Henry Cai is really enjoying seeing his customers eat at salt and pepper chicken and char siu while seated at tables. The owner of chef of 3 Little Pigs, a virtual restaurant that popped up in 2020, has been a nomad, in-and-out of shared kitchens since.
“It’s really heartfelt to see the love,” Cai says, recalling customers who supported him at kitchens in Humboldt Park and beyond “But I still feel bad they’d be eating in the car or eating on the sidewalk.”
Cai jokes those eating habits would be in line with a city in China, but not in Chicago. Since early October, he’s been buzzing around the 30-seat dining area in the South Loop, shared with Molly’s Cupcakes and other businesses, and ask customers about their experience, the same way a restaurant manager at a full-service restaurant would. Cai, a Chicago native, remains searching for a permanent space where he could open a full-service restaurant, but he’s grateful to see customers eat in the space which they moved in earlier in October at 1150 S. Wabash Avenue.
There’s some low-hanging fruit in drawing a comparison to Kung Fu, a ‘70s TV about a beloved wandering martial arts master finding his way. Cai takes the time to leave personalized messages with sketches in black marker for customers on the brown paper bags filled with food. It’s these little touches that have endeared him to customers. And that’s on top of his Chinese American cooking with fried chicken sandwiches, barbecued ribs, pot stickers, and fried rice. It’s a riff on the Cantonese food that first arrived in America.
He’s vowed to add more vegetables to the menu. There’s a mango cucumber salad he’s testing out. He’s also going to add Mongolian beef to the menu for the first time. Other future plans include teaming-up with Piece Pizza in December. Piece owner Bill Jacobs says he’s tried Cai’s pie: “It’s really !@#%in’ good,” Jacobs says.
Cai is also working on a presence inside the Gangnam Market grocery store in West Town. The store is owned by his childhood friend, Kenny Yang, who also owns the Strings Ramen restaurants and Ken Ken in Chinatown. They’re still figuring out if that will be feasible, but Cai knows his pal is patient and there’s no rush.
While there’s no signage for 3 Little Pigs allowed outside, customers have found Cai. He hopes to add delivery. There might be some challenges with the kitchen moving from new place to new place, but Cai is trying to make it all work while pursuing his dream of a permanent home. He’s feels he’s found the right group of folks to work with: “I’m really, really deep into conversation.”
3 Little Pigs, 1150 S. Wabash Avenue, open 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends.