The pandemic gave rise to Instagram as an ordering platform for customers to connect with motivated cooks, bakers, and bartenders selling food and drink using direct messaging. It provided an opportunity, in the same way food trucks and food halls do, for entrepreneurs to establish brands and test out recipes without the expenses attached to running a traditional restaurant. Henry Cai used that method to build up a following for his Chinese restaurant, 3 Little Pigs, named for Cai’s signature fried rice that features three types of pork.
Cai launched 3 Little Pigs as a one-man show in early 2020 near UIC. His Cantonese and Chinese-American food was available sporadically, and customers would need to be quick on the trigger when an Instagram post went up announcing that orders were open.
But there’s good news for fans: Cai recently settled into a new commercial kitchen in Humboldt Park where he’ll be able to sell carryout six days a week. Instagram ordering will continue for now with a truncated menu until additional kitchen equipment arrives later this month. A wok station and a smoker will allow Cai to cook fried rice, barbecued meats, and other items, including pot stickers, Mongolian beef, and sweet and sour chicken.
“Everything I’ve done in the past is coming back,” Cai says.
Once the equipment arrives, look for 3 Little Pigs on Grubhub and DoorDash. Cai says he worries that if he immediately enables a third-party delivery service that new customers will pigeonhole his restaurant thinking it’s only a fast-food sandwich shop.
Opening day was Sunday, November 27, in Humboldt Park and Cai offered an abbreviated menu of a salt and pepper chicken sandwich, crab rangoon, and mango smoothies. His pickup orders sold out by 3:30 p.m.
His father, Qi Cai, worked at a variety of restaurants in Chinatown. The younger Cai says his father apprenticed in China for award-winning chefs. One specialized in dim sum and the other in Chinese smoked meats, which are different from American barbecue. Cai points out that proper Chinese barbecue involves hanging ribs and pork butts up for an extended period. One of the reasons he couldn’t offer those items right away in Humboldt Park was because he was waiting for the right smoker: “It’s not like I can go to Walmart and buy it,” Cai says.
Starting next week, the restaurant will slowly phase in items like pork belly skewers and lollipop chicken.
The added space will allow Cai to experiment, something that he enjoys. One of his all-time favorite preparations is salt and pepper, which is used in chicken, pork chops, and fish: “Everyone loves fried food whether you’re American, Chinese, or Indian.”
Cai applies the salt and pepper technique to his sandwich but adds another wrinkle: mayonnaise. Growing up in a Chinese household, he didn’t taste mayo until high school: “I went to public school, I tried this white sauce,” he remembers. “Man, this sauce is amazing.”
He soon habitually applied the sauce to a variety of items, including pizza. To his knowledge, walnut shrimp, a classic Chinese-American dish that’s popular in the Midwest, is the only Chinese dish that uses mayonnaise. I(t’s been adopted elsewhere: for instance, Stephanie Izard’s team at Duck Duck Goat in West Loop serves egg rolls and dumplings with a variety of aiolis.) Cai adapted his father’s walnut shrimp recipe and created a mayo-like glaze for the chicken and added a little heat. The sandwich also adds fried garlic and sliced jalapeños in between a brioche bun.
Three Little Pigs will remain in Humboldt Park for at least a year. Cai, a Chicago native who went to high school at Jones College Prep in the Loop, planned to expand his operations to a full-fledged restaurant with a dining room. He had a few real estate deals fall through before he signed a lease in Humboldt Park. The goal remains to open a restaurant with a dining room and Cai says he’ll resume his search for a new space early next year with plans to open in late 2022. Meanwhile, he’ll soon have some reinforcements. His father will join him in the kitchen, and so will his wife, Kaewalin Sukpornchaikul.
3 Little Pigs, 3220 W. Grand Avenue, open 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. or until sold out, Tuesday through Sunday; order via Instagram.