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Chef Tony Hu at his elegant Chinatown destination Lao You Ju

South Side Style

by Lisa Shames | Men's Book Chicago magazine | November 9, 2012

You don’t have to go far in Chinatown before you stumble upon a Tony Hu restaurant: The acclaimed chef currently has seven in a half-mile radius. From his first, Lao Sze Chuan (still considered one of the best Chinese restaurants in the city 14 years after it opened), to his most recent, Lao Mala, Hu is a dominating presence in the South Side neighborhood.

This January Hu expands his domain to River North with the opening of Hubbard Street’s Lao 18 (18 W. Hubbard St.), an upscale restaurant that will feature a selection of top regional Chinese dishes, as well as dim sum for lunch. (Hu also opened another Lao Sze Chuan in Uptown in October and is working on a Michigan Avenue restaurant that specializes in Peking duck.)

Don’t let the location or fancy decor fool you, though—Hu has no plans to dumb down the authentic Chinese food he’s known for. “It’s my job and duty to show American people the real Chinese cuisine,” he says.

While, these days, dishes like his three chili chicken studded with tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and fiery mapo tofu with pork have earned cult status, that wasn’t always the case.

“When I opened Lao Sze Chuan people said I was crazy for offering authentic Szechuan cuisine,” says Hu, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of Sichuan in China before moving to Chicago in 1993. “They thought no one would like it.” But Hu was homesick for the spicy food he was raised on and refused to give up. “I thought if I [missed authentic Sze Chuan food], maybe other people did, too,” he says. Before opening in 1998, Hu told his small staff of servers, “You don’t have to be professionals, but you have to have heart.” For his cooks, he instructed them to simply follow his recipes. “I told them if they do their part, I’m sure we will have a good future,” he says.

That certainly came to pass. In the beginning Lao Sze Chuan attracted mostly Chinese patrons, but it didn’t take long for the rest of the city to catch on. Soon more restaurants followed, including Lao Beijing, Lao Shanghai, Lao You Ju, Lao Hunan and Lao Yunnan.

Running a restaurant empire is only a small part of what makes Hu tick, though. He spends much of his time volunteering on a number of boards, including serving as president of the Chinese American Association of Greater Chicago, as well as vice president of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. There’s a reason, after all, he’s known as the “Mayor of Chinatown.” “America is the most important developed country in the world and China is the most important developing one,” says Hu. “I’m sure if we work together peacefully, we could make the whole world a better place.” And tastier, too.