avian blasphemy and a taste bud attack
Over the past few years, MingHin Cuisine in Chinatown has spilled and overflowed out the door with its lines, even after its expansions. But I’ve never quite loved the restaurant. The food was always solidly but unspectacularly executed, and the seating system involved the host shouting out tables over the intercom. When they opened a spin-off in Lakeshore East in the hidden valley across from Millenium Park, my skepticism only deepened. Once home to the short-lived Maison and the overpriced Yum Cha, I fully expected more expensive mediocrity for the well-to-do neighborhood.
Imagine my surprise when I actually liked it. First of all, the spot has always had gorgeous production values in all its iterations. MingHin is full of black wood and patterned banquette walls interspersed with murals that make you think China is all neon signage and cherry blossoms. The ceilings are topped off with set piece lights that are a cross between blooming white flowers and ruffled lady’s petticoats. There are a couple odd stands and awkward seating in the ad hoc area by the bar, but the main dining room is a huge step up from the vast majority of Chinatown.
That dining room gets pretty full for such a quiet stretch of dining, but it’s not too hard to snag a reservation and more importantly, parking is validated. Giant oysters come out in piping out hot shells, piled high with vermicelli, chopped scallions, and fermented black beans, the latter of which lends some much-needed salt. There’s something inherently primeval and predatorial about slurping it down, like you’re a primordial sea monster scouring the ocean floor.
If you’re a landlubber, MingHin knows its barbecue. Crackling crisp and accompanied with sugar, their pork belly is like the most marvelous meat candy, though they could stand to find leaner belly. If you feel like doubling down on that, the pork belly with steamed, dried fish is a conundrum. Oversauced and burning with salt, it’s like a full frontal attack on your taste buds, heavy and overwhelming everything. I ate about three bites of it before giving up, but it sure made great leftovers.
Sweet and sour pork on another visit is dried out, their desiccated bodies yielding little meat. A clay pot casserole of beef brisket, tendon, and eggplant is similarly short on the brisket, but the meat is tender and the tendon melting in that unwholesome, gelatinous way they do when properly cooked. It’s an acquired taste, but once you get used to tendon, your life will dramatically improve in soft and squishy ways. Garlicky pea shoots are a lovely foil, simply cooked and simply delicious.
However, the final solo goes to a bomb from their dim sum menu, which is still available at night. Get the salted egg yolk buns, easily one of the best bites in Chicago. Whenever I giddily order an overcomplicated, deconstructed tuiled up piece of art for $12, I try not to think about these. Baked fresh with crusty golden tops on cushiony soft bao, these break open in delicate wafts of steam. The innards are salty, sweet, yolky custards. If God was a bird, I’d imagine this is what it’d be like to eat His children.
MingHin doesn’t quite knock over Chinatown into obsolescence. But it is certainly prettier and the service is friendlier and far superior, though they can be slow to warn you when a dish is out. Over the past ten years, the Chinese food scene has taken a sharp step up in the non-food criteria, and MingHin is the one non-Chinatown option worth visiting. So take a seat, enjoy the expansive park view, and get ready to commit some avian blasphemy.