While I do have go-to spots in Chicago, I typically don’t return to a restaurant even if I had a great meal there; there are too many new places to try, and I need to find different spots to review. However, I broke that self-imposed rule this summer by visiting one restaurant, Imperial Lamian (6 W. Hubbard St.) three times in two months.
Located off the Grand Red Line stop, Imperial Lamian is a chain restaurant created in Indonesia. The Chicago location is the only franchise in the United States. The interior fits in with the River North restaurant scene, as it has dim lighting with wrought iron accents and a glass wall to the kitchen so visitors can see the cooks. However, it also reflects the restaurant’s modern Chinese cuisine with accents such as carved wooden benches, silk-print seat cushions and wire lanterns, balancing the modernity with tradition.
The restaurant specializes in dim sum, soup dumplings and hand-pulled noodles. I visited Imperial Lamian on several occasions this summer and had the opportunity to try each of the specialties.
The Xiao Long Bao are steamed soup dumplings. I ordered the combination ($18), which allows you to try all six. To distinguish the different fillings, each dumpling is a different color, including hot pink, yellow, purple, green, orange and white. The dish resembles an Easter egg collection when it arrives. Flavors include traditional dumplings such as Shanghai, spicy Szechuan pork, duck and crab, but there are also modern twists such as gruyere and truffle. My favorites were the Szechuan pork, which had a fiery chili sauce inside the dumpling, and the gruyere, as the pungent, sharp cheese made an unexpected but delicious filling.
Dim sum are smaller, appetizer-sized plates that are great for sharing, and the menu includes a good mix of both vegetarian and meat-based options. I have ordered the seared turnip dim sum ($10) each time I have gone. I was skeptical at first as a turnip seems to be the most unexciting vegetable possible. Imperial dodges this dullness by lightly frying the cubed turnips so they’re crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, resembling the texture of tofu. Then, they’re sautéed in the restaurant’s sweet and savory XO sauce, and served with scrambled egg and bean sprouts, providing just the right amount of crunch to the dish. Other dim sum choices include items such as spring rolls, dumplings and wontons.
The hand-pulled noodles, or lamian, after which the restaurant is named, are also worth ordering. With the open kitchen, you can watch chefs create the pasta by hand. They stretch the dough to arm’s length and then shape it by flattening it on the counter. The lamian are served in a broth or fried. I tried the Minced Pork Lamian ($14), which includes spicy pork broth, black garlic, shitake, wood ear mushrooms and truffle oil. The portion is big enough for two meals, and the variety of elements in the dish make it multi-dimensional. The truffle oil finish brings out the mushroom flavor and makes for a great finish. I have also tried the fried vegetable lamian, in which the noodles are lightly sautéed. While the portion is smaller, it provides a different flavor for the noodles and is ideal if you’re looking for a lighter bite.
Imperial also offers wok and BBQ items. I ordered the BBQ crispy pork belly ($19), which comes in a clay pot. If you haven’t tried pork belly before, think of it as softer, melt-in-your-mouth bacon. Imperial’s version came in a thick sweet and sour sauce, which was a nice compliment to the salty pork. Rice ($3) is not included with entrees, but it’s worth it to soak up whatever sauce the dish may have.