Though the name sounds the same, Ben Li is not the mop-headed Australian born musician that dated Claire Danes—that’s Ben Lee. On the other hand, chef Ben Li also rocks it out…Sichuan style in the kitchen at his spot Double Li in Chicago’s Chinatown.
Many of the restaurants in Chinatown are run by Chinese immigrants who are decent home cooks, but not formally trained. Even if they’re formally trained, they tend to serve up a lot of Cantonese-American style eats, like cloying sweet and sour chicken, almond boneless chicken, and that tiki-fave crab rangoon to appeal to American palates.
Ben Li, on the other hand is a culinary school trained chef from Chongquing. As a result, he understands nuance and balance. He undergirds his fiery chili-inflected dishes with the right amount of sweet, sour, salt and umami.
Double Li is one of those places where, despite the War and Peace-sized menu—a hallmark of most local Chinese restaurants—almost every single dish you order is spot on.
Dry Chili Chicken, aka Chicken Crack Part II (Chicken Crack Part I is available across the street at Lao Szechuan): The deep fried crust on this chicken, which is tossed with scallions, leek, and dry wok roasted chilis, is so crunchy that even if you pack it in a cardboard Chinese take-out container, stuff it in your fridge for a day and re-heat, the chicken is still crispy. The chilis in this dish impart an alternating cold and hot tingle along with a nice capsaicin high.
"Home-make Bacon": Despite the grammatically incorrect translation, everything about this house cured and hoisin-glazed pork belly wok tossed with verdant crunchy snow peas and wood ear mushrooms is so right. The hoisin sauce offers a smoky sweetness that I like better than typical American maple style bacon.
Black-Pepper Garlic Tenderloin: This is sort of an American-Sichuan fusion dish that makes a nod to Chicagoans insatiable lust for everything that moos. Li takes flank steak, marinates it in oyster sauce, batters it, twice-deep fries it, and then sautées butter and garlic and oyster sauce in a wok and presses the sauce into the battered tenderloin with the back of a silver wok spoon.
Address: 228 W Cermak Road, Chicago, IL 60616 (map)