American Chinese food has become such a part of Chicago culture that we have not one, but two schools of Chicago-style egg rolls.
There are old school peanut butter egg rolls, handcrafted at chop suey restaurants, and new school egg rolls, often filled with jerk chicken. The latter, established by black-owned businesses on the southern and western sides, transcends the city’s cultural, if not geographical, separation.
Then there are the egg rolls by Henry Cai, chef and owner of 3 Little Pigs Chi in Humboldt Park. I haven’t tasted them yet. This is the nature of many of the new virtual restaurants that have opened during the pandemic. Fan favorites come and go, but some are still selling over two years ago, dodging even the most curious of critics.
Kay makes what he calls funky, authentic Chinese-American food at 3 Little Pigs, one of the few restaurants to do so in Chicago. Chef Stephanie Izard similarly describes Duck Duck Goat as reasonably authentic Chinese food, but she also serves it up with regional dishes, such as the lovely xiaolongbao with duck and goat stuffing. Chef Jason Vincent taps into Chinese-American nostalgia at Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar, but his menu leans more toward Chinese than American with fiery red mapo tofu.
Lovely 3-quart fried rice, plus a salt and pepper-fried chicken sandwich, establishes 3 Little Pigs as a serious destination for extremely personal and delicious dishes translated with the rare fluency of a Chinatown kid.
Cai launched his virtual project on Instagram in February 2020. One year later, 3 Little Pigs were nominated for a Readers’ Choice Award for Best Virtual Restaurant in March 2021. He found a home in Humboldt Park Eatery, a communal kitchen, in November.
His fried chicken sandwich alone shows his mastery of many worlds. A golden crust, crackling, gently seasoned, carrying a tender thigh and gilded with a wonderful sauce inspired by honey shrimp and walnut.
“I love gyu yim jae (salt and pepper chicken),” said Kai, who was born in Chicago and grew up speaking Cantonese with a southern accent. Salt and pepper are not only salt and pepper, but Chinese condiment is traditionally fine salt, white pepper, warm five-spice powder, and sometimes other ingredients. “So I put all the ingredients that go into gyu yim jae into a sandwich. I use fried garlic. I use jalapeño.”
Then there’s his love for that weird sauce, mayonnaise.
“My high school lunch wasn’t great,” said Kai, who went to Jones College Prep, after spending his elementary years at St Therese Chinese Catholic School. “Then I said, ‘Man, what is this white sauce?’ I just started putting it on everything. Fries, pizza. It was awesome.”
When he wanted a sauce for a salt-and-pepper chicken sandwich, it couldn’t just be the beloved mayonnaise, so he checked his notes.
“I took the glaze from the honey walnut and shrimp,” Kay said. He seasoned it, but skillfully. “And this became my sauce.”
He declined to reveal the ingredients, for the sauce or the noticeably crunchy crust, preserved in a fluffy brioche bun.
“It’s a special blend of flour and starches that the old man taught me,” Kay said. His father was a chef in China and Belgium, before Chicago’s Chinatown. “I put extra stuff in there that isn’t traditionally used.”
Served with a side of colorful shrimp flakes, the Salt and Pepper Fried Chicken Sandwich embodies the spirit of crispy chicken and is fully served in the multi-course banquet, street food of Hong Kong.
“My grandmother lived in Hong Kong,” Kai said. “We used to come back every summer, and stayed for a month. I explored different types of food with my family, and I said, ‘Wow, I love this place.'”
This is where the idea for 3 Little Pigs started, but not on the street.
“Maybe I was dreaming, but I think I went to McDonald’s there, and they were selling fried chicken and fried rice,” Kay said. So I’m like, ‘Why can’t I bring back Chinese food and then put American influences there? I’ll take a chicken sandwich, for example, and turn it into a tray, sort of the opposite of what McDonald’s and KFC did.”
What is clear, however, is that Hong Kong’s McDonald’s, or the so-called world menu at West Loop, can only dream of making fried chicken nuggets like the ones just barely inside the box of 3 Little Bigs Emperor. You can order salt and pepper, sweet and sour, or combo, which I highly recommend, with a warm sauce on the side and garnished with chunks of pineapple, pepper and onion. Steamed fragrant white rice, and a few florets of broccoli, complement the huge rice box, along with 20 or so pieces to fit the Empress inside you.
For the restaurant that started on Instagram, surprisingly, very few photos showed off the beautiful pink color of the 3LP fried rice, studded with Chinese barbecue char siu and Lap Chong sausage and spam. It’s beautifully balanced with silky eggs, peas, and carrot cubes, all generously jammed in a paper oyster eating box.
Your build bar lo mein offers many options, built on a base of cabbage and green onions, but you should always include aromatic fried garlic to enhance the delicately fried noodles.
Crab Rangoon (folded triangularly, as it should, not smashing the Panda Express flowers) could use a bit more filling, but it’s wonderfully crisp. Shrimp Fried Rice, plus a custom creation of your DIY fried rice pad, Wok He has lost the smoky scent that can be elusive. The mango smoothie with boba was shockingly missing the boba, and it would have been disastrous had it been a boba craving moment, but it was floral with a great texture.
A sunny-side up roasted pork rice box includes a bed of rice and a radiant red take on the signature delicacy char siu. In the world of barbecue, there are two camps: fall off the bone or bite the bone. Char siu is in first camp, although it’s pork butt, so no bone.
“Some people thought I was drinking my pork,” Kay said. Sous vide is the method of vacuum bag cooking, low temperature, and immersion cooking in water that can result in extremely tender meat. “We didn’t do the video 80 or 90 years ago, and I’m not naive now. My grandparents would be rolling in their graves if I did.”
Sticks to the traditional Chinese methodology by smoking, but in a custom-made smoker, starting with the fattest pork butt, ending with char siu butt.
“Char siu is traditional, but I only triple the amount of sauce,” Kai said. “So it has a kind of American barbecue.”
I don’t think his ancestors would have mind that, but I wondered if the tenderness was due to the greasy cut and perhaps less and longer smoke.
“I smoke a little longer than at a traditional barbecue,” Kay said. He also learned how to make Chinese barbecue from his father. “But don’t get me wrong. There are parts of the pork butt that are too lean for me, so we use the lean parts to make the fried rice. The pork in the fried rice is the same as the pork we smoke on the same day.”
This meticulous attention to detail has taken 3 Little Pigs from cooking for friends, to friends of friends, to selling food to random strangers on Instagram, to what he hopes will be a brick-and-mortar restaurant later this year.
“I wanted to take small steps and try things out,” Kay said. “But now we are here.”
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“It’s abhorrent even though I’m disappointed with my father,” he added. They wanted him to become a doctor, like many Asian parents. “I just want to make them proud in a way that I think I can.”
By the way, Cai does not like to be called a chef, because he did not go to school for the title. He is the chef. A person whose work should be proud not only of his parents, but also of his ancestors.
3220 W. Grand Ave. (At Humboldt Park Eatery pick-up only, entrance is at the whitewashed storefront)
Opens: Tuesday to Sunday, from noon to 8:30 pm; Barbecue is available after 1:30pm; Closed on Mondays
the prices: $5 (mango juice); $10.95 (chicken sandwich sautéed with salt and pepper); $13.95 (3 liter fried rice); $20.45 (a box of Chicken Emperor Salt, Pepper, Lemon and Lime)
Tribune rating: very good