Chicago’s Asian Fusion
Story and photos by Renee Sklarew
Food authorities rank Chicago restaurants atop the nation’s best: Bon Appetit named Chicago the “2017 Restaurant City of the Year.” The James Beard Foundation moved its awards event from New York to Chicago. Zagat and Conde Nast echoed the accolades in 2018.
Alongside its daring kitchen innovations, during a recent visit I found that there’s a natural friendliness and hospitality in Chicago that can add a lot to the dining experiences.
In short, Chicago, Illinois deserves a spot on any foodie’s must-go list.
Chicago’s wide assortment of multicultural neighborhoods seems to encourage and foster restauranteurs’ experimentation. Freedom of expression has given rise to a burgeoning Asian fusion scene. At restaurants like HaiSous, Fat Rice and Noyane, chefs pay homage to their roots, yet aren’t afraid to explore nontraditional ingredients and preparations.
Thai Dang was six years old when his family left a refugee camp in Vietnam; a Catholic organization sponsored their U.S. immigration. After a short stay in Illinois, Dang and his seven family members traveled for two days on a Greyhound bus to join kin living in Northern Virginia. “I’ll never forget that bus ride,” Dang says. After growing up around talented Vietnamese cooks, Dang enrolled in L’Academie de Cuisine culinary school. He and his wife Danielle Dang now co-own the restaurant HaiSous.
“HaiSous means two pennies. I have a penny and my wife has a penny,” he laughs. “We rubbed them together.” When searching for a location for their restaurant, the two fell in love with a historic building on the corner of a gritty community called Pilsen, home to other pioneering restaurants like S.K.Y., an acclaimed Asian fusion restaurant, and Moody Tongue Brewing Company, where exotic beer accompanies oysters and chocolate cake. With the advent of such novel restaurants, Pilsen has become a dining hot spot.
Led by designer and architect Danielle, the Dangs transformed a 125-year-old brick building into a popular hipster outpost. The space contains the HaiSous dining room plus a coffee shop named Cà Phê Dá. Nearly everything in the space was imported from Vietnam. “We traveled through Vietnam and bought things,” says Thai. “We put everything in a shipping container and popped it open in Pilsen.”
HaiSous has won multiple culinary awards including a Michelin Bib Gourmand and Eater Chicago’s Best Restaurant of 2017. The food is rendered with such care and attention that with each bite your tongue will transmit a message to your brain: this is like nothing else I’ve had before.
That was my first impression as I sampled Thai’s Chicken Fried Rice. Every kernel of rice held a different fresh herb. Thai uses herbs he grew up eating, like kinh gioi or Vietnamese lemon balm; rau ram or Vietnamese coriander; and la loht or wild betel leaf.
Coffee drinks are a revelation, too. The vanilla egg custard could be classified as a decadent dessert. “While traveling through Vietnam, Danielle and I fell in love with the coffee scene in Hanoi—you can see the French influence,” Thai explains. “We wanted to build something awesome for Chicagoans; a shop where locals can walk in and spend less than $5 for a coffee.”
Fat Rice in Logan Square is another standout fusion restaurant. Before my meal, I talk to Mike Gebert, considered one of the city’s leading dining experts and author of The Fooditor 99, a book published annually on the 99 best restaurants in Chicago. “I love Fat Rice. It’s really interesting,” says Gebert. “They just got into this idea of Macanese food and started exploring how it came to be as one of the earliest fusion cultures. It started with the Portuguese going to that part of the world and influencing Indian, Chinese and other Asian food, with all kinds of traveling in between. You’ll get stir fried Chinese dishes, and then you’ll get charcuterie.”
The Fat Rice dining room consists of communal tables, while the attached bakery is a bright and sunny spot to savor Portuguese and Macanese pastries. Then there’s the Ladies Room. “The Ladies Room is actually a bar, but with a high-end cocktail experience,” notes Gebert. Fat Rice’s namesake dish, arroz gordo, is a heaping bowl similar to paella. Cooked into the basmati rice are curried chicken thighs, char siu pork, chili prawns and linguica sausage; East Asian and Portuguese ingredients blend together to create an exotic taste explosion. Don’t miss the finger lickin’ good piri piri chicken with wood-fired thighs in Portugal’s favorite African pepper atop sticky coconut rice.
Noyane (which means “hidden roof” in Japanese) sits on the 21st floor of the elegant Conrad Chicago hotel on the city’s famed Magnificent Mile. The rooftop restaurant is open seasonally (meaning only in good weather, so plan accordingly). Chef Richard Sandoval merges traditional Japanese ingredients with Latin American preparations. Whether you’re seated at Noyane’s lounge, bar, or by its glass wall with jaw-dropping views, this is a rare opportunity to sample wonton nachos and Wagyu bao buns. Noyane’s beverage menu includes sake by the glass and four kinds of spiked snowballs. My head spun and I’m still not sure if it was thanks to the extreme views or the playful synthesis of cuisines.
My conclusion is that Chicago is an A+ destination for foodie travelers. Beyond traditional deep dish pizzas and gourmet hot dogs, you’ll find a tantalizing collection of Asian fusion restaurants that will leave you hungry to return again and again.
Plan A Trip
Stay at the Conrad Chicago and you’ll be in the middle of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile shopping district. The luxurious rooms have so many high-tech accoutrements it feels like stepping into the future. Service is top-notch and customer-oriented.
The swanky guest rooms were designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon, who also designed the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills and Four Seasons Hotel in London. Many major Chicago attractions are within walking distance including the Chicago Riverfront and Chicago’s haute fashion houses.