Sure, first year, going to Chinatown is all fun and games, an exciting and exotic (albeit University imposed) diversion on a Saturday night; “Oooo, Taro root! The soup is IN the dumplings?! What wizardry is this?!” Second year, it’s more of a practical convenience; “I have $8 to my name and downtown is like in a different time zone.” By third year, it’s kind of like, “Fuck it. I don’t care. Food is food.” And fourth year… well I really hope it doesn’t have to come to that. So yeah, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m more jaded about the prospect of dining in Chinatown than all of the faux jade dragons for sale in all its dinky trinket shops combined. On second thought, that might not be saying much. The point is; how many possible times can you go for dim sum or hot pot or Lao-this and Lao-that without going all Oedipus and gouging your eyes out with a pair of chopsticks.
Yet my intention is not to bore you with a hateful diet-ribe, but rather to present a tasteful discourse, a degustation if you will, on Novelty. It’s what I absolutely crave in life, love and, above all, food. Up until I visited Lure Izakaya Pub, I was pretty sure Chinatown had forgotten the meaning of the word.
Surprises abound in this Far East corner of the Chinatown mall, away from Tony Hu’s restaurant empire and the glistening Peking duck window displays. Elderly Chinatown denizens peek in at you through the tinted windows, trying to make sense of this Japanese intruder in their midst. And themed costume nights, ranging from vampires to Lolita, probably don’t help to alleviate their apprehension. There’s neon lighting, a fish tank, and an awkward “DJ station” in the middle of the room that makes you wonder whose bar mitzvah you just walked in on. Thankfully, there are no used-panty vending machines in the bathroom. But the biggest surprise is also the best, and the reason you should come here time and time again. It’s the food; small, yet highly shareable plates of Japanese grub that will satisfy the fangirl in all of us.
The seared zuke salmon is about as straightforward as a raw piece of soy-marinated fish gets, and could have done without all of the random accoutrements in the bowl. Still it was pleasant and refreshing in the way that only sashimi can be. The seaweed salad wasn’t much of a departure from your standard preparation either, and any claims to it having wasabi fell on deaf tongues. Fortunately the Spicy Cat Rice Motoyaki was in many ways the embodiment of Lure’s fun, almost child-like, approach towards messing with Japanese flavors and ingredients. Though an unfortunate name for the dish, it was basically a deconstructed bowl of sushi… and I assure you the proteins of choice were tuna and rock shrimp. Little flecks of dehydrated seaweed really helped add a necessary crunch factor, and the spicy mayo, while about as standard as they come, bound the whole dish together into nice chopstick-sized chunks of yum.
But if the cat rice is restrained, the hot wings certainly aren’t. The waitress warned us that it was spicy, but the true meaning of this term was somehow lost in translation. Fried in a manner more akin to tempura than say, Harold’s, they puffed up like chicken lollipops and lay in a shallow pool of sauce straight from the Godzilla’s atomic blast. If you’re looking for that mouth-numbing, ma la sensation that brings the noise and the pain (and pleasure for a few sick, twisted individuals), these wings will satisfy your craving better than any mapo dofu or Chongqing hot pot in the area.
The prices, if not the spices, are where Lure shows restraint. An entire grilled squid, while easily at least $20 at any other restaurant in Chicago, was a mere $7 here. And while it came with the typical soy-scallion-ginger, aka “Asian”, sauce, it had a perfect al dente bite and a satisfying charred flavor that fills your mouth like a hamburger at a summer barbecue.
Full disclosure: I had a Groupon that entitled me to a seven course tasting menu for two at half price. Yet, even without the extra dishes, and at full price, this would have been a more than satisfying meal. Don’t get me wrong; Chinese food is amazing and complex, and Chinatown is still a food Mecca – especially cast against the dim prospects in Hyde Park. But Lure stands out in its ability to break the rules, the unwritten code of Chinatown, wherein even the “new” restaurants and shops are fundamentally old in their culinary approach. I guess what I’m trying to say is, my dinner at Lure was the best meal I’ve had in Chinatown… and it wasn’t Chinese.