I was very excited to hear that Lao Sze Chuan, a revered Chicago restaurant owned by celebrity chef Tony Hu, was opening a location in Champaign. With the high number of international students and a community that champions our access to diverse cuisines, this move made a lot of sense for his brand. My husband and I are originally from the Chicagoland area and thought it would be fun to visit this restaurant with my parents when they came down for a visit.
The restaurant is located in one of the new Latitude mixed-use buildings on University Avenue. Parking was easy in a lot behind the building, but the only spots for diners are metered. (There is an app that you can use to pay for your spot, or you can pay by credit card.) Lao Sze Chuan utilizes the OpenTable app which makes it very easy to make a reservation. It was not very crowded on the night that I went because students were still on break, but the staff shared that it gets very crowded when students are on campus.
The menu is very extensive and includes traditional Szechuan dishes as well as more familiar Americanized Chinese dishes. There is a multitude of dim sum and appetizers; each looked delicious as they were brought to other tables. We tried some of the chef recommended dim sum. The first were Szechuan wontons ($7.95): There were eight pillowy wontons filled with pork and cabbage, sitting in a Szechuan pepper oil. The menu denoted “spicy” and our server also stated that they were hot, though all of my dinner companions felt that they were lacking in heat. We would have liked a bit more kick to balance the mild flavors of the delicious wonton.
My mom loves egg rolls and orders them every time we have Chinese food. Unfortunately, they did not currently have chicken egg rolls as listed on the menu, so my mom ordered Shanghai spring rolls ($3.45) filled with vegetables. The rolls were very crisp and fresh, filled with carrots and cabbage. They were served with a sweet duck sauce for dipping.
Our third appetizer was our favorite of any dish we ordered. The xiao long bao ($8.94), or soup dumplings, were the star. The dough was perfectly light but also held up to the hot, flavorful soup inside. The pork and scallion filling had so much flavor and was in perfect ratio to the dumpling and soup. They were served with vinegar for drizzling, once the dumpling is on the spoon. If you have never had soup dumplings, these are the ones to try. My family has had traditional Szechuan food all over Chicago and these were among the best we’ve had.
My favorite dish to order at a Chinese restaurant is wonton soup ($2.95), so I ordered a small bowl for everyone to try. There was only one wonton, but it was light and fluffy, floating delicately in the broth. The broth was quite flavorless and packed with bok choy. I would have preferred another wonton and fewer greens.
We ordered four entrées as so many things looked and sounded delicious, it was hard to narrow down our choices. First was pork fried rice ($10.95). The rice contained a combination of carrots, peas, egg, scallions, and slices of tender pork. Fried rice has a tendency to be heavy and greasy, but this was light and perfectly balanced. The vegetables were very fresh and crisp and the pork was perfectly cooked.
Next, we ordered orange beef tenderloin ($14.95) which was a “customer top 20” selection. The beef was sliced thin and fried, then tossed in a tangy orange sauce with orange rind. While it was a fried dish, it was also crisp and delicate without being greasy or heavy. The beef was succulent and tender and the sauce maintained a nice balance of tartness and sweetness. This dish was also denoted as spicy, and did offer a bit of heat, though not to the extent that were expecting. We were very happy with this choice.
The other two dishes that we ordered definitely packed the heat punch that we were seeking. The chef special dry chili chicken ($13.95) is one of Chef Tony Hu’s most revered dishes in Chicago. It is a variation of Chongquing chicken made with extremely hot dry roasted Szechuan chili peppers. White and dark meat chicken was diced into very small pieces, lightly breaded, fried, and served with the peppers. The dish was so hot that it numbed the inside of my mouth for about an hour after eating it. It was so delicious and so spicy — exactly what we were hoping for.
The last dish that we ordered was Szechuan traditional fish ($25.95) at the suggestion of our server. It was very traditionally prepared and served table-side in a large pan over a burner accompanied by lots of vegetables. The sauce was incredibly flavorful and spicy and our server shared that it was made with a combination of over twenty five ingredients including five spice and Szechuan peppers. The fish was fried and then placed in a pan with the sauce and many vegetables, including bok choy, cabbage, scallions, potato, broccoli, garlic, and chilis. The vegetables remained tender despite boiling in a multitude of sauce as it sat at our table, and were delicious to eat over white rice. The only drawback, in our opinion, was the type of fish used: tilapia. The tilapia was very lean and did not stand up to the heartiness of the sauce and vegetables. We felt that a meatier fish, like a snapper, would have provided a greater balance between all components. Otherwise, it was a wonderful dish that we were happy to have tried.
Overall, we very much enjoyed our time at Lao Sze Chuan and all agreed that we would return. It was evident that lots of love and care go into each dish, as well as an adherence to the traditional cooking of the Szechuan province of China. We have found that at many other restaurants in the area, the dishes are crafted with derivatives of the same two or three mother sauces, but at Lao Sze Chuan each dish was different from the next, which takes a lot of effort in the kitchen. Our whole dinner (seven dishes and a soup) was less than $100 before tax for four people, which was very reasonable for fresh and traditional food. The service was fast, friendly, attentive. We will definitely be back!
Lao Sze Chuan
608 E University Ave, Ste 105, Champaign
Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Friday & Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
All photos by Jessica Walker.