Ask anyone that knows me and they’ll tell you, I can subsist on a diet of Chinese food, pizza and buffalo wings. One particular week I survived on meals from five, yes FIVE, different Asian food restaurants. And I’ve eaten in twice in a day many times. Does that make me an expert? Hardly, but it does make me a sodium enriched book of knowledge about certain Asian foods and restaurants! Let’s clear a few things up before we go deeper here. We’ll lay some ground rules you might say. First, no one is arguing what’s authentic and what isn’t, because that’s dumb. Good food is good food even if it didn’t follow some puritanistic ritual before it hit the table or isn't how you'd find it made in a distant land. Second, If any counter argument includes the phrase “MSG’ or any similar wording...STOP. IMMEDIATELY. MSG is literally in at least one thing you eat everyday. This ridiculous stigma that somehow still exists about Asian Cuisine and MSG, seriously has to die a quick and painful death. That’s it, those are the ground rules. Now, let’s talk about how Lei’s Asian Bistro hand pulled their way right into my heart and my regular Chinese food rotation.
So what happens when you walk in to a small, local joint tucked in between some pretty serious chains and see a family hanging out at a table? What happens, is one of the best experiences of your culinary month courtesy of the family owned and operated Lei’s Asian Bistro. Nestled quietly in a strip mall off Polaris Parkway, Lei’s would be easy to miss. After all, the anchors of this particular strip: FirstWatch, and one of Chicago's legendary pizza joints, Giordano’s Pizza. No pressure right? Oh and I forgot to mention two doors down is Suisse Shop Bakery. This is food giant territory here! But Lei’s has a secret weapon, they do what they love and they know they do it extremely well!
I’d love to tell you my experience started with the steamed dumplings you see above, but there was an egg roll and a spring roll that never stood a chance to get photographed due to hunger. Egg roll - good. Spring roll- okay. Dumplings= somewhere in the middle. I can tell you that everything was extremely fresh. I just felt like the egg roll and spring roll fillings were cabbage heavy, and it overpowered the other flavors. But, that’s not why I’m here. I’ve learned through my obsession with this cultural cuisine, that there’s a certain subset of dishes I order to determine if and how good any new spot is. You’re talking to a guy who’s walked 15 city blocks in Chinatown (New York of course) to get Lo Mein from one spot, and another 8 to get dumplings to go with it. OBSESSED. So here goes: General Tso’s (for that American style mouth feel), Combination Fried Rice (can the place handle balancing the spicy request and maintain flavor, and are they using old rice for the best fried rice?) Any roast pork dish, in this case Szechuan Pork (to see how good the roast pork and veg is, as well as consistency of sauce) and my favorite wide rice noodle dish called Chow Fun, Ho Fun, or anything similar (have to ask for the noods, right?).
Good roast pork is a treat. And someday when I feel like mine is good enough, perhaps I'll share that recipe and celebrate. A long time ago, on Cleveland Ave. in Columbus, Ohio... there was a small family owned joint that served Garlic Pork with the roast pork. Life altering. I know pork isn't for everyone and I respect that, but roast pork is right up there with bacon for me. It's serious. So that's why it's on my list of 'test' dishes. Check out that photo above, that's straight raw, unedited, Sistine Chapel level beauty right there. When the dish came to the table and I saw those thinly sliced, red-edged morsels of angelic flavor power I was instantly excited. First bite impression, extremely tender and packed with those char siu (roast pork) smoky, sweet, savory notes that tell your brain eat more now. I could binge plates of Lei's roast pork with this Szechuan sauce and not think twice about my diet habits. Box checked, we're two for two and going into the money rounds.
Ho Fun, or Chow Fun depending on how it's titled, is a quick stir fried dish bursting with garlic and fresh ginger, scallions, a little soy and spices. Typically you can get it with chicken, beef, shrimp or any combination therein. Pro Tip #2: Try it how it comes the first time, so you can appreciate it, then come back and get it spicy and see how a little spicy puts this dish over the top.
This dish is amazing, and I highly recommend it, especially from Lei's. However, that's not what makes it magical. Most places use commercial rice noodles. There is zero wrong with that, their delicious and you can buy them in any Asian grocery store. I have some in the fridge right now. As good as they are though, fresh noods just hit different. So when I took a bite, I immediately asked my eating companion to finish her bite, grab a sip of water, and taste this Ho Fun with no context. We vibe about food, so she knew exactly what I was on when she took her first bite. These were not premade, store bought noods. They had to be fresh, and I was determined to find out. By this moment mom and dad who were also the chefs of Lei's had returned to a table nearby, helping their kids with homework and enjoying a deserved break. I mean I did just order a million things for two people (don't worry I always tip well when I do that, please make sure to take care of your food service workers). So I piped up and said, "Excuse me?!" and immediately mom/shop owner jumps up! I let her know there is no problem, but I needed more info about these noodles. I said they can't be premade, they taste too fresh and too fantastically silky to be such. She slyly smiled, and humbly said, "no, we make here fresh every morning. I make them." That was it, Lei's had me. I threw in the towel and proclaimed Lei's in my regular rotation. Any time someone is willing to make you fresh, hand pulled noodles, they are making you part of their family. I love certain people more than blood family and I still wouldn't make most of them fresh pasta. And here's this tiny spot in Columbus Ohio, in a land of food giants saying, "Nah, come get a plate of this awesomeness. We are going to treat you right."
I'd love to tell you, "if you're near Polaris check it out!" but the truth is, you need to make a trip and go try some of the amazing food at Lei's Asian Bistro. Hit the gallery for some photos and location information.
Adrian S. also known as Sulli, & Chef AD. I love all things food, and the best gift I ever got was a love of cooking... Thanks Mom!