Hu's the boss
Just try stopping 'Mayor of Chinatown' Tony Hu from opening more restaurants
Restaurateur and chef Tony Hu came to the U.S. in 1993 and opened his own restaurant five years later. Hu now has nine restaurants and will open another this weekend. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
You heard it from Tony Hu himself, chieftain of Chinatown. Something's off in his bitter melon. A sane businessman wouldn't open seven restaurants within a half-square-mile area, yet here we are, an empire rising before us at Wentworth and Archer.
Tony Hu is crazy not because he has opened half a dozen Chinese restaurants since 2008 and invested in a seventh (Sweet Station), with four more in the works by the end of 2013. He's crazy because the man has no line separating ambition from temerity. For example, when I asked about his five-year goal, Hu replied, in a tone implying inevitability, that he plans on listing on the New York Stock Exchange.
How will Hu accomplish this? He's about to sign a lease on Michigan Avenue for a restaurant specializing in Peking duck in the grand tradition of Beijing's Da Dong and Quanjude. There, he plans on acquiring a Michelin star or three. And when that takes off, he'll partner with a restaurant group in China and open locations in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. And then you'll see him on CNBC, ringing the opening bell on Wall Street.
Just when you want to pat Hu on the shoulder and assure him, "Very good, Tony, you keep chasing that dream," you realize: Hu has proven naysayers wrong thus far. Every restaurant with Hu's name attached has remained opened. (Palatine's Szechuan House, in which Hu had a small ownership stake, closed in 2006. Plus, he sold Lao Sze Chuan Express in University Village in 2004. "It was too close to the Chinatown original," Hu said.)
His flagship Lao Sze Chuan, 14 years after it opened, is the best known Chinese restaurant in Chicago. Even with a dozen dining options steps away, on a Saturday night people wait at the southwest entrance of Chinatown Square for an hour to dine here. Among high-end Chicago chefs there is plenty of cachet: Ask for their favorite places to eat on a night off and Lao Sze Chuan will be on many shortlists. In the circle of Chicago restaurant ownership, Tony Hu is the Chinese Rich Melman, or rather, Rich Melman is the white Tony Hu.
So if this raspy-voiced 44-year-old man is indeed crazy, are we crazier for underestimating him?
Raising Chinese food's profile
He came to America in 1993, took morning English classes and arrived just in time for his 10:30 a.m. shift at Szechuan House, on Michigan Avenue. He spent five years between there and its offshoot, Szechuan East, on Ohio Street. All the while he felt homesick. He found much of the heavily-sauced food he cooked unappealing.
Hu rectified this in 1998 with Lao Sze Chuan. Sichuanese food appeared on Chicago menus before, yes, but few had the verve for uncompromising spiciness that Lao Sze Chuan showcased. Hot dishes didn't just receive the graphical chili pepper asterisk; they got top billing on the menu: spicy options and, below that, nonspicy options. And alongside broccoli beef and cashew chicken, there were sour pickled pork intestines and boiled frog in red chili oil, not exactly "takeout Chinese."
Said Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel: "In the early days, Chinese regional labels were used exclusively as spice-level adjectives: 'Cantonese' meant safe, 'Mandarin' slightly spicy and 'Szechwan' spiciest of all. Regional authenticity was an afterthought at best."
Whereas many Chicago Chinese restaurants heretofore catered to Americans, Lao Sze Chuan aimed for a mainland Chinese palate. (Proof? For the first few years, it never bothered changing the signage from previous ownership — Mandarin Chef — only adding the Chinese characters for Lao Sze Chuan under its English name.) Hu said his ideal demographic, then and now, remains young Chinese students with disposable incomes and a hankering for food from the motherland.
The first 10 years saw three Lao Sze Chuans. Beginning in 2008, the floodgates opened: Both Lao Shanghai and Lao Beijing on New Year's Day, the small-plates Lao You Ju in 2010, Lao Hunan in 2011, and three restaurants so far this year: Lao Yunnan, Lao Mala and Lao Sze Chuan in Uptown (opening Friday).
Tony Hu treats the neighborhood as a Monopoly game board, scooping up property whenever his turn comes around. Three weeks ago, he opened Lao Mala — Hu's foray into spicy street foods and hot pots — in the old space of Lure izakaya. (He was in talks to take over the shuttered Tao Ran Ju space and open Lao Taiwan, but negotiations fell through.)
"You don't want to go to a neighborhood with 'for lease' signs everywhere," Hu said, sliding a grilled chicken gizzard off a skewer. We dined at Lao Mala on day two of business. "It's a bad image. I don't want to see empty spots in Chinatown."
Hu contended his ultimate goal is exposing Chinese culture to the world. It's why Hu claimed he doesn't deal with outside investors, because "investors just want to make money. They don't understand my vision." All 10 current restaurants (seven in Chinatown, one each in Downers Grove, Uptown and Connecticut) are owned solely by Hu or with a local business partner.
"There's no doubt that from the time he started Lao Sze Chuan that his fleet of restaurants have played a major role in bringing in nonresidents of Chinatown to visit Chinatown," said Tony Shu, president of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce (Hu is its vice president). "He's part of that new school of (Chinatown) restaurants. He has the vision of seeing that decor and ambience has a lot to do with culinary success. And I think his personality has a big role in it. He's a very good promoter and sales person."
In promoting a non-Americanized style of Chinese cooking, Hu believes one of the world's great injustices is that the Chinese, with a 6,000-year head start, isn't regarded in the same gastronomic standing as the French. He lists a number of factors, but chief among them: poor marketing and an assumption from immigrant restaurant owners that Americans would reject their version of Chinese food. To turn around a perpetuated belief is like reversing a river's flow. And so Hu takes a region, mines its recipes and presents it under the Lao banner.
I asked a few trusted names to offer their theories. The most satisfying answer came from fellow Chinese-Chicagoan chef Jackie Shen:
"You had (Auguste) Escoffier, who promoted French cooking in Europe and America. We lack a figurehead from China. We really don't have someone to promote (classic) Chinese cuisine. Ken Hom is great at Chinese-Asian fusion with European cuisine. Martin Yan is a good figurehead of Chinese home cooking. But they're not the classic figurehead like Escoffier was with French cuisine in the early 1900s. We need one from China. We definitely will get that one person."
In 1989, the man born Hu Xiao Jun graduated from the Sichuan Culinary Institute in Chengdu. He became head chef at a hotel restaurant, taught cooking classes at a local school, traded stocks on the side, got married and had a daughter. Life was steady and comfortable.
But America was a mountain to conquer. He would study the ways of the American ideal and after a year bring it back to China. One year became two, then three. It took four years for Hu to receive his green card. By then, he and his wife grew apart.
"I regret coming to America. It's my true thought," Hu said. "I love America a lot. But I had a very good family in China. I came to America, and our family separated. They say I'm successful in business, but I feel that I'm a failure. I lost my family. We had a very traditional family in China. I feel very guilty."
Around 1997, a restaurant owner friend named Tony Chan told Hu he should take his hurt and focus on his legacy instead. Chan told him America had the best schools. Bring his daughter here. It doesn't matter about the number in your bank account, Chan told him. If the people you care about are happy and healthy, that's all you need.
Hu Xiao Jun, so inspired by his mentor, took on Chan's name in tribute and became known as Tony Hu. His 20-year-old daughter is now a student at the University of Chicago.
"That's my proudest achievement."
But still: "I want to find a woman, fall in love and name a restaurant after her. I'm a total romantic."
What Hu can't make up for his immediate family, he directs his efforts at building his Chinatown family. Walking past his restaurant windows, you realize Hu has never met a camera he didn't like. But those posed photographs with Yao Ming and Bill Clinton and press clippings are as much about community validation as self-aggrandizement, that Chinatown is no longer an insular ethnic ghetto. It's open for business.
Eighty percent of his day is spent networking, hobnobbing with civic groups and business leaders. Ask about all the boards and committees he serves on and Hu will email you his resume: president of the Chinese-American Association of Greater Chicago, Chinatown Special Events Committee, board of trustees at Roosevelt University, so on, so forth. Last year, Hu was appointed to the city's Commission on Chicago Landmarks.
By surrounding himself with influencers who will bend an ear, whenever Chicago and China appear together in a sentence now, there's a good chance Tony Hu's name is involved. He accompanied Mayor Richard Daley during his 2011 trip to China and helped organize Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Chicago the same year.
"Tony Hu has earned the nickname 'Mayor of Chinatown' for a reason," said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. "He has blended his passion for great dining with a steadfast commitment to his community. Of all his accomplishments in the kitchen, that is the unique recipe that has made Tony a valued leader in our city."
Hu and I sat at his original Lao Sze Chuan. A fire in 2010 closed the restaurant for five weeks; the remodeled space features giant pictures of pandas staring down at customers. The staff brought out a new dish he called Boiled Seafood Combination Sichuan Style. It's got pieces of fish, baby octopus and scallops submerged in a deep bowl of chili oil. Hu wiped his forehead with napkins repeatedly.
I told him if there's one complaint to lodge about Hu's restaurants, it's consistency of service. I've dined at every one of his places, sometimes two in a night. The wait staff can be overly attentive at one and ignore you completely at the other. Dishes come out hot and fast in the order they're cooked, which can lead to illogical sequencing: Side dishes appear before entrees, say. Menu descriptions are also vague, and the language barrier (almost all servers are Chinese immigrants) means some are more apt at articulating the dishes' contents than others. Hu agrees with the assessment but says there's a different expectation in Chinatown.
"People here come to Chinatown and pay attention to the food," he said. "In River North, we'll have to pay attention to the food and service."
River North refers to Lao 18, the upscale offshoot Hu plans to open at 18 W. Hubbard St. in December. Adapting to service standards of Western restaurants will be a challenge. It's one reason why Hu has placed his hopes in his 24-year-old nephew, Ryan Hu, to carry on the family name.
Ryan Hu began as a busboy in 2005 while still in high school. He recently graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago and now manages and co-owns Lao Mala, Hunan and Yunnan. Ryan Hu's a natural English speaker, a finance major, and might be the bridge his uncle needs to break out from their niche ethnic restaurant image.
"When I started at Lao Sze Chuan, we were criticized, even from the Chinese community. Our servers didn't have passion. They said hello, they take your order, and they go. Now, it's not perfect, but compared to before, our service has changed a lot," said Ryan Hu. "You walk into a French restaurant, and the whole process compared to a Chinese restaurant is a huge difference. We want to enrich that side and learn their way of the serving process. To interact with customers, let them know what the food is, where it comes from."
Tomorrow, the world
Behind our table at Lao Sze Chuan sat a non-Chinese customer, a white gentleman who lunched by himself, reading the newspaper. He told Tony Hu he's been coming here twice a week for as long as he could remember. He has tried every dish on the several-hundred-plus menu and puts his faith in ordering a dish he has never tried.
After the customer paid, Hu sounded like a proud teacher whose students aced the test.
"I want to make people realize real Chinese cuisine is so wonderful," Hu said, drawing out the word "real." "When this customer you just met said he tries everything, I was very happy and very proud. This kind of moment, I call a million-dollar moment. I think Chinese cuisine is like Sleeping Beauty; it's starting to wake up. In the future, we'll conquer the whole world. That's my dream."