripe, to me, is one of those menu items that shows that cooks will spare no parts. The texture is akin to that of a rubber band, which may not be endearing to many diners. The recipe for the beef trip at Lao You Ju was surprisingly worthy, although I will never get accustomed to having to chew, chew, chew, and chew some more before swallowing it. As to the lamb hot sizzling plate, this spicy dish was a winner. Served with white rice, we worked our chopsticks in true fashion. Move over, Greeks, because you’re not longer the standard bearers of cooking outstanding lamb dishes.
The Singapore fried rice noodles with chicken was another one of those dishes that will make you want to take up a picket sign and advocate for the closure of all the China Buffet restaurants in the world. And from there, you will probably march in front of every Chop Suey hole in the wall that is open for business. Let’s just say that we didn’t leave any noodles or gravy on the plate — and we all used chopsticks. I have had Singapore fried rice noodles prepared correctly, so I shall not risk having to inquire, “What on earth is this?” at any other Chinese restaurants. And the three cup chicken, Taiwanese style, was a food lover’s dream. Tender, moist, falling off the bone chicken, swimming in a rich gravy and bursting with each bite, was enough to illicit a smoke immediately afterwards.
During the reduction in workforce at the company where we all had left, it seemed that one of the main managers who was a model control freak discovered why the axe loves those in management ranks. We had a moment of silence for him, but only because the server was putting a plate of fried, dried shrimp crepes, and a bowl of spare ribs in front of us. The crepes were a pleasant surprise, although having been served in a sauce, they were not of the texture that you get at French creperies. They were, however, like dumplings, but packed with a smile in each bite. It took a while to realize what the spare ribs were. For me, I have always seen them coming off of a grill with a red colouring or drowned in barbecue sauce. Nevertheless, these spare ribs were tastier than any that I have had before — ever.
We wrapped up with green chive dumplings that were packed with mustard greens. By now I was surprised that I was able to put any more in my mouth to swallow, let along raise my chopsticks to reach for another bit. But these dumplings were way too inviting to let sit. And believe me when I say that they sat for a short time before going down the hatch. For dessert, we had crispy durian pastry. Who would have thought that biscuits with papaya baked in them could leave five individuals speechless after four hours of non-stop eating and laughter? I am considering calling in for a batch of those biscuits to have for a pre-bed snack at night.
Lao You Ju packs out during lunch and I understand why. It is not typical Chinese for Americans. It’s authentic. When you enter the restaurant, you will see a sea of Chinese faces and hear the language accordingly, which is the best indication of authenticity of a restaurant. Aside from travels to Hong Kong and Beijing in mainland China, Vancouver, Toronto, and San Francisco, I haven’t had authentic Chinese food in America except for when my first roommate after college had his parents come to visit and in 2005 when a former colleague had invited one of his Chinese co-workers to meet us at Dragon Court in Chicago’s Chinatown. Now I get to say that I have recently had some more Chinese food prepared correctly thanks for Lao You Ju all because of former colleagues gathering for a small reunion and friendship.