At work one evening, I found myself in a conversation with a woman who used to live in my neighborhood, Albany Park. We started comparing and contrasting tales of restaurants. “Have you ever been to Great Sea?” she asked.
I knew the place she was talking about. A Chinese and Korean restaurant. Kind of divey looking from the outside, with its rough façade, its perpetually drawn blinds, and its yellow sign dangling over the sidewalk. I would never have given it a second thought if my co-worker hadn’t said what she said next:
“I have friends who drive in from the suburbs just to eat there.”
Well perhaps this is just the kind of hidden gem that locals swear by. And perhaps it’s time to assert myself as a local.
• • •
I am never in the mood for Chinese food. I’ve always thought of it as a cuisine you settle for. Other Asian cuisines? Bring them on. Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian – all wonderful.
But while I’ve had good Chinese, it is never my first choice. I may just unfairly associate it with gloppy fried rice shoveled into, then out of, a cardboard box.
As for Korean food, my one experience with it consisted of sitting with my friends in a high-backed booth, frying disappointingly stringy meat over a hot plate in the center of our table. (My friend explained that the secluded seating and obscured windows of Korean restaurants were due to the fact that the culture is very private about the act of eating.)
But I am willing to be seduced. A few weeks after that co-worker conversation, I consulted some online reviews of Great Sea. Some reviewers loved the place, and some were tepid. But all of them agreed: get the “Hot and Saucy Chicken Wings.” It was the one thing everyone recommended unabashedly.
I got an order for takeout. $13 was a lot more than I expected to pay, but I did get a giant brown paper bag filled with about 14 wings arranged in a big foil pie plate. And these weren’t the little switchblade-shaped wings you get at your brass-n-fern sports bar. Each was a single thin bone with a plump sphere of meat at the end.
Carrying them out of the restaurant, I could barely keep my hand on the bottom of the bag, they were so piping hot. I arrived home, grabbed a beer, and set to work navigating the hot and saucy packaging. Finally, I lifted a glistening lollipop of chicken to my lips.
Was it good chicken? I don’t know. But the sauce was fan-fucking-nificent.
I sucked in air and beer. I panted and grunted. I reached for more paper towels with my elbows because my fingers were coated with red, sticky, sinister sauce. It was tangy, hot, and thick with chunks of that dried red chili you find in a lot of Asian cooking.
I’m not a fan of eating bone-in chicken. It might be the biology; it might be the gristle; it might be the unease of not knowing if you’re biting into meat, bone, tendon, or some unidentified “other.” But I gamely maneuvered my front teeth around every morsel for the privilege of consuming some more of that sauce.
I took a break to wash my hands, and I gathered up some tissues to dab the (sorry) ropes of mucus away from my nose. Every orifice in my head was oozing. My face jettisoned unnecessary cargo like it was under attack.
I cried uncle and set aside the last seven wings for future lunches. There was a puddle of sauce left in the bottom of the pie plate. I scooped it up with a spoon and ate it. It may not have been the best use of my talents. My lower lip was in flames for some time after that.
While at the Great Sea counter, I had noticed that they sell this sauce by the jar. I made myself a promise to return.
• • •
And I did, within the week. This time I ordered cha chiang mein (noodles in black bean sauce) for now, and a jar of heaven for later.
The noodles were a bit of a letdown. The sauce had kind of a sickly, clingy, musty quality to it, and the dish as a whole didn’t do much beyond filling my stomach. But it served its purpose as a decoy purchase, like the Wall Street Journal you buy at the newsstand to draw attention away from the swimsuit issue.
A few days later, I popped the jar open. I took a sniff, and grew worried. At room temperature, the scent suggested none of the spicy ecstasy of my Hot and Saucy Chicken Wings. But I marinated some chicken breast in it anyway and stir-fried it with some bell pepper and some cashews.
I tasted it.
Oh, yes. There it was. The burn settled into my tongue once again, and I reached for the paper towels.
After dinner, I left my apartment for a few hours, and when I came back, the ambrosially acrid smell still hung menacingly in the air. I am going to enjoy emptying out this jar.
The Banquet of Life is a bi-weekly look at one man's life through the food he eats.