Chinese American food has become such a part of the culture of Chicago that we have not one, but two schools of Chicago-style egg rolls.
There are the old-school peanut butter egg rolls, handmade at chop suey restaurants, and new-school egg rolls, often filled with jerk chicken. The latter, created by Black-owned businesses on the South and West sides, transcend the city’s cultural, if not geographic, segregation.
Then there are the egg rolls by Henry Cai, chef and owner of 3 Little Pigs in Humboldt Park. I have yet to taste them though. That’s the nature of many new virtual restaurants that opened during the pandemic. Fan favorites come and go, but some still sell out more than two years in, evading even the most curious of critics.
Cai makes what he calls untraditionally authentic Chinese American food at 3 Little Pigs, one of a few restaurants doing so in Chicago. Chef Stephanie Izard describes Duck Duck Goat similarly as reasonably authentic Chinese food, but she offers her take on regional dishes, such as lovely xiaolongbao with duck and goat filling. Chef Jason Vincent taps into American Chinese nostalgia at Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar, but his menu leans more Chinese than American with fiery red mapo tofu.
A beautiful 3LP fried rice, plus a playful salt-and-pepper fried chicken sandwich, establish 3 Little Pigs as a serious destination for deeply personal and highly delicious dishes translated with the rare fluency of a Chinatown kid.
Cai originally launched his virtual venture on Instagram in February 2020. One year later, 3 Little Pigs was nominated for our Readers’ Choice Award for best virtual restaurant in March 2021. He found a home at Humboldt Park Eatery, a shared kitchen, in November .
His fried chicken sandwich alone shows a mastery of many worlds. A golden, crackling, delicately spiced crust holds a tender, juicy thigh that’s further gilded with a brilliant sauce inspired by honey walnut shrimp.
“I love jiu yim gai (salt and pepper chicken),” said Cai, born in Chicago and raised speaking Cantonese, with a South Side accent. The salt and pepper is not just salt and pepper, but the Chinese seasoning that’s traditionally fine salt, white pepper, warm five-spice powder and sometimes other ingredients. “So I put all the ingredients that go into a jiu yim gai into my sandwich. I use the fried garlic. I use the jalapenos. “
And then there’s his love for that exotic sauce, mayonnaise.
“My high school lunch wasn’t great,” said Cai, who went to Jones College Prep, after spending his elementary school years at St. Therese Chinese Catholic School. “Then I was like, man, what’s this white sauce? I just started putting it on everything. Fries, pizza. It was amazing. “
When he wanted a sauce for his salt-and-pepper chicken sandwich, it couldn’t just be his beloved mayo, so he checked his notes.
“I took the glaze from honey walnut shrimp,” Cai said. He spiced it up, but subtly. “And that became my sauce.”
He declined to disclose the ingredients, for the sauce or the remarkably crunchy crust, held in a soft brioche bun.
“It’s a special blend of flour and starches that my old man taught me,” Cai said. His father was a chef in China and Belgium, before Chinatown in Chicago. “I put extra stuff in there that’s not traditionally used.”
The salt-and-pepper fried chicken sandwich, served with a side of colorful shrimp chips, captures both the spirit of crispy-skinned chicken, served whole at multicourse banquet feasts, and street food in Hong Kong.
“My grandma lived in Hong Kong,” Cai said. “We used to go back every summer, and we stayed for like a month. I explored different types of food with my family, and I was like, ‘Wow, I love this place.’ “
That’s where the idea for 3 Little Pigs began, but not on the street.
“Maybe I was dreaming, but I think I went to McDonald’s there, and they were selling fried chicken and fried rice,” Cai said. “So I’m like, ‘Why can’t I bring back Chinese food and then put American influences in there? I’ll take a chicken sandwich, for example, and turn it Chinese, kind of a reverse of what McDonald’s and KFC did. “
What’s clear, however, is that McDonald’s in Hong Kong, or its so-called Global Menu in the West Loop, can only dream of making fried chicken nuggets like those barely contained within a 3 Little Pigs emperor box. You can order salt and pepper, or sweet and sour, or a combo, which is what I highly recommend, with warm sauce on the side, garnished with retro chunks of pineapple, peppers and onion. Fragrant steamed white rice, and a few broccoli florets, complete the supersized rice box, alongside 20 or so nuggets fit for your inner empress.
For a restaurant that started on Instagram, it’s surprising that so few photos have shown off the pretty pink hue of the 3LP fried rice, studded with Chinese barbecue char siu, lap cheong sausage and Spam. It’s beautifully balanced with silky eggs, plump peas and carrot cubes, all generously jam packed into a paper oyster pail takeout box.
The build-your-own lo mein bar offers many options, built on a base of cabbage and scallions, but you should always include the aromatic fried garlic to enhance the impeccably stir-fried noodles.
The crab Rangoon (folded triangularly, as they should be, not shattering Panda Express-style flowers) could use a bit more stuffing, but they’re terrifically crisp. The shrimp fried rice, as well as a custom creation from the build-your-own fried rice bar, were missing wok hei, the smoky breath of the wok that can be elusive. A mango smoothie with boba was shockingly missing the boba, potentially disastrous had it been a boba-craving moment, but was otherwise floral with a wonderful texture.
The barbecue pork rice box includes an egg sunny-side up on a bed of rice and a radiant red serving of the signature saucy char siu. In the barbecue world, there are two camps: fall off the bone or bite off the bone. The char siu falls in the first camp, though it’s pork butt, so there is no bone.
“Some people thought that I sous vide my pork,” Cai said. Sous vide is the method of vacuum bag, low-temperature, longtime water immersion cooking that can result in super tender meat. “We didn’t sous vide 80 or 90 years ago, and I’m not sous viding now. My ancestors would be rolling over in their graves if I did that. “
He sticks with traditional Chinese methodology by smoking, but in a custom-made smoker, starting with fattier pork butt, and ending with saucier char siu.
“My char siu is traditional, but I just triple the amount of sauce on top,” Cai said. “So it has that American barbecue kind of vibe to it.”
I don’t think his ancestors would mind sous vide, but I wondered if the tenderness was a result of the fattier cut and possibly a lower, longer smoke.
“I do smoke a little longer than traditional barbecue places,” Cai said. He also learned how to make Chinese barbecue from his father. “But don’t get me wrong. There are parts of the pork butt that are too lean for me, so we use the lean parts to make fried rice. The pork that’s in the fried rice is the same pork that we smoke the same day. “
That thoughtful attention to detail has taken 3 Little Pigs from cooking for friends, to friends of friends, to selling out of food to random strangers on Instagram, to what he hopes will be a bricks-and-mortar restaurant later this year.
“I wanted to take baby steps and just try things out,” Cai said. “But now here we are.”
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“It does suck though that I’m disappointing my parents,” he added. They wanted him to become a doctor, like so many Asian parents. “I just want to make them proud in a way that I think I can.”
Incidentally, Cai doesn’t like to be called a chef, because he didn’t go to school for the title. He is a chef. One whose work should make not only his parents proud, but the ancestors too.
3220 W. Grand Ave. (at Humboldt Park Eatery for pickup only, entrance at the white-painted storefront)
Open: Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 8:30 pm; barbecue available after 1:30 pm; closed Mondays
Prices: $ 5 (mango smoothie); $ 10.95 (salt and pepper fried chicken sandwich); $ 13.95 (3LP fried rice); $ 20.45 (salt-and-pepper and sweet-and-sour chicken combo emperor box)
Tribune rating: Very good