Calvin Soh's Chinatown favorites
Chef Calvin Soh of Shanghai Terrace reveals how to shop and eat in the Asian haven without getting your duck cooked.
No matter how low the buying power of the U.S. dollar goes, it’s still a heck of a lot cheaper to buy exotic Asian ingredients in Chicago than in Singapore. At least that’s how Calvin Soh sees it. He should know: As chef de cuisine at Shanghai Terrace, the fine-dining restaurant in The Peninsula Chicago known for its authentic Shanghai and Cantonese cuisine, this Singapore native is no stranger to birds’ nests, wild ginseng and dried abalone. To find these and more familiar Asian items—whether it’s for the Shanghai Terrace’s regular menu, a traditional banquet feast in a private dining room or even his home kitchen—Soh heads to Chinatown.
When he arrived in Chicago a year and a half ago, fresh from working as chef de cuisine at the Raffles Hotel Singapore, where he was also responsible for its culinary-academy cooking classes, Soh learned about the best spots in Chinatown from the experts: his cooks. After scoring insider tips on the best stores, restaurants and markets, and following up on his intel with frequent visits, Soh says proudly, “I know Chinatown better than most locals.”
He’s such a regular at Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Co. (2247 S Wentworth Ave, 312-842-1171) that he often hangs out there on his day off, chatting with the owner-manager—Mr. Fine to you. “I love to spend time with him to learn his secrets about tea,” Soh says, like how to tell the difference between spring and winter harvests (tip: Spring-harvested tea is better, as the flavors are more delicate). “I’ve learned how to buy tea from him.” Among the large, copper-colored canisters, Soh points to Osmanthus Oolong tea as one of his favorites. The $139-per-pound price might induce sticker shock, but a pound of tea brews 200 cups. “When I’m stressed out in the restaurant, I make a pot of this to help me relax,” Soh says. The glass jar of prepackaged Jasmine Beauty Ring tea also catches his eye, but he says it’s better to buy loose tea to guarantee its purity.
Next door at Fat Lee Grocers (2243 S Wentworth Ave, 312-881-9289), Soh heads to the back of the tiny store and grabs a yellow can of Sun brand dried black beans, which he uses to season and marinate meat. “If you use these black beans, you don’t need to use salt or sugar,” he says. Across the street at Woks ’N’ Things (2234 S Wentworth Ave, 312-842-0701), Soh demonstrates how Asian chefs measure ingredients with a ladle and how to use one to carry a hot or heavy wok: Take the round end of the ladle and insert it perpendicular to the handle inside of the wok until it catches, helping to distribute the weight. Soh also points out some hand-carved wooden mooncake molds used for traditional red-bean filled pies, as well as Chinese dim sum rolling pins. When it comes to cleavers, he swears by the ultra light and sharp blades made by Chan Chi Kee, which he can find in Chicago only at this shop. “Every Chinese chef knows this brand,” he says.
For the best Peking duck in the city—after his own, of course—Soh heads toward the end of the block to Tao Ho Yee Food Co. (2422 S Wentworth Ave, 312-225-9828). What the miniscule takeout shop lacks in decor, it more than makes up for with the quality of its duck, which is served at the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons. As if to prove Soh’s point, the shop turns out to have already sold out by early afternoon. Lesson learned: Arrive early in the morning (8am) or at noon—the shop cooks its ducks in two daily shifts. Better yet, call a day ahead and reserve one.
Sometimes even Peking duck isn’t enough to cure Soh’s homesickness, so when the pangs hit hard, he heads to Penang (2201 S Wentworth Ave, 312-326-6888). “This is where I can find food that’s most similar to what I could eat back home,” he says. Here among the Tiki lounge decor, he always orders roti canai, an Indian-style pancake he often ate for breakfast growing up (“It’s crispy and really nice with curry sauce”); the chicken and beef satay; popia, a Malaysian spring roll; and bah kut teh, an herb-rich pork rib consommé.
Chinatown Market (2121 S Archer Ave, 312-881-0068) is the place to hit for the freshest live seafood and fish, Soh says. He especially likes the black grouper, sea snails—“You need to clean them well and soak overnight”—and geoduck, a type of clam—“It’s ugly, but really great for sashimi.” When preparing live eel (assuming it doesn’t escape from the plastic bag you take it home in), Soh recommends placing the squirmy snakelike fish on a cutting board and driving a nail through each end of its body to keep it from slithering to freedom. Not into cutting up a live eel? Squeamish types can opt for the market’s cleaning and cutting services, Soh notes.
For the rest of his shopping list, Soh crosses the street to the open-air mall on Archer Avenue. At Yin Wall City Inc. (2112 S Archer Ave, 312-225-2888), Soh runs around like a kid in a candy store, except instead of sweets, he’s drooling over exotic herbs and dried seafood (a common pairing in Hong Kong, he says), including a large variety of birds’ nests, dried mushrooms, pickled vegetables and dried abalone. Reaching his hands into barrels of dried ginseng, he reveals the best varieties come from—of all places—Wisconsin. “I think all Asian people know this,” he says. The birds’ nests are made from the saliva of cave-dwelling swifts (swallowlike birds) in China (Grossed out? Soh compares the process to that of honey-producing bees). Though they’re expensive here—think $220 an ounce and up—they still cost half what they would in Singapore, and are known as a “secret for Oriental beauty,” believed to enhance the skin when eaten, Soh says. (After two days of soaking and double-boiling the nests, Soh creates a chilled dessert soup for the restaurant with ginseng and Chinese red dates.) Looking to make a flavorful risotto or soup? Soh recommends throwing a small handful ($8 worth) of dried scallops into the pot (soak them first in water to rehydrate). “You don’t need to use a lot because the flavor is more concentrated and intense,” he says.
Like many of Chicago’s foodies, when Soh craves Chinese food he heads to Tony Hu’s restaurants, including Lao Shanghai (2163 S China Pl, 312-808-0830)—Soh’s a big fan of its xiao long bao or “juicy buns”—and Lao Beijing (2138 S Archer Ave, 312-881-0168). “For Chinese food in Chinatown, chef Tony is the best,” he says.
Just like any great dinner, a Chinatown tour should end with something sweet. Soh goes to Captain Café & Bakery (2161 S China Pl, 312-791-0888), where he scarfs down mini mooncakes and the flaky, sweet-and-savory egg cakes with a pickled duck egg hidden inside. But Soh doesn’t go too far overboard on the sugar. “An important part of food is to create a comfortable feeling after the meal is eaten,” he says.