In the labyrinth of cultural nuances that comes with being a first-generation immigrant in the United States, the term “third culture kid” (TCK) emerged as a lifeline for those who straddled two worlds. The third culture itself is a unique blend of one’s heritage and the society they find themselves in. Within these intricate layers of identity, Chicago has been fortunate to witness the emergence of culinary gems like Lao Peng You, a testament to the confluence of longing for home and the quest for belonging. Like the name suggests, Lao Peng You, meaning “old friend” in English, has become a cherished companion to those who yearn for flavors that evoke nostalgia, while still carving out a space for contemporary American influences.
Nestled in the charming Ukrainian Village, miles away from the traditional enclaves, Lao Peng You’s magnetic pull has been undeniable. The restaurant has recently received a star-studded nod in the FX show “The Bear,” ensuring a perpetual queue of eager diners at its doorstep. But, oh dear reader, if you’re savvy enough to venture in during the earlier hours of a Thursday evening, you’re in for a delightful rendezvous with the culinary arts. Founded by the dynamic duo of Daniel and Eric “Chops” Wat, two Chicago brothers with an unyielding passion for honoring familial heritage through exceptional cuisine, the eatery embodies a fusion of history, taste, and tradition.
In the world of Chinese dining, the litmus test often lies in the echo of your Grandma, or Nainai’s recipes. Yet, Lao Peng You charts a different path – their offerings feel more like a symphony of the chef’s own nostalgia, a lovingly penned ode to ancestral kitchens. With every bite of their noodles or dumplings, there’s an unspoken reverence, as if a devoted son were crafting a feast for his proud mother.
This sense of cherished familiarity is not just confined to the menu; it seamlessly weaves through the dining room’s tapestry as well. As you step into the humble yet bustling dining space, it’s as though you’ve stumbled upon a boisterous family gathering, and you’re the tardy relative weaving through animated conversations and laughter. A quick scan reveals glasses clinking in harmony, setting the stage for a culinary symphony that’s about to unfold. The menu, a single page that stands in contrast to the endless offerings of typical Chinese restaurants, bears influences from the corners of SiChuan, Shanghai, XiAn, and Taiwan.
Though Lao Peng You’s reputation revolves around its noodles and dumplings – particularly the fiery beef noodle soup and the succulent pork and chive dumplings – let’s not be too hasty to overlook the supporting cast. The unassuming appetizers pack a punch: from the zesty Szechuan cold chicken to the refreshing cucumber salad, and for the adventurous souls, the wood ear mushroom salad that’s a personal favorite of mine. But the pièce de résistance is unquestionably the Cong You Bing – a scallion pancake that boasts a laminated texture, unfolding like a croissant’s layers. Extra points if you save a bit of your dumpling broth for dipping – trust me, it’s an adventure worth embarking upon!
Now, let’s address the elephant in the room: BYOB! At Lao Peng You, you’re not just welcome to bring your own, you’re practically encouraged to do so. Given the menu’s penchant for fiery and tangy notes, we’ve got your back with the perfect dance partner – the Boxler Riesling Réserve. Here’s a little crash course on Alsace Riesling: it’s crisp and dry, a stark contrast to the sweeter iterations from Germany’s Mosel valley. These Alsace wonders are robust, exhibiting ripe fruit, beeswax whispers, and a minerality that’s practically poetry in liquid form. Enter Boxler’s Riesling Réserve, curated by none other than Jean Boxler, the grandson of the wine dynasty’s founder. Sourced from the family’s Grand Cru vineyards, this nectar is both vibrant and robust, narrating tales of orchard fruits, white blooms, and a dash of tea leaves. Our verdict? It’s the quintessential companion to Lao Peng You’s spicy pan-Asian tapestry of flavors.
And so, dear reader, as you sit down to savor the layers of flavor and history that Lao Peng You lovingly serves, remember that each dish is a tribute to the past, a celebration of the present, and a bridge to the future. These tantalizing bites and heartwarming experiences are a testament to the enduring power of food, the universal language that binds cultures, creates memories, and sparks connections. Lao Peng You isn’t just a restaurant; it’s a vessel of shared stories, a place where old friends gather, and where every bite whispers, “Welcome home.” Raise your glass, whether it’s filled with Riesling or the spirit of camaraderie, and toast to the power of cuisine in bringing us all a little closer together. Cheers! Or as they say in China, GanBei!