A Chinatown fixture has been revitalized with new ownership who’s brought back favorites such as Hong Kong cart noodles. For the last 24 years, diners have visited Ken Kee and ordered off a massive menu of favorites. The restaurant has occupied space at Chinatown Square since 1997. Over the years, the menu selections have dwindled as ownership grew closer to retirement.
Another restaurant owner, Kenny Yang, of Strings Ramen Shop — a mini-chain that started in Chinatown before expanding to Lakeview; Hyde Park; Madison, Wisconsin; Indiana, and New York — has fond memories of Ken Kee, meeting the owner when he was 15. He and his father developed a friendship with owners Ken and Wayne Liang. Yang remembers long lines of customers outside the restaurant waiting for fried smelt and other specialities.
“They opened with authentic Cantonese food and there’s so many foods that were exclusive to the restaurant,” Yang says.
When Yang opened Strings in 2015 in the same neighborhood, he says the Liangs helped his restaurant with vendors, and lent his new business support. But through the years, the aches and pains of getting older hindered how the Liangs could operate their restaurant and they consolidated Ken Kee’s menu, Yang says, dropping favorites like the aforementioned noodles. Other items were altered, like the won ton soup which fans rave about due to handmade wrappers and large shrimp. Yang is bringing all of that back.
The Liangs were pondering the future of the restaurant before the pandemic struck, and the uncertainty of COVID-19 presented an opportunity. Yang, who designed the space, turned the first floor into a noodle bar vibe into more of an open kitchen where customers can see their food prepared. It’s the type of ambience that’s common in Hong Kong, Yang says.
Yang’s undisputed star of the new menu is the cart noodles. He describes the food’s history through World War II when unlicensed vendors pushed carts filled with noodles and other toppings stuffed in drawers through the streets of Hong Kong. Yang raves about how customizable the dish is, with bases, toppings, and proteins.
In addition, workers replaced the windows on both floors opening up the space. While the city of Chicago has struggled in permitting outdoor dining programs to Chinatown, the new windows will increase air circulation, giving customers that breezy feel that creates safer spaces during the pandemic. The restaurant reopened in February. Yang says he’s heard a mixture of responses. Some immigrant communities notoriously deliver harsh critiques for restaurants that serve their cuisines in America. The usual commentary focuses on authenticity, including comparisons to how items were served at home. Yang has heard some of that, but he’s also heard complaints from regular customers suspicious of the remodel. They claim that prices were increased and portions slashed so pay for the work.
“We got a one star from Yelp,” Yang says. “Everything is so expensive, it’s half the size! But I measure — we use the scale to portion the food. We never minus a gram of it.”
Despite the challenges of pleasing every customer, Yang has confidence in his business and he’s got another project. He didn’t share too many details, but he’s got plans for another ramen shop in Fulton Market. Instead of pork- or chicken-based broth, the shop will focus on beef (gyukotsu). That’s something that’s seeing a surge in popularity, Yang says. Expect an update this summer.
Ken Kee Restaurant, 2129 S. China Place, (312) 326-2088; open noon to 10 p.m. daily.