Sunday, December 4, 2011

Cai: a new favorite for dim sum

If dim sum restaurants opened at 6:30AM, that's when I'd be there. As it is, I'm pleased that Cai and a few other places open at 8, when most other Chicago restaurateurs are still asleep (along with a more disturbing number of "modern" butchers, bakers and wholesale grocers). I mention that because the early hour affects the type of food I want to eat, and I think that's the type of food where Cai shines. While other places may serve more robustly seasoned, exciting preparations, nobody betters the technical execution and subtlety one wants out of early morning cuisine.

Papaya with custard cake, which I understand is called Ma Lai Go on some menus in reference to its Malaysian origin, emblemizes what I love about Cai. It's the lightest, spongiest of sponge cakes, with just a whiff of sweetness to let the rich egg flavor shine. The papaya is in almost too minuscule a proportion to even notice , so perhaps it's there just for color. No matter, I crave the pure custard aroma wafting from that piping hot bamboo steamer for days after I eat it.

BBQ pork turnover is a baked pastry that I've had at a number of places, MingHin most recently before Cai. None are even close to a match for Cai's perfect pastry execution, creating multiple layers of very flaky, delicious crust. The bbq pork filling is nothing special, and they could leave it out entirely as far as I'm concerned. Or swap it out for some almond paste to make the best damned almond croissant south of Logan Blvd.

I've ordered congee at much-loved dim sum places, and I never understand the appeal. Whatever the fixins, it always tastes like nothing - a massive bowl of mushy, unseasoned rice. More knowledgeable congee eaters than I suggest that the blandness is intentional, and that diners are supposed to season it to their own liking. They're probably right, but if so Cai's perhaps-inauthentic, well-seasoned congee that's cooked in flavorful stock instead of water is what my Gringo palate wants. In particular, the one made with homemade fish balls and greens is not to be missed.

I should disclose that I probably get special treatment at Cai. My family and I dine so early that we always have the entire massive restaurant to ourselves, and the staff adores and dotes over my curly blond 18-month-old little girl. Show up at 11:30 on Sunday to wait for a table with a crew of hungover hipsters, and the experience may be different.

2100 S Archer Ave Ste 2F
(312) 326-6888


  1. I'm still puzzled at the lukewarm reviews of Cai from other people. All the photos I've seen on the intertubes have been uniformly good to excellent, to the extent you can judge from a photo and judging on a Chicago dim sum scale. The rice crepes in particular look to be very nicely done.

    I haven't been yet to Cai, but the news (to me) that they're open at 8am may change that soon. Possibly the problems people have had may be related to Cai not handling the weekend lunch rush well (which would obviously be a fair knock on a dim sum place).

    I share the distaste for congee at dim sum. The appeal to me of congee is having a wide assortment of accompaniments, which isn't available at dim sum. The ma la gao looks good. I can't remember seeing it with papaya before.

    And if the croissant reference is to Boulangerie, I feel like they've been slipping a bit in the last few months, though I almost never get almond so can't comment on that.

  2. I am enjoying your new blog. Like you, I also enjoyed Cai and don't understand the mixed reviews. The ma lai go looks to be a newer addition to the menu. I look forward to returning the near future just to try it.

  3. kennyzfan - too bad about Boulangerie. It's probably been a few months since I last had a croissant there. That is indeed the place I was referencing. Baking is an especially hard thing to scale up. Hoosier Mama is an example of a place that has done it well, but certainly not without hiccups.

    ChristinaBakes - nice to add you to my less-than-massive readership. Cai has such a huge menu - maybe I've just been lucky and there are things that aren't particularly good. I order almost no meat dishes and very little fried stuff. The steamed and baked things have been universally terrific.

  4. Compared to what is readily available to us for dim sum, i.e. in Chicago, Cai has to be at the top of the list. Just about everything was very well done. The shrimp was of good quality. The rice crepe and the wrapper on the shrimp dumplings were very well done. (I would like the shrimp dumplings a little smaller, but that is to some extent a matter of personal preference.) The chicken's feet were well flavored. Turnip cake had good texture and flavor. Etc. Only so so item were the potstickers, which I don't really approve of at dim sum anyway, but it was an accommodation for my toddler.

    I really don't understand the lukewarm reviews of Cai now. I can agree that nothing was transcendent. But if I have to eat dim sum in Chicago, and I do, where else is better?

    For our first visit, we picked mainly standard items; I don't think any of them were clearly better than the best version I've had in Chicago, but they were all very well done and of an average overall quality (on the one visit) that was better than the other dim sum places. I can't really believe that anyone could have had the items we had and not enjoyed them. (It's not like identifying good dim sum requires that much discernment.)

    I'd really like the naysayers to explain what they didn't like, compared to other places. Much (although not all) of the negative reviews hasn't been very specific. I did see a criticism of the xiao long bao, but you can't really expect them to be good here, and they're also dreadful at Phoenix (the only other dim sum place I'm aware of that serves them).

    Service was good. We went at 3pm on a weekend (they said they serve dim sum until 4pm.) Even though many of the staff were sitting down for their meals, we were well taken care of and, critically, the items were freshly steamed (I was a little afraid we might get leftovers). The tea was a little better than average too.

  5. Since I'm off the tweeter, I'll say here that I thought the photo of the custard tart in Sula's review was just about as perfect as could be. And saw the subsequent twitting.

    In my view, custard tarts are a must get at dim sum, partly because of the likelihood of getting them freshly baked and warm. The time I went to Cai they were out of it so didn't get to try. Phoenix had a pretty good version of it at one time but the last couple times I've had it there have been so-so (crust was not properly layered).