Despite summer coming to a close, it’s remained bloody hot. Friday brought us a scalding 95 F with what felt like 200% humidity; definitely take-out weather. Friday’s food challenge was the fact that I decided to stop courting Yuen’s Chinese Kitchen after a run of increasingly bad food. It was slightly disappointing because Yuen’s is great for straight up, skanky, adjusted to the American palette Chinese food like General Tso’s chicken dripping with sticky spicy sauce, fried rice that tastes just like fried rice everywhere else, and pot stickers so thick that they’re more like meat doughnuts. Yuen’s is cheap too. They must have lost their chef or something because suddenly the General Tso’s was too sweet and the pot stickers were consistently raw in the middle. Actually, the last order of General Tso’s featured ketchup for sauce and that’s just going to far.

After consulting the Magic Eightball of takeout (Grubhub), we decided to try Lao Sze Chuan in Uptown. I know that the Lao restaurant dynasty does good things. Most of their joints are located in Chinatown and one in particular – Lao Shanghai – comes recommended by a Chinese professor in my department as having the best xiao long bao in Chicago. I’ll report back on that this fall if the Cermack Red Line stop opens on schedule. At any rate, we gave Lao Sze Chuan a shot.

The delivery menu is extensive and even included Chengdu style hot pot. We passed on that because we couldn’t fathom the safety of a rolling cauldron of oil arriving at my kitchen table. Either the delivery driver would go up in flames or it would be tepid and we’d die of food poisoning. Instead, we got some basics: Sze Chuan Green Beans (Finally someone is offering spicy green beans in this city!!! Hopefully they won’t take them off the menu right after I order them like everywhere else.), Singapore Noodles, and Dry Chili Chicken. It took a about an hour to arrive, but we were able to entertain ourselves otherwise in the interim by watching footage of peacocks dancing before a rainstorm (I had no idea) and trailers for Riddick and Spike Lee’s version of Oldboy.

Our meal came to $45 with tip and delivery charge. While paying that much for takeout is well within reason of Chicago’s market price, it is a little expensive for Chinese food. However, it was well worth it. The rice, usually so much of an afterthought with Chinese takeout, was pretty good. It didn’t smell like dust and dishwater and it wasn’t stuck together. My Sze Chuan Green Beans were nicely blistered on the outside and intersperse with plenty of fresh garlic and ginger. They were a touch soggier than I prefer, but it was due to post-packaging steaming as opposed to chef error. My only other complaint was that there weren’t actually spicy. No matter because they were still delicious. The Singapore Noodles were brilliant. Usually a mass of greasy, curried rice noodles with every protein in the book thrown in, Lao Sze Chuan’s Singapore Noodle is none of that. You can choose your protein and there is just enough oil to keep the noodles from congealing. The Dry Chili Chicken ended up being a show-stopper though. Whole dried chilis and tidbits of perfectly fried chicken mingled with scallions, ginger, and garlic. Chili flakes were cast like glitter at a Gay Pride parade. The Gentleman Scholar exclaimed “This looks just like chili chicken in India!” and popped a few pieces into his mouth. As he chewed, he muttered “Holy shit! This is just like chili chicken in India. They’ll have this flying out of their doors.”

“Once the rest of the Indians in Chicago find out?” I asked.

“No. From me.” (chew chew chew)

Then the Szechuan peppercorns kicked in.

I was honestly surprised that Lao Sze Chuan uses them. Sure, it’s a Szechuan restaurant. Szechuan peppercorns should be in the food. The issue is that Szechuan peppercorns are nearly impossible to get in the States despite being legalized in 2005. Regardless, there they were in all of their unmistakeably addictive mouth-numbing glory. It was like meeting a long lost friend since I hadn’t tasted them since a fantastic, if not socially awkward, dinner in a 12-story restaurant in Chengdu (2006). The Gentleman Scholar succumbed to them – suffering, yet unable to stop eating. At one point, he jumped up from the couch and paced the floor while scratching his head (a sign that the food is really spicy).

“Need a break?” I asked.

“I will not be defeated by a Chinese dish!” he proclaimed and dove back into the fray.

As of this morning, the Gentleman Scholar is still commenting on his Chili Chicken Experience. He even sang “Take My Breath Away.”

To sum up, get yourself to Lao Sze Chaun for the closest to authentic you can get without being in China, either Uptown (4832 N Broadway Ave.), Chinatown (2172 S Archer Ave) or Grubhub delivery if you can’t bear the thought of putting on outside pants. From what I can tell, Uptown has a patio and a full bar. That’s always a plus.

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