Hutong Cafe (Oak Park, Ill.): A pan-Asian storefront dishes up fast, fresh fare from China and beyond

Oak Park's fast-casual Hutong Cafe showcases authentic Chinese fare along with dishes from other parts of Asia. Photo by Alex Janowski

I had all but given up on eating Chinese food in my hometown.  Because even if bad pizza is always okay, bad Chinese is always bad.

There were just too many times when I barely found a single shrimp to pluck out of the gloppy sauce it was drowning in.  I was tired of the frozen vegetable medley that ubiquitously appeared in each and every dish, and disgusted with freezer-burned egg rolls  fried in oil dating back to the Ming Dynasty.

And then Hutong Cafe arrived.

The eatery is owned by Beijing natives and siblings Diana Johnson and Simon Wang (not pictured). Johnson's husband, Bob (right), is also a partner in the business. Photo courtesy of oakpark.com

Beijing native Simon Wang recently opened the fast- casual eatery with his restaurateur sister, Diana Johnson, and her husband Bob (Sushi House).  And the group is serving up impressively good Chinese — and pan-Asian plates — out of their cute storefront café.

“We’re from China.  We’re Asian.  And those are not the right recipes,” says Wang of his competitors’ forgettable fare.

The menu is a conglomeration of old, authentic family recipes (Grandma’s tofu, Grandma’s spicy rice), and traditional Chinese favorites (egg rolls, orange chicken).  But it also features dishes introduced to Wang by the pan-Asian chefs and employees at Sushi House.  (Sushi House has locations throughout the western suburbs, including one in Oak Park.)

“They have a lot of good ideas, recipes and passion,” says Wang of the Sushi House chefs.

With no places for, say, their Singapore-style noodles or Thai green curry on Sushi House’s exclusively Japanese menu, Hutong became the place to showcase these tasty dishes.

The cafe focuses on "freshness"; all dishes are cooked to order and incorporate natural, fresh ingredients, Wang says. Photo courtesy of Hutong Cafe

Hutong is all about freshness, with all items cooked to order, Wang says.  He eschews canned and frozen foods, MSG and preservatives, and instead gets his fresh ingredients from small purveyors.

“Even our meat here never goes into the freezer.  Freshness is the key,” says Wang, who lived without a refrigerator or freezer in his childhood home.  “Everyone can taste the difference between vegetables from a can and food from the fresh market.”

Cost-cutting shortcuts are also frowned upon.  There’s no ketchup in the best-selling pad Thai, and popular orange chicken, for example, “uses the real stuff,” Wang says.

“We don’t put MSG or orange extract in our sauce, which a lot of commercial restaurants use.”

The café is also sensitive to guests’ food allergies and concerns.  To accommodate them, Hutong offers a number of vegetarian and vegan dishes, and is planning to add several gluten-free options.

In the interest of full disclosure, my eldest son, The Eating Machine, is a former Hutong Cafe employee.  And I truly believe much of his paycheck went back into meals at Hutong.  Since he’s eaten his way through the entire menu and back, I asked him to recommend some of his personal favorites among the appetizers, noodle and rice bowls, signature entrées and specials.

The menu is a mix of traditional and contemporary dishes, such as the fusion rolls appetizer that features vegetables and fresh mango rolled in rice paper. Photo courtesy of Hutong Cafe

First up are fusion rolls ($3), pretty rice-paper wrapped fresh vegetables with slices of ripe, fruity mango.  The appetizer comes with a not-too-sweet fresh coconut and peanut dipping sauce.

The Eating Machine and I both find the Singapore-style noodles scarfable.  Served with chicken or vegetables ($8) or shrimp ($9), this traditional stir-fried street food dish combines rice noodles with bean sprouts and bok choy.  And a fragrant golden curry sauce clings to it all.

Pork ramen broth ($9) also makes The Eating Machine’s list of “delicious things.”  Here, tender, defatted slices of tender pork belly join soft-boiled eggs, fish cakes, pickled bamboo shoots, seaweed and noodles floating in a traditional Japanese-style broth.

I’ll jump in here for a minute and give a shout-out — or make that a scream-out — to Hutong’s fresh basil and jalapeno chicken ($8), which, like all entrées, is accompanied by steamed white or brown rice.

The Eating Machine has sampled virtually the entire menu, and enthusiastically recommends almost everything on it. Photo by Alex Janowski

Since I am a heat junkie, rarely is a dish spicy enough for me, and I often find myself chasing the dragon trying to score that pleasure/pain burn.  But this gets me there — and fast.  I personally prefer it with a few more veggies thrown in — preferably mushrooms and broccoli.

The Eating Machine also suggests mildly spicy sautéed leeks and beef with crunchy bell peppers and cumin-mint sauce ($9), a recipe Wang picked up from a friend in Mongolia.  Mongolian food is commonly seasoned with cumin, and the sauce is infused with the aromatic spice.

The Husband generally orders green curry chicken ($8) with ginger, Thai basil and a mix of fresh vegetables.  Wang says he begged a native Thai Sushi House employee to share her tightly held family recipe after tasting her rich, creamy curry.  The secret is to use real coconut juice and slow-simmer the dish rather than using thickening agents such as cornstarch and water.

“People deserve a very good dish,” Wang says.  “I want to prepare every dish like it’s a person’s last meal.”

Hutong Cafe
1113 Lake Street 
Oak Park, Illinois  60301
708.383.9888
www.hutongcafe.com

Hutong Cafe on Urbanspoon

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