Restaurant review

Nine Bar in Chicago’s Chinatown

Opposite the Chinatown gate, next to the fire station on Cermak Road, is a converted family restaurant.

But only if you know what you’re looking for.

By day, there’s a small white-tiled take-out storefront. But when the pink sky fades into neon blue, a backdoor leads into a darker vibe.

Nine Bar opened as first craft cocktail bar in Chinatown. It’s not the only one now, as another followed a few weeks later in June. Not to mention the karaoke bar culture, which is something else entirely.

Lily Wang simply likes to describe Nine Bar as an Asian cocktail bar that hides behind the Moon Palace Express.

His parents owned former full-service family restaurant for almost 30 years, but the company even preceded them.

Wang altered the shape of the space with her partner Joe Briglio. The couple both worked as career bartenders. She was last at Estereo in Logan Square, and he at Blind Barber in the West Loop.

“This new iteration of the Moon Palace space is really an extension of what Lily’s parents started,” said Beverage Manager Briglio. “As well as a way to continue that tradition in a way that feels authentic to us.”

The most dramatic change could be found in the glass of a tropical cocktail.

“At Moon Palace, they had an old-fashioned bartender, with sour mix and pre-made juices,” said Wang, the general manager. “But a lot of people really liked my mother’s mai tai. I think it’s probably because she makes them really strong. Ours is a connection and a tribute to that.

The Nine Bar mai tai is defined by a brilliant orgeat syrup made from almond biscuits. The sweet syrup is traditionally made with almond nuts.

“We were a bit surprised that we hadn’t seen it before,” Briglio said. “But we just couldn’t find that anywhere.”

Their barley gives an unexpected creamy texture, creating a mai tai that sips like a delicate and delicious milkshake. It’s strong, obvious if you suffer from an alcohol puff reaction like me.

“There’s fresh lime juice, the homemade almond cookie orgeat, Apologue persimmon liqueur, a small measure of amaretto, and a blend of three rums,” Briglio said. It currently uses aged rums from Barbados and Guyana, with a Jamaican rum, but the offering changes weekly, so brands can too.

That’s not the case with the almond cookies, baked by Pilsen-based Golden Dragon.

While the mai tai pays homage to Wang’s mother, the mapo fries pay homage to his father.

“My dad’s mapo tofu is one of my favorite dishes,” Wang said. “And if I see loaded fries on a menu for me, that’s a no-brainer.”

Chilli-glazed pork sauce sprinkles a bed of crisply browned waffle fries, carefully topped with spicy togarashi mayonnaise, pickled red peppers and zesty green shallots.

Chef Elvis Mom oversees the food. Previously at Spinning J, he ran a Khmer pop-up at Humboldt Park’s bakery and soda fountain.

Nine Bar’s intentionally small and thoughtful food and drink menus are an impressive evolution from what started as a Lunar New Year pop-up by Wang and Briglio, which turned into a first pandemic project.

Nine Bar's crisp cauliflower is served with a candied green onion aioli dip.

Crispy tempura-fried cauliflower, drizzled with a Chinese-inspired orange sauce and served with a candied green onion aioli dip, happens to be vegan, gluten-free, and utterly irresistible. As well as crunchy smashed cucumbers, infused with chili oil vinaigrette and drizzled with gochugaru.

The chef’s dumplings pack pulsating heat in elegant wrappers. Mom translates tofu, glass noodles and julienned vegetables into a hidden message alluding to her deep talent with Southeast Asian flavors.

The matcha, lemongrass and ginger drink from the Nine Bar.

A non-alcoholic matcha, lemongrass and ginger drink underlines the plate with a nice intensity.

“We use the syrup for one of our cocktails, Mahjong Money,” Wang said. “We’re making a soda with this for the non-alcoholic version -“

“- which is really important for us to have this section on the menu -” Briglio added of the soft drinks. (Personal and professional partners often weave their way effortlessly into each other’s sentences.)

“- just for people who don’t drink alcohol,” Wang continued. “Being able to go out and not have to drink Coke or sparkling water.”

They make the syrup with honey, fresh lemongrass and ginger, she says.

“And we also incorporate some of the spent fruit that we use,” Wang said. “Like when we peel whole fruit for decoration, we keep it. The syrup reduces the waste a little.

“We leave it steep, with the pods and lemongrass, until the flavor is where we need it,” Briglio said. “And then we whip the matcha.”

It explains some of their overall depth and complexity.

The Crab Rangoons, however, were added to the menu by popular demand. They are by far the No. 1 seller and do the same as Moon Palace Express, which shares their kitchen space, but they change the sauce, Wang said.

“Elvis is actually from the East Coast, and growing up for him, crab Rangoons and most Chinese restaurant fried food was always served with duck sauce,” she said. “Actually, I didn’t know duck sauce before I met him.”

“It’s definitely a big nostalgic memory for him,” Briglio said.

Classic Chinese-American appetizers, folded into a triangle with a filling of cream cheese and imitation crabmeat, are fried until blistered and crackling.

Rangoon crab at Nine Bar.  They were added to the menu by popular demand.

Mom makes what they call New England duck gravy with apples, soy, ginger, garlic, and sambal. It’s great and it reminds us of the primacy of sauce in the culinary arts.

General Jones’ wings are also from the Moon Palace side, but they’re only available on Wednesdays and Thursdays until 8 p.m. The sweet and slightly spicy version of General Tso’s Chicken is named after Wang’s father. His Chinese name is Zhong Pei, but he long ago passed by Jones. The wings are well fried and well loved, but I wonder what a redesigned sauce might add to the dish.

Even with fan favorite McKatsu, which Wang made at home first, with panko-crusted pork, American cheese, pickled radishes and Bull-Dog sauce. In the realm of new Nine Bar offerings, it seems to beckon to another contrasting component.

This can be found in the Chicken Sandwich. The chef marinates a leg in ginger and lemongrass, grills the dark meat until smoky but tender, then serves it with a bright green papaya salad.

The chicken sandwich at Nine Bar.

While mum’s lovely burnt toast, with an extraordinary pumpkin spiced custard bun, is likely seasonal and subject to change, we can only hope her superb egg tarts ube, with dark purple custard in a feathery and flaky crust, will become a staple.

A drink that is going soon is Chu-Hai, with Iichiko Saiten shochu and Ming River baijiu, so subtly funky with wonderful undertones of melon.

“We will always have a high ball based in Calpico,” Wang said. “There will only be a few different ingredients.”

In the meantime, some things won’t change any time soon. You’ll still find his mother, perhaps checking IDs at the door early at night, and perhaps his father chatting with old friends on the bar side.

Jennifer and Jones Wang said it’s important for them to stick around for at least a year or so, so their past clients know they’re still the same family behind the business. Eventually, they hope to travel, if not retire.

Their daughter knows this is a time of transition.

“I love looking around the room on a busy night, and it’s really cool when there’s a group of hip young Asians from the neighborhood, but there’s also an older crowd who were regulars with my parents. “, she said. . “To see them enjoying mai tais and some of our dishes is really exciting for us.”

“If and when Lily’s parents back down further, it’s definitely on their terms,” ​​Briglio said. “Because the work they have done over the past 30 years has been immense.”

“And they are welcome whenever they want,” Wang said with a laugh. “Just knowing how my parents are, they’re going to be completely retired for a week and say to themselves, we have to go back to the front line now.”

[email protected]

216 W. Cermak Road

312-225-4081

ninebarchicago.com

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Open: Sunday and Wednesday 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Thursday to Saturday from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., closed Monday and Tuesday

Prices: drinks from $6 to $15; $8 crab Rangoons, 4 pieces; $9 ube egg tarts, 2 pieces; $10 dumplings, 6 pieces

Noise: Friendly conversation, can be tricky with a live DJ

Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible with a single level toilet

Note from the podium: Excellent to very good, 2½ stars

Classification key: Four stars, exceptional; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

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