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A trip to San Francisco last weekend in the midst of the Chinese New Year celebration whetted my appetite for dim sum. This vibrant street festival attracts crowds by the thousands and vendors of every description and after meandering my way through the bustling neighborhood one sunny afternoon, I collapsed at a table at a Chinese restaurant desperate for a refreshing pot of tea and a plateful of steamed shrimp dumplings and an egg roll or two.

Back in Chicago one week later I found myself craving Cantonese cooking once again -- the perfect excuse to visit one of my favorite places in Chinatown, Happy Chef.

Most people familiar with the dim sum scene in Chicago's Chinatown will automatically direct you to Phoenix, but I prefer to venture a bit farther west on Archer to the strip mall on the north side of the street. There you will find Happy Chef Dim Sum House (along with Mountain View and Shui Wah, also decent dim sum restaurants). The decor isn't as pretty as that of Phoenix (unless you think white garbage bag tablecloths are pretty), but the prices are better and the food is just as good. Plus, Happy Chef's casual, low-maintenance atmosphere is a welcome respite from the more touristy areas of Chinatown.

Traditionally, dim sum -- small, appetizer-like dishes such as dumplings, buns, rolls, etc. -- is served off carts that are pushed back and forth between tables; patrons watch the carts as they move past and yell out if they see a dish they want. At Happy Chef, however, the process is a bit different. Customers receive a list of offerings when they are seated and then mark down everything they want at the beginning of the meal before handing the list off to servers who bring the dishes to the table one after the other from the kitchen.

I've heard people who like the hustle and bustle of the traveling carts complain about this method, but honestly, I prefer it. For one thing, ordering off the list ensures that your food will be delivered to your table as soon as it is cooked (and not making its way round the restaurant one, two, seven times before arriving at your table). And plus, this way, you can choose exactly what you want and not be annoyed when the table next to yours takes the last of the chicken feet.

Using the list can be a bit tricky, however; if you aren't used to dim sum, it's hard to know what to order. Luckily, Happy Chef's list provides an English explanation that (usually) is helpful. On my most recent visit, my companion and I started off with the steamed rice roll with shrimp -- two thin steamed rolls encircling whole shrimp. At first we were a little revolted by the slippery, mushy consistency of the rolls, but the shrimp was neither over- nor under-cooked and a dousing of soy sauce ultimately made them quite tasty.

Next, the server brought egg rolls with taro to the table. These were excellent: small, fried rolls filled with creamy taro paste. We dipped them in the fiery hot pepper sauce at the table, washed it all down with steamy Jasmine tea, and eagerly awaited the next round.

Next up were steamed buns with BBQ pork filling. Although the dough was soft and a brilliant white and the pork had the perfect mix of sweet and spice, this dish was one of my least favorites among the dim sum choices because I found the pillowy bread too overwhelming for the flavorsome filling. However, judging from the rate that people were inhaling these buns around me, I decided I was alone in my dislike of the buns.

My disappointment vanished once the crabmeat shrimp rolls were brought to the table. These tiny, paper-thin, flaky rolls filled with a mixture of fresh shrimp and crab were the best part of the meal, especially when drizzled with the accompanying sweet and sour sauce.

Happy Chef offers a variety of steamed and fried dumplings filled with everything from shrimp to shark's fin. We settled for the steamed pork dumpling with peanut, the last dish that was brought to the table. This turned out to be a big mistake. First, the dumplings were so delicate I had trouble removing them from bamboo basket with chopsticks and one ended up breaking open, spilling out ground pork and peanuts as well as a very unpleasant aroma. Against my better judgment, I managed to salvage most of it and shoved a huge chunk into my mouth -- an act I soon regretted. I wasn't able to distinguish just what it was that tasted so very bad, but I can say that the look on my face was enough to discourage my companion from sampling the rest of the dish.

Although our visit ended on a somewhat foul note, I would still strongly recommend Happy Chef to anyone in search of fast, cheap, and delicious dim sum meal. Most of the items are priced between $1.88 and $3.88, which is a pretty good deal considering our bill came to a total of $12.63 (plus tip) and we were decently full after five rounds.

"Dim Sum" means "the heart's delight" or "touch the heart" in Cantonese. By the time you are finished, your taste buds and stomach will be delighted as well (as long as you steer clear of the pork dumplings with peanut).

Happy Chef Dim Sum House is located at 2164 S. Archer Ave. If you visit with a small party you may be asked to share a table.

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Comments

Vital Information / January 26, 2004 1:31 PM

I love the family style dinners at Happy Chef. Plain ol' Cantonese food at its finest. Go here for a report of a recent meal.

Rob

 

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