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January 23, 2015

An Englewood Chinese food odyssey

I never anticipated the opportunity to dine in an establishment that, in several respects, resembles The Chum Bucket. For those who missed downing bowls of Kix cereal and sitting down to watch cartoons before the fourth-grade morning bell, I am referring to the eatery operated by Plankton, the commercial nemesis of Mr. Krabs of SpongeBob Squarepants lore. Yet I managed to stumble upon one when I went to Englewood for Chinese takeout.

I held two reasons for wanting to branch out from the cheap Chinese takeout scene in Hyde Park: dissatisfaction with the current selection of restaurants and a burning hatred of delivery services. 53rd Street, our commercial mecca, has never been served well by vendors of Chinese or imitation Chinese food—“imitation” in this case is not an insult; sometimes you need some fake beef and broccoli slathered in an unknown sauce to power through to 2 a.m. But the likes of fare from Nicky’s Chinese Food are not only not real; the restaurant also fails to keep it real, because even their phony food tastes terrible. Nicky is an atrocious host, and even moderately clever puns could not save the now-defunct Wok N Roll from their own mediocre spring rolls.

To expound on the point about delivery: Dragon Express is palatable, but I’ve never paid less than 18 percent of the subtotal in delivery charges and tip—definitely a no-go. Of course, simply going to Chinatown is an option that neatly avoids all of these issues, but that is no fun. Besides, the bus trip west on 63rd Street is a cool half the distance of the Red Line to Cermak. So, Englewood’s Chinese takeout haunt—according to the best intelligence Yelp could provide—fell into my sights rather neatly.

Long Tung Chinese Restaurant, at 6237 South Union Avenue, is nestled in a strip of restaurants that resemble a bizarro-universe Kimbark Plaza. Seriously—it has a fish and chicken place that isn’t Harold’s, and all of the restaurants are adjacent to a Walgreens. The eeriness is magnified inside the restaurant.  While it is clear that chefs and various other employees are scurrying around behind the counter, it is impossible to see what they are preparing or how they are doing it—the entire prep area is concealed from public view. We have to presume that they are not attempting McDonald’s tactics and pulling General Tso’s chicken out of heated drawers.

This air of mystery, combined with an intricate setup of stainless steel surfaces and walk-in freezers, which spontaneously hiss and pop, is the primary basis of the comparison to The Chum Bucket, which likely never had any customers for very similar reasons. However, Long Tung does not serve orange-brown sludge in Soviet-style metal buckets. Correctly, and unlike the Chum Bucket, it also makes no pretensions at fine dining. You order one of the 100-plus meal combinations, do not question the contents of the takeout bag, and eat it.

I went for a basic meal that clocked in at $17 after tax: an order of spare ribs, some chicken with broccoli, and the obligatory white rice. The ribs went down easy—fall-off-the-bone meat combined with a spicy BBQ sauce puting out a product that gives dedicated South Side barbecue joints a run for their money.

My experience with the chicken and broccoli was a bit more complex. As part of the metric for reviewing the main course, I consider it imperative to give an initial impression alongside tasting thoughts two days later. My reasoning is that cheap Chinese takeout is not something that is ordinarily consumed in one sitting; you eat some of it, put the rest in the fridge, and microwave the rest of it at about 3 a.m. on Saturday. To not attempt to replicate that experience would be criminal.

The initial tasting was concurrently off-putting and almost passable. Long Tung serves the dish with disc-shaped chicken slices served in a thick, goopy white sauce. This runs counter to every order of chicken with broccoli that I had ever previously consumed, characterized by chicken strips in a relatively thin brown sauce. This departure from convention was certainly unexpected, but not a deal-breaker. The UFO chicken was flavorful and the all-enveloping goop did not contribute any off flavors. Furthermore, the dish was far from loaded with MSG or salt, which is a definite plus in this market sector.

The real villain was a dark horse: the broccoli, which was wilted, soft, and overdone. An expectation with any Chinese restaurant is that the greens, unless intended otherwise, as would be the case with broccoli rabe, have a strong crunch—even if that means slightly underdone in other cuisines. I did not go there for a repeat of dining hall Brussels sprouts.

Two days later, the broccoli did not change consistency to suit my tastes, but the chicken and sauce certainly put up an interesting performance. Normally, the chicken fat coagulates in the fridge and makes a dish of chicken with broccoli thicker, at least until it is heated. But the Long Tung version again defied convention; the sauce actually became thinner with time, and fat failed to appear around the edges of the chicken slices. This chemical voodoo won a few points of my respect, but only in the “shock and awe” sense rather than in terms of culinary value.

In short, I learned the complicated way that a trip to Long Tung, while time- and cost-efficient, is not a substitute for a trip to Chinatown. And while white rice was included in my takeout bag, I refuse to comment further on it—the only place that could botch that is Nicky’s.

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