One of the city’s best Sichuan restaurants is opening a location in Wicker Park, a neighborhood not known for its Chinese options. Chengdu Impression will soon arrive at the corner of Milwaukee and Paulina, giving co-owner Ryan Hu a second restaurant. The original Chengdu Impression caused a splash in Lincoln Park, giving that area a choice other than the Mandarin and Cantonese fare that dominated the neighborhood for years.
The menu in Wicker Park will start out identical to the original, Hu says, but eventually they’ll phase in new dishes based on what’s currently popular in Chengdu, the capital city of the Chinese province of Sichuan, known for its spicy food. Hu foresees more street food-style options. The new restaurant also has room and proper ventilation for a grill which opens up the possibility to serve skewered meats. Though the style would be from a different region in China, the skewers would be similar to what customers can find at Gao’s Kabob Sports Grill in Chinatown.
“Last year, we wanted to try to get a location in West Town or on Milwaukee,” Hu says. “But there wasn’t much on the market at the time due to the pandemic.”
For the uninitiated, Chengdu Impression’s original location opened in 2013. The menu spans American favorites (Mongolian beef, cashew chicken) to dishes not as familiar outside Chinatown (stewed rabbit, rice jelly, hot wok frog). Of course, there are Sichuan standbys like mapo tofu and dry-chili chicken.
The Wicker Park location could open as early as next week, pending inspections. Hu happened on the space at 1300 N. Milwaukee Avenue, vacant since 2018 after Al’s Beef departed. At one point, the space was ticketed for a club from the owners of Celeste (Fadi Hindo, Nader Hindo and Rafid Hindo). There was even a hearing for a zoning change, but the pandemic wiped out those plans.
Chengdu Impression’s crews built out a new and larger kitchen, and there’s seating for 15 tables inside. Hu says there’s also plans for patio seating along Paulina with five or six more tables. He’s also planning on getting a liquor license to sell beer and wine, but not until the spring.
The pandemic has hurt restaurants across the board. Hu estimates that dine-in is down about 50 to 60 percent at the Lincoln Park restaurant — and that’s after an improvement that’s come in the last three or so weeks. Chengdu Impression’s investors used that knowledge in how they approached their new project. They opted to build a bigger kitchen to accommodate takeout orders. They’ve also taken the time to remodel the Lincoln Park restaurant to align with the design of the Wicker Park location, for branding purposes.
The pandemic also affected research and development, as travel restrictions prevented Hu from visiting China. Instead of having the ability to taste food himself, he’s relying on friends to tell him what the latest trends are. Hu says he’s seeing Chengu restaurants are opting for more of a Western-style presentation with some dishes. His restaurant won’t delve into that; instead they’ll lean more into nostalgia. Hu describes it as “big pot cooking style” with more broths, akin to street food. These special dishes should be rolled out about a month after opening.
Chengdu Impression’s owners did its research before deciding on Wicker Park. Mon Lung is a neighborhood staple for Chinese-American food in Noble Square. A little west, New China Station added Sichuan dishes a few years ago. Lao Peng You in West Town features dumplings from Central Asia. Wicker Park has had a void for Chinese food along Milwaukee Avenue since Papajin closed in 2015. Hu, who is the nephew of Chicago’s most famous Chinese restaurant owner — Tony Hu (Lao Sze Chuan) — saw an opportunity. Chengdu Impression will utilize major third-party delivery companies, but he advises customers to order through the restaurant’s website.
Stay tuned for a formal announcement for the opening date.
Chengdu Impression, 1300 N, Milwaukee Avenue, opening in mid-October.