In November, brothers Daniel and Eric Wat opened a Chinese dumpling restaurant inside a modest West Town storefront along Chicago Avenue. Lao Peng You’s hand-rolled dumplings are a labor of love passed down from their grandmother. The restaurant has steadily kept busy as the Wats carefully manage supply-and-demand expectations.
These dumplings aren’t steamed dim sum or broth-filled xiao long bao. The Wats serve the dumplings in a hot and sour broth made with aged dark soy, vinegar, and chili oil. The soupy manner in which they’re served is called suan tang shui jiao and originated from Xi’an in Central Asia, according to the Wats. Xi’an Dynasty Cuisine, a Chinese restaurant that opened in 2019 in Lincoln Park, might be the only other restaurant in the city that serves them, the Wats said.
Lao Peng You’s menu doesn’t concentrate on a specific Chinese region or style. It’s inspired by family pot luck memories.
The wrappers are made from wheat and flour, which ownership offers with seven different fillings: beef and green onion; beef and cilantro; pork and cabbage; pork and chive; egg, mushroom, and chive; and egg, zucchini, and carrot.
The Wats are children of immigrants who grew up in Chicago’s Western Suburbs. Their father arrived from Hong Kong and petitioned for his parents and six siblings to join him in America. About once a month, they would gather in the Wats’s grandparents’s cramped apartment in suburban Westmont. Family members would take turns rolling and folding dumplings around the table. The Wat brothers cherish these family memories.
The Wats’s grandmother grew up west of Shanghai and nainai “wasn’t exactly candid with her culinary secrets.” Eric Wat spent years trying to figure out his grandmother’s dumpling recipe. He’s tested many different flours for the dumplings, noodles, and bing. They still head to Chinatown daily to shop for ingredients.
As the brothers grew older, they felt a stronger need to share their family tradition with friends: “Of course the dumplings are delicious, but the friendships fortified by this communal tradition is what makes them special,” Daniel Wat said. Lao peng you translates to “old friend.”
The Wats are Chicago restaurant veterans. Combined, they’ve spent more than 20 years in the industry. They moved from the suburbs in 2008, but their focus was on music. After accumulating the needed experience, knowledge, pride, and confidence, they were ready to open their own restaurant. Daniel Wat focuses on the management and hospitality aspects, while Eric Wat concentrates on the kitchen.
Lao Peng You also serves noodles and stellar lamb-cumin bread. Don’t sleep on the latter, even though the restaurant’s focus is dumplings. The restaurant doesn’t serve Chinese-American fare, which may be a shock for some expecting classic dishes like fried rice and General Tso’s chicken.
“We created this menu to honor our family traditions,” the Wat brothers wrote. “We do it for ourselves, our family, friends and our ‘new friends.’ We are confident any audience can appreciate it.”