August 20, 2009
The best dining deal in Chicago can be found, every day, at a tiny Bridgeport storefront called Han 202, where chef/partner Guan Chen offers a five-course menu for $20.No, not $20 per course. Twenty dollars for the whole meal.
Did I mention it's BYOB? So you can tote your own beer and wine. Han 202 provides nice stemware and doesn't charge a corkage fee.
There are a couple of catches (you knew that was coming). Well, more like quirks. You must have a reservation, because the restaurant has but 36 seats; there's no waiting area; and Chen doesn't like to serve more than 50 people on weekend nights (weekdays, he prefers to keep the number at 36).
The maximum party size is four. This is non-negotiable. If you call with a party of six and there are two tables available, manager Yan Ruan (Chen's wife) will split your group between the two tables, but will not push the tables together.
And don't even think about making a reservation for four and showing up with five.
"Because the kitchen is too small," says Chen of his unusual policy. "When the party is larger, I can't get all the dishes hot to the table, and people complain. I try to give a memorable dining experience."
Memorable it is. And if keeping parties small lets Chen stay true to his standards, so be it.
The name refers to China's Han Dynasty, which began about 200 years before the birth of Christ (thus the 202). The menu itself is largely Chinese but, as we shall see, all sorts of Asian influences cavort in Chen's kitchen.
The first course is soup, and there's a choice of three: a straightforward miso soup; a delicious vegetable soup with tofu, asparagus, peas and mushrooms; and a wonderful King Crab miso soup with a surprise jolt of spicy bean paste. Soups arrive in bowls with dangerously narrow bases; I saw two customers accidentally knock over their bowls.
Next is the salad, and though the seaweed salad and spring greens salad are unobjectionable, the two stars are the green apple salad, in which matchsticks of green apple are anointed with scant amounts of olive and truffle oils, tossed with pink peppercorns and capers; and a beef with lemon grass salad featuring well-seasoned, tender strips of beef.
Typically there are about a dozen appetizer selections, all appealing sounding, though I can narrow the field for you. The egg roll is easily skippable, and the shrimp gyoza swim in a broth doomed by a vinegar overdose. Skatewing tempura is fine when available; walnut shrimp are very tasty; and I refuse to order crab rangoon because that's what Asian chefs think people like me want.
Sushi rolls are a good bet; Ruan and Chen previously owned Nine Fish, a now-defunct sushi bar in Evanston. But my favorites are the crunchy Thai fish cake (deep-fried whitefish with a mild chile sauce) and the addictive salt-and-pepper calamari -- deep-fried pieces you'll be tempted to eat like popcorn.
What's impressive about the main courses is not so much the sheer number of choices (18, generally), but the inventiveness of some of the creations. There are lamb chops -- three meaty New Zealand rib chops, cooked to a precise medium-rare -- married to a plum sauce mixed with bonito flakes (which contribute subtle salty and smoky notes). Duck breast -- not a series of narrow slices but a whole 4-ounce breast -- holds up well to a spicy Szechwan hot-bean sauce. Black bean sauce -- the sweet kind -- gently coddles a lovely piece of monkfish. There's heat in the red-curry seafood, and in the Malaysian chile sauce that graces Thai white shrimp, but neither rises to the tongue-searing level. Fire-eaters will be happiest with the crab miso soup; everything else is pretty manageable.
There is one dessert. Vanilla ice cream. No big whoop. But the tomato-mango sorbet that tops the ice cream is very clever, bringing the meal to a sweet-tart conclusion.
Service is prompt and attentive, and likely Ruan herself will be taking care of you. On her second approach to our table one night, she asked, "Do you have any questions about the menu?"
"Nope," we said, truthfully.
"Good," she said. It probably didn't come out the way she intended -- no doubt she was complimenting our grasp of the menu's terms -- but it made me laugh anyway.
605 W. 31st St.; 312-949-1314
Open: Dinner Mon.-Sun.
Price: Five-course dinner $20
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Other: Wheelchair accessible
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