Ask around in Chicago where to go for Chinese, and Phoenix rises to the top of the list. The restaurant is in Chinatown, and offers classic Chinese cuisine, including dim sum on a daily basis.
To make sure it was authentic, we asked a local Chinese businessman—who regularly travels back to Hong Kong—to go with us. Lawrence Ho assured us that the flavors are the same as those found in China, and that Phoenix uses fresh ingredients and traditional cooking methods.
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Over discussions of the Chinese economy and American politics, we dug into a sampling. Ho refused to order for us, indicating that everything on the menu was excellent and we couldn’t go wrong by ordering what appealed. That meant we started with the Chef-recommended appetizer of scallops, halved and served in their shell over rice noodles, silky and almost translucent with a wonderful texture. A sauce with exotic spices was scooped over it at the table, leading to a great start to our meal.
Our host poured hot tea for the table while he explained, “In China, the food is more important than the seasoning.” While Chinese food uses great spices, he went on to gently admonish the American way of heavily seasoning something instead of first using fresh and quality ingredients. “Garlic and ginger are the basic spices,” he said, used in most Chinese food. “They needed them to bring out the flavor before food was refrigerated,” he added.
Our food changed to soup, and we sampled the Egg Drop Soup, the Hot and Sour Soup, and an unusual Sweet Corn Thick Soup that was full of chicken and sweet kernels of corn and (in my opinion) a step up from Egg Drop.
While enjoying our soup, Ho explained the origin of Dim Sum, which he said is also a heritage from early travelers who needed to keep food fresh, so wrapped it in ingredients that would not stick to the food. Phoenix serves 50 varieties of Dim Sum, and he encouraged us to come back to try it next time.
Our conversation changed to the Chinese New Year, the year of the Rabbit, and the celebrations planned for the occasion. Ho told us how the evening is, “Thanksgiving, Christmas and your New Year’s all rolled into one,” and that, as a result, the celebration lasts a full week.
Meanwhile, we were serving ourselves family style (or Chinese style) from our selections of Roasted Sea Bass with Mushrooms and Bean Sprouts, a spicy Mongolian Beef, and Sweet and Sour Chicken, which was so lightly breaded it was more coat than overcoat, and allowed the fresh chicken flavor to come through. Finally, our favorite, the Honey Walnut Shrimp, which was a big platter of jumbo shrimp with lightly candied walnuts, all coated in a mayonnaise-based sauce that was fragrant and tasty.
All of our selections were elegantly plated with elaborate garnishes that complemented the vibrant colors on the plate. In other words, if your typical Chinese restaurant is more fast food than formal, Phoenix is a great transition—it’s white tablecloth, but casual and comfortable with style. And the food absolutely melts in your mouth.
Our conversation turned to food, and we covered the new availability of fresh fish, the novelty of boba tea (or bubble tea), and why Chinese food, done right, is a healthy approach to eating. One person at our table summed it up in the philosophy of his father, who taught that good eating habits revolved around fresh ingredients. (His mantra was, “If it doesn’t spoil, don’t eat it.”)
The food at Phoenix certainly met the freshness test; it also lent itself to great table conversation, pure enjoyment of the flavors, and a realization of why it makes the list from the locals who know their food.
My Chinese fortune cookie, which was delivered at the end of the meal with fresh hot tea, said, “You are kindhearted and hospitable.”
Right back at ya, Phoenix.