Crab rangoon can be a polarizing menu item, but a new crop of chefs and diners are embracing the Chinese American staple in Chicago and beyond.
The fried wonton wrappers are normally filled with some ratio of cream cheese and imitation crab, then served with some variant of duck sauce. Its origins aren’t well defined, with the most accepted narrative being it was invented in the ‘40s or ‘50s in the kitchen of Trader Vic’s, the famous Polynesian and tiki bar chain that had a Chicago outpost until 2011 in Gold Coast. There’s not a ton written about the appetizer’s origins. Most scouring the Internet will be taken to a 2019 story in Atlas Obscura.
In 2022, crab Rangoon broke through to social media thanks to a series of TikTok posts made over the years by a Rangoon superfan. The item’s name is derived from a city in Myanmar. Yangon is the largest city in the South Asian country.
Though not a prime example of gourmet cooking, a handful of chefs are dressing the item up using premium ingredients. Some may not take the Rangoon seriously, but the item is enjoying a surge in popularity. And with Lunar New Year approaching (the Year of the Dragon starts on Saturday, February 10) here’s a trio of restaurants offering their unique takes.
Kevin Hickey reveres Chicago’s Chinatown and he grew up nearby in Bridgeport. For the last nine years, the chef and owner of the Duck Inn has celebrated Lunar New Year. It’s the only time they change how they prepare the restaurant’s signature duck, prepping it Beijing-style for the holiday. Hickey reasons that many of his customers are part of the Chinese community. Up until Saturday, February 10, the Duck Inn will offer lobster-filled Rangoon. They come with a pomegranate sweet & sour and optional chili crunch.
The Rangoon Royale served at Bixi Beer in Logan Square is like the Mercedes Benz of the Rangoon circuit. Chef and owner Bo Fowler gave in to her staff’s request for the item and created a souped-up version of the appetizer. Fowler, who was also the mastermind behind Owen & Engine, does not like to skimp on premium ingredients, sourcing from some of the Midwest’s best farmers. After much experimentation, uses a thicker wonton wrapper and fills it with lobster, crawfish, lump crab meat, and snow crab. Instead of cream cheese, she whips cream by hand for a mousse-like texture. She put the item on the menu and didn’t think customers would want a $20 order of fancy crab rangoon. She was wrong, and behind the burger, it’s Bixi’s No. 2-selling item: “I didn’t think they would sell at that price, but they sold like crazy,” she says.
Perfect with one of the beers brewed on the premises, the Rangoon Royale is a permanent menu item at Bixi.
Chef Henry Cai wanted an appetizer to complement the more American items on the menu of his Chinese American restaurant, something to pair with his burger and chicken sandwiches. He dipped into the nostalgia vault for memories of growing up in America with an immigrant family, seeing kids eat Tontino Pizza Rolls and Hot Pockets, and begging his parents to buy those products for him.
In January, he unveiled the Pizza Rangoon, a superior version of what he wanted in his youth. Unlike Hot Pockets, the crusts aren’t soggy. The wonton is a better vessel, Cai says, and he stuffs it with shredded mozzarella, white onions, tomato puree, pizza sauces, a dash of five spice, and then wraps the filling with a slice of mozzarella. The latter gives the Rangoon a cheese pull worthy of an old cartoon, Cai says. The exterior is coated with Italian season and Romano cheese. This is a permanent menu item at Cai’s new South Loop restaurant.