3 Little Pigs Chi Cooks Superb Chinese-American Food To Satisfy Your Inner Empress – Chicago Tribune
Chinese-American cuisine is such a big part of Chicago culture that we have not one, but two schools of Chicago-style spring rolls.
There are the old-fashioned peanut butter egg rolls, handmade at chop suey restaurants, and the new-school egg rolls, often filled with jerk chicken. The latter, created by black-owned businesses on the south and west sides, transcend the cultural, if not geographic, segregation of the city.
Then there are spring rolls by Henry Cai, chef and owner of 3 Little Pigs Chi in Humboldt Park. I have yet to taste them. That’s the nature of many new virtual restaurants that have opened during the pandemic. Fan favorites come and go, but some still sell out for over two years, avoiding even the most nosy reviews.
Cai cooks what he calls non-traditionally authentic Chinese-American cuisine 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 cuisine, but offers her version of regional dishes, such as the lovely xiaolongbao stuffed with duck and goat cheese. Chef Jason Vincent taps into American Chinese nostalgia at Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar, but his menu leans more Chinese than American with fiery red mapo tofu.
A beautiful 3LP fried rice, plus a playful salt and pepper fried chicken sandwich, make 3 Little Pigs a serious destination for deeply personal and very delicious dishes translated with the rare ease of a Chinatown kid.
Cai originally launched his virtual business on Instagram in February 2020. A year later, 3 Little Pigs was nominated for our Readers’ Choice Award for Best Virtual Restaurant in March 2021. He found a home at Humboldt Park Eatery, a shared kitchen, in November. .
His fried chicken sandwich alone shows a mastery of many worlds. A golden, crackling, delicately spiced crust holds a tender, juicy leg that’s golden brown again with a brilliant, honey-nut shrimp-inspired sauce.
“I love jiu yim gai (salt and pepper chicken),” said Cai, who was born in Chicago and raised in Cantonese, with a southern accent. Salt and pepper is not just salt and pepper, but the Chinese seasoning which is traditionally fine salt, white pepper, hot five-spice powder, and sometimes other ingredients. “So I put all the ingredients that go into a jiu yim gai in my sandwich. I use the fried garlic. I use the jalapenos.
And then there is his love for that exotic sauce, mayonnaise.
“My high school lunch wasn’t great,” said Cai, who went to Jones College Prep after spending his elementary school years at St. Therese’s Chinese Catholic School. “Then I was like, man, what is this white sauce? I just started putting it on everything. Fries, pizza. It was amazing.”
When he wanted a sauce for his salt and pepper chicken sandwich, it couldn’t just be his beloved mayo, so he checked his notes.
“I took the Honey Walnut Shrimp Glaze,” Cai said. He spiced it up, but subtly. “And it became my sauce.”
He declined to divulge the ingredients, for the sauce or the remarkably crispy crust, held in a soft brioche bun.
“It’s a special mixture of flour and starches that my old man taught me,” Cai said. His father was a chef in China and Belgium, before Chinatown in Chicago. “I put some extra stuff in there that isn’t traditionally used.”
The salt and pepper fried chicken sandwich, served with a side of colorful shrimp chips, captures the spirit of both crispy-skinned chicken, served whole at multi-course banquets, and street food in Hong Kong.
“My grandmother lived in Hong Kong,” Cai said. “We used to go back every summer and we stayed for about a month. I explored different types of food with my family, and I was like, “Wow, I love this place.”
This is where the idea for 3 Little Pigs was born, 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,” Cai said. “So I’m like, ‘Why can’t I bring back some Chinese food and put some American influences on it? I’m going to take a chicken sandwich, for example, and turn it into Chinese, sort of the reverse of what McDonald’s and KFC did.
What is clear, however, is that McDonald’s in Hong Kong, or its so-called Global Menu in the West Loop, can only dream of making fried chicken nuggets like the ones barely contained in an emperor’s box. 3 Little Pigs. You can order salt and pepper, or sweet and sour, or a combo, which I highly recommend, with a hot sauce on the side, topped with retro chunks of pineapple, peppers, and onions. Fragrant steamed white rice and a few florets of broccoli complete the oversized rice box, alongside twenty nuggets worthy of your inner empress.
For a restaurant that started on Instagram, it’s surprising that so few photos showed the pretty pink hue of 3LP fried rice, sprinkled with Chinese barbecue char siu, lap cheong sausage and spam. It’s beautifully balanced with silken eggs, plump peas and diced carrots, all generously packaged in a paper oyster bucket to-go box.
The build-your-own lo mein bar has plenty of options, using cabbage and scallions, but you should always include the aromatic fried garlic to enhance the impeccably stir-fried noodles.
The Rangoon Crab (folded into a triangle, as it should be, without breaking the Panda Express-style flowers) could use a little more stuffing, but it’s terribly crispy. The shrimp fried rice, as well as a custom creation of the build-your-own fried rice bar, lacked wok hei, the smoky breath of the wok that can be elusive. A mango smoothie with boba surprisingly lacked the boba, potentially disastrous if it had been a boba craving moment, but was otherwise floral with a wonderful texture.
The BBQ Pork Rice Box includes a fried egg on a bed of rice and a bright red serving of char siu in signature sauce. In the barbecue world, there are two camps: falling off the bone or biting the bone. The char siu falls in the first camp, even if it is pork butt, so there are no bones.
“Some people thought I vacuum-packed my pork,” Cai said. Sous vide is the vacuum bag method of cooking by immersing in water at a low temperature and for a long time that can result in super tender meat. “We didn’t use sous vide 80 or 90 years ago, and I’m not sous vide now. My ancestors would turn in their graves if I did that.
He sticks to traditional Chinese smoking methodology, but in a bespoke smokehouse, starting with fattier pork butt and ending with more saucy char siu.
“My char siu is traditional, but I just triple the amount of sauce on it,” Cai said. “So it has that kind of American barbecue vibe.”
I don’t think its vacuum ancestors would care, but I wondered if the tenderness was a result of the fattier cut and possibly a lower, longer smoke.
“I smoke a little longer than traditional barbecues,” Cai said. He also learned how to make Chinese barbecue from his father. ” But do not get me wrong. There are parts of the pork butt that are too lean for me, so we use the lean parts to make fried rice. The pork that’s in the fried rice is the same pork that we smoke on the same day.
This keen attention to detail has led 3 Little Pigs to cooking for friends, friends of friends, selling food to random strangers on Instagram, what he hopes will be a brick-and-mortar restaurant. mortar later this year.
“I wanted to take baby steps and just try things out,” Cai said. “But now we are there.”
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“It still sucks that I disappoint my parents,” he added. They wanted him to become a doctor, like so many Asian parents. “I just want to make them proud in a way that I think I can.”
Incidentally, Cai doesn’t like being called a leader, since he didn’t go to school for the title. He is a cook. The one whose work should make not only his parents proud, but also his ancestors.
3220 W. Grand Ave. (at Humboldt Park Eatery for pickup only, entrance at the white painted storefront)
To open: Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 8:30 p.m.; BBQ available after 1:30 p.m.; closed on Mondays
Prices: $5 (mango smoothie); $10.95 (salt and pepper fried chicken sandwich); $13.95 (3LP fried rice); $20.45 (Salt & Pepper & Sweet & Sour Chicken Combo Emperor Box)
Note from the podium: Very well