Dried chili fish filet at Lao Hunan

Studded with green onions and chilis, the fried sole at Lao Hunan is "about a six or seven" on the spice scale according to chef Tony Hu. (Kate Bernot/RedEye / May 27, 2014)

Worth a trip: Dry chili fish filet ($14.50) at Lao Hunan

2230 S. Wentworth Ave. 312-842-7888

People love to talk about cravings. "I'm soooo craving a mocha Frappuccino right now," we moan to our co-workers. Ten minutes later, we've been distracted by a phone call, and the sugary ice bomb is forgotten.

But the dry chili fish filet at Chinatown's Lao Hunan is the object of real cravings. Like, think-about-it-all-week, can't-shake-it-until-you-get-your-fix cravings.

I've long tried to decipher the dish's secret. On a menu that's hundreds of items long, the chili fish is memorable to Lao Hunan devotees for its perfect ratio of spice to salt to umami (the so-called "fifth flavor" that describes savory tastes).

Chef Tony Hu—who owns all of the Lao empire, which now includes Lao ShanghaiLao Beijing, Lao Ma La, coming-soon Lao Sze Chuan on Michigan Avenue and others—doesn't point to a magic ingredient. The dish begins with sole fillet, which is dredged in what Hu calls "super cornstarch," egg white and a probably unhealthy dose of salt. The coating perfectly adheres to the meat, which isn't always the case with fried fish. (Just try some sub-par fish 'n' chips to see the reverse.) Under another chef's hand, the sodium content of this dish could verge on inedible. But Hu counters the salt with green onions and a chili sauce that includes ginger, garlic and Chinese five spice, lending a heat that Hu puts at "a six or seven" out of ten on the spice scale.

If you enjoy the "burns so good" quality of Thai curries or Szechuan peppercorns, you'll find this heavenly. Before I've even set down my chopsticks, I can feel the chili oil tingle the sides of my mouth and my lips before spreading down through my neck in a warm wave. Yeah, it's that serious.

I have plenty of other favorites at Lao Hunan—shouts out to the jade tofu and the Beijing-style eggplant with plum sauce—but it's always the crispy fish that I save for last. I used to worry that my constant chili fish daydreaming would render the payoff less satisfying, that somehow the meal couldn't live up to my memories of it. A dozen trips later, I've put that fear to rest.

kbernot@tribune.com | @redeyeeatdrink