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)