By David Hammond
In Chicago’s Chinatown—long before any of us had our first taste of Szechuan, Hunanese or Yunnanese cuisine—there was Won Kow. Since 1928, Won Kow has served what was once known simply as “Chinese food” but is now more likely to be termed “American-Chinese.”
Won Kow, Chinatown’s oldest Chinese restaurant, is on the second floor of an old building designed, general manager David Hoy told us, by “the same Norwegian architects behind the old Leong Chinese Merchants Association almost directly across the street.” The two big brick buildings with covered balconies and Asian ornamentation are Chinatown’s twin anchors.
Walking into the Won Kow building, you’re confronted by a long flight of stairs ascending to the second floor restaurant. There’s a printout, taped to the wall at the bottom of the stairs, assuring potential customers that takeout orders can be brought down to them. Such notice would have been unnecessary when Won Kow opened, shortly after the first electric elevator was patented, long before we acquired a fear of walking up a flight of stairs.
The stairs open onto a big wood-paneled dining room. Al Capone’s table was once in the northwest corner, and two of his boys would usually be stationed at the doorway to stand guard over Chicago’s OG. The menu has changed some since those days: Big Al surely never sampled Won Kow’s tempura or sushi…which, of course, are Japanese. And that’s the thing about American-Chinese places today: they frequently serve a pan-Asian variety of chow rather than “authentic” Szechuan or even Cantonese cuisine.
But, really, so what?
American-Chinese is its own culinary tradition, with a pronounced sweetness and many Western ingredients. Heck, American-Chinese food is so American that eating it seems practically patriotic.
American-Chinese food, like Chinese-Chinese food, even has its own regional variations, like Cajun sweet and sour crawdads in New Orleans and tangy mumbo sauce in Washington D.C.
So let’s just forget notions of authenticity, which are so often based on personal preference or simple ignorance, and appreciate some dishes from Won Kow that are solidly within the American-Chinese culinary canon.
- Crab Rangoon: A surprisingly strong starter, this was a platter of half-a-dozen fried-eggroll-type skins enfolding cream cheese and scallion. We were unable to detect any crab or even krab. Still, this is good drinking food: lightweight, crunchy and rich. Crab Rangoon was first documented on menus at Trader Vic’s in the mid-fifties; given the high incidence of lactose intolerance in Asia, it’s unlikely that its origin is in Myanmar/Burma. Surprisingly, this app shows up on many Thai menus. We could imagine enjoying a platter of CR with a cold PBR.
- Beef Broccoli: A solidly American-Chinese creation, the American broccoli as well as the carrot included in this dish are not found in China, but authenticity be damned: this was good food. The beef was the “velvet” variety often served in Chinese restaurants, the result of marinating meat in egg whites, cooking wine and corn starch to produce a slippery surface. The broccoli tops were not overcooked and had respectable tooth and good crunch, a pleasant contrast to the soft meat.
- BBQ Pork Chop Suey: This paradigmatic American-Chinese dish was the weakest link in our dinner, and like much chop suey we’ve eaten since our youth, just a big gloppy platter of stuff. The pork was designated “BBQ,” but it’s very unclear what that means in this context. None of the flavors of meat or vegetable were distinguishable from one another.
- Orange Chicken: Our favorite of the evening was this dish that, ironically, seemed least promising. Granted, the sauce on top of two sliced chicken breasts seemed a reduction of Sunkist orange juice concentrate, quite sweet, but the crispy exterior gave the meat good crunch. The lightly fried chicken planks benefited from hot sauce, which meshed nicely with the sweetness. Eating this dish, one couldn’t help but think of more contemporary restaurants, like the very excellent Sunda (110 West Illinois), that continue the sweet theme in the New Asian tradition with Lemongrass Beef Lollipops in sweet soy glaze and Tiger Shrimp Tempura with candied walnuts. And, of course, Orange Chicken tops the menu at Panda Express. American-Chinese cuisine endures.
We ended our Won Kow dinner with fortune cookies, a dessert virtually unknown anywhere in Asia. Price for app, three entries and three beers: about $50.
Long considered déclassé, American-Chinese food—like burlesque, lucha libre and record players—is now perhaps ready to be reappraised and ushered into the realm of the fashionable.
If you want “authentic” food, there are lots of options in Chinatown. Still, there’s something homey about American-Chinese, which remains unpretentious, almost embarrassingly tasty and, strangely, old school.
Won Kow, 2237 South Wentworth (lot parking nearby at Wentworth and Cermak is $2 with validation), (312)842-7500
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org