Sunday, December 4, 2011

Cai: a new favorite for dim sum

If dim sum restaurants opened at 6:30AM, that's when I'd be there. As it is, I'm pleased that Cai and a few other places open at 8, when most other Chicago restaurateurs are still asleep (along with a more disturbing number of "modern" butchers, bakers and wholesale grocers). I mention that because the early hour affects the type of food I want to eat, and I think that's the type of food where Cai shines. While other places may serve more robustly seasoned, exciting preparations, nobody betters the technical execution and subtlety one wants out of early morning cuisine.

Papaya with custard cake, which I understand is called Ma Lai Go on some menus in reference to its Malaysian origin, emblemizes what I love about Cai. It's the lightest, spongiest of sponge cakes, with just a whiff of sweetness to let the rich egg flavor shine. The papaya is in almost too minuscule a proportion to even notice , so perhaps it's there just for color. No matter, I crave the pure custard aroma wafting from that piping hot bamboo steamer for days after I eat it.

BBQ pork turnover is a baked pastry that I've had at a number of places, MingHin most recently before Cai. None are even close to a match for Cai's perfect pastry execution, creating multiple layers of very flaky, delicious crust. The bbq pork filling is nothing special, and they could leave it out entirely as far as I'm concerned. Or swap it out for some almond paste to make the best damned almond croissant south of Logan Blvd.

I've ordered congee at much-loved dim sum places, and I never understand the appeal. Whatever the fixins, it always tastes like nothing - a massive bowl of mushy, unseasoned rice. More knowledgeable congee eaters than I suggest that the blandness is intentional, and that diners are supposed to season it to their own liking. They're probably right, but if so Cai's perhaps-inauthentic, well-seasoned congee that's cooked in flavorful stock instead of water is what my Gringo palate wants. In particular, the one made with homemade fish balls and greens is not to be missed.

I should disclose that I probably get special treatment at Cai. My family and I dine so early that we always have the entire massive restaurant to ourselves, and the staff adores and dotes over my curly blond 18-month-old little girl. Show up at 11:30 on Sunday to wait for a table with a crew of hungover hipsters, and the experience may be different.

2100 S Archer Ave Ste 2F
(312) 326-6888