Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Terrible Service Detracts from Terrifically Tasty Chinese Excursion

Lao Sze Chuan
2172 S. Archer Ave., Chicago

What I ate: Hot and Sour Soup, Egg Rolls, Salt & Pepper Lamb

Over the course of my Chicago Dining World Tour, I have visited and spotlighted--and intend to continue to--a mix of restaurants/cuisines with which I was already familiar and those that are largely new to me.

While Chinese food certainly counts as an international cuisine, it is so commonplace in the United States, I almost wonder if it isn't more popular than whatever may be construed as "American food."

Thus, while I have long patronized and enjoyed stellar sit-down Chinese restaurants such as China Chef in Morton Grove, Great Beijing in Lincolnwood, Beijing Wok in Skokie, Empire Szechuan in Northbrook, Golden Wok II in Glen Ellyn (when I lived out that way), Moon Palace in Chicago's Chinatown and PF Chang's in Northbrook and elsewhere, I felt them all a bit too commonplace to feature as the Chinese entry on my gastro-ethnic expedition.

Especially as at all of them, on every visit, I've ordered either Orange Beef, Sweet 'n Sour Pork or Mongolian Beef, all of which I've enjoyed but also wouldn't represent anything exotic on an exploratory level.

But I mention the places above because I feel I owe them an apology. Or at least a shout out in this article.

For in having read about how Tony Hu has become the kingpin of Chinatown restauranteurs--he seems to now have 11 restaurants there and throughout the area--and hearing good things about Lao Sze Chuan (Hu's original outpost), I decided that should be the unique somewhere I ventured to and highlighted in the name of Chinese food, Chicago style. 

So after last Sunday's White Sox game--won on a 10th inning walkoff homer by Dayan Viciedo--I convinced my friend Dave to try Lao Sze Chuan with me, located in a strip mall along Archer near the Chinatown gate.

The restaurant was attractive and bright, and both our meals were truly delicious. But with due deference to Mr. Hu and things he likely cannot directly control, I am unlikely to return. For even if the places I named above aren't as inventive with their menus or meals, I'd rather go somewhere and get good food & good service than great food & atrocious service, as was the case at Lao Sze Chuan.

In saying that, let me explain that Dave and I were in absolutely no hurry, we raised no fuss about the disservice within the course of our visit, we left a fair tip and I take no pleasure in trashing anyone. I am not going to describe our waitress as I have no desire to see her or anyone else reprimanded. But in fairness to the many restaurants--Chinese or otherwise--that treat customers right, let me detail what Lao Sze Chuan did wrong:
1. After being seated, it took at least 5 minutes for anyone to acknowledge us at the table.
2. When I asked our waitress--who clearly spoke and understood English--what "special dishes" a first-time visitor might enjoy, she couldn't cite any. And when I said--based on a quick perusal of Yelp!--that I'd heard good things about the Salt & Pepper Shrimp and Salt & Pepper Lamb, she simply said, "Yes, we have them."

3. There were no place settings on our table, other than chopsticks, and we didn't have the opportunity to request forks until after our entrees were served.
4. Our food was dropped off by a server, not the waitress who took our order, and the latter never came around to check on us.
5. My entree was served 5 minutes before Dave's arrived.
6. I wanted a refill on my water and asked three other wait staff members (as ours never came around) and all three ignored me.
7. I ordered a second can of Diet Coke, after flagging down our waitress; she brought it without refreshing my nearly empty glass of ice.
8. After we finished eating, we had to wait about 15 minutes before the waitress came to clear Dave's plate, box my leftovers and give us the check.
9. The check was brought while I was in the rest room--oddly with no urinals, I had to double check to ensure I was in the right one--accompanied by 2 fortune cookies. While I would have liked some almond cookies, it wasn't worth waiting another 10 minutes, so we paid cash and left. (And went to the Chiu Quon bakery for almond cookies.)
Now, I've never worked as a waiter and have tremendous respect for the demands on those who do. For me, a standard tip is at least 20%. But the above strikes me as failing Service 101.

Certainly not the end of the world, but definitely a reason to stick with the tried and true. Even if the food at Lao Sze Chuan was truly unique and delicious, which it was.

OK, so Hot 'n Sour Soup and Egg Rolls aren't exactly novel when it comes to Chinese food. But both were really good.

For my entree, I went with the Salt & Pepper Lamb, which was chopped up, lightly battered and--if not ideal for my blood pressure--really sublime.

And the leftovers I brought home held up really well and made for an enjoyable meal during the NCAA Final.

Dave went with a traditional favorite, Kung Pao Shrimp, and had already siphoned out most of the shrimp
before I snapped the photo at right. 

He declared it "very tasty."

All of which makes the poor service a real shame.

The original location of Lao Sze Chuan--forebearer of Lao Shanghai, Lao Hunan, Lao Beijing and others--has been around since 1998 and seems to be quite popular. Hu and his chefs are obviously doing something quite right.

Too bad the wait staff seemed to get everything wrong. Yes, I realize it may have just been a bad day, but while I could easily have forgiven 2-3 of the above problems, the sum seems to suggest intrinsic deficiencies.

Still, I'm not suggesting you avoid Lao Sze Chuan or any of Hu's other restaurants. The food certainly may well be worth any possible service displeasure.

But for me, Moon Palace or China Chef or Great Beijing, etc. will be just fine.

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