Once a week, when I was a kid, we would drive up to Glencoe, where my family would join my aunt and uncle, my cousins, and my grandparents for dinner. We ate at the big table with all the leaves in the dining room, and there was always plenty of food.
Every so often, my uncle would get a hankering for Chinese, and he would order enough for 50 people. My aunt would pull out a heating tray that kept all the containers warm, and everybody ate a ton of food. Everyone except me. I pouted and whined, and forced down the mouth-achingly sweet chunks of pineapple from the sweet-and-sour chicken. Eventually, I would also eat the fried chicken pieces, and eventually graduated to eggrolls.
It's been years since I ate sweet-and -sour anything, but now, I eat Chinese food at least once a week. One of my favorite places is Wicker Park's Papajin, and may be familiar to you, even if you've never been. That's because Papajin is the sister restaurant to Mars, located on Broadway just south of Belmont.
While the menus to the two restaurants used to be identical, Papajin recently underwent a facelift that included an updating to its menu. Now, not only can diners choose from the typical assortment of Hunan and Schezuan dishes, but they can also order Japanese and Asian noodle dishes.
Papajin's previous elegant room of grays and blacks has now been given a splash of color with a bright red back wall, and yellow lights over what used to be the unused bar. Now, it is a purple neon lined sushi bar, that sees a lot of activity, especially on the weekends.
The choices aren't much beyond the standard sushi fare (Yellowtail, Smoked Salmon, broiled Fresh Water Eel, Red Snapper, Octopus), but the preparation is fast and the ingredients are fresh. Diners can also choose a Vegetable Roll, which includes several ingredients. Sushi rolls begin at $2.95 and top out at $4.50. Other Japanese options include Edamame, Sunomono Seafood Salad, Teriyaki, and a lightly battered Tempura.
Appetizers include Crab rangoon, Scallion Pancakes, Barbecued Spareribs, Shrimp Toast, and traditional Eggrolls, that stand out from many others, by keeping the inner shredded veggies crisp, while the potstickers offer meaty, juicy filling in a not too thick noodle wrapper. For a lighter choice, try the steamed vegetable dumplings, filled with a mushroom, tofu stuffing that is surprisingly flavorful and slightly sweet. Less familiar appetizers include Aged Tofu, an Oyster Shooter, and Sesame Tuna Dip. You might also choose to start with a light, crisp, and fresh Cucumber Salad or healthy Miso Soup and a generous portion of Goma-ae.
Entrees fall into the usual categories.
Those who aren't watching their weight might want to order the Sesame Chicken, or as my friend aptly calls it, Red Chicken, because, well, it's red. Lightly fried chunks of chicken are quickly fried up in a sweet-and-spicy red glaze, and served over crispy rice noodles. This is similar to a General Tsao's Chicken, but with an extra tang. Standard Chinese food choices include a straightforward Beef with Broccoli in a rich sauce, Kung Bo with your choice of meat, and Mu Shu, made at the table and filled with crunchy, crisp veggies. One of our favorite pork dishes is a simple Pork with Green Beans. Strips of thin pork are sauteed with quck fried fresh beans and flavored with a hot plum sauce. Fans of especially flavorful sauces should try this, and combine it with an order of Orange Chicken or Orange Beef. Papajin's version marinates fairly large slices of meat, stir-fried with orange peel, and sauteed with hot peppers. The meat is glazed with a hot orange sauce and surrounded by fresh steamed broccoli.
Veggie lovers can get versions of these meat-free, by ordering Stir Fried Green Beans or Szechuan Broccoli (not on the menu, but prepared upon request), still crispy in a garlicky sauce. Family Bean Curd uses fresh tofu, fries it, and then mixes it with an assortment of fresh veggies in a spicy brown sauce. And, if garlic is your thing, order up the Garlic Sauce Platter, with your choice of meat, and you'll be brushing your teeth all night to try to get rid of the garlic flavor. Water chestnuts, diced green peppers, sliced carrots, and stir-fried meat from beef to chicken to shrimp are covered in a spicy garlic sauce. The newer noodle dishes include U-don noodles in a flavorful broth, Chow Fun rice noodles, with a choice of meat or vegetables, and Fried Soft Noodles, again with a choice of meat or veggies. Portions are plentiful, and the attentive servers and conscientious bussers keep the water, tea, and limitless rice coming. Fortune cookies are all you'll need to go with your doggie bag, but those with a sweet tooth can opt for a dense and rich flourless chocolate cake.
Appetizers are reasonably priced from $3.25-$8.50 for shrimp choices. Entrees range in price from $7.50 for vegetarian noodle dishes up to $12.25 for some of the seafood options, with only a couple of crabmeat choices in the $18 range.
Papajin is located at 1551 N. Milwaukee. They are open seven days a week and can be reached at (773) 384-9600 for carry out and delivery. Valet parking is avaiable but not absolutely necessary Tuesday through Sunday. Visit them on the Web at www.papajin.com .
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