Cai | Cheap Thrills
A vet of the Hong Kong and Toronto dim sum scenes hits Chicago.
Xi Xin Lin is a badass. Strutting through his new gleaming gold and white restaurant, a second-floor banquet-style room at the eastern end of Chinatown Square, Lin, 46, rocks bleached, spiked reddish-blond hair and sandblasted designer jeans, with a couple of gold chains peeking out from behind his chef’s coat. As he sits down at one of the massive round tables, each sporting a glittering gold lazy Susan and a crystal chandelier overhead, he meets my questions head-on with translation help from his business partner, John Wong. How did a successful chef with 30 years of experience in the dim-sum meccas of Hong Kong and Toronto wind up here? “Chicago is behind,” Lin says. “We went to so many restaurants on my first visit and the dim sum was terrible. We would order ten dishes, and we paid for our food but didn’t finish any. So I came to bring better cooking quality, because I believe I am the best.”
At the age of 11, while his friends were constructing kites and slapping away at handball, Lin was sent by his father from their home on the Renping peninsula of Guangdong province to Hong Kong to apprentice under revered dim-sum chefs. At 20, Lin moved to Toronto, lured by the boom in its Chinese community (currently more than 11 percent of the city’s population) and its obsession with dim sum. He worked his way up the ladder at reputable restaurants, learning to make perfect rice and to fashion shumai dumplings, lotus-leaf packets of sticky rice and silky rice noodle crêpes bulging with tender beef or plump shrimp. It’s these he brings to Cai, the business venture he entered a month ago with Wong, a Chinese-American who came to Chicago with his family at age 12 and has made frequent trips to Toronto. Wong has run his self-described “Americanized” Szechwan Palace in Antioch for 16 years but jumped into Chinatown’s dim-sum scene because “I wanted a challenge, to do real Chinese food finally. And also because Lin is the best.”
With his checklist 70 items deep, I haven’t been able to test this assertion across the board, but I can say Lin is killing the competition with his creamy egg-yolk buns, the smooth, sweet rolls pulling apart to unveil a gooey, sugary, warm, yolky mess. Delicate free-form dumplings stuffed with shrimp and dried scallop float in a clear consommé packing the punch of pork and the restorativeness of chicken. Shumai dumplings drip with juices, their dark mushrooms jutting out through crowns of bright orange tobiko. Pumpkin, the au courant ingredient in Hong Kong dim-sum joints, pops up in both congee and as a dessert: melded with sticky rice into a small patty, stabbed with a dime of green-tea paste and griddled on both sides. Steamed rice-noodle crêpes get a similar update, the shrimp version paired not with traditional yellow chives but crunchy bits of celery. “The competition has been here again and again the last two weeks,” says Wong. “Phoenix, Triple Crown, MingHin…They know we are doing something special.”