When WonFun Chinese and 2Fun opened in November, it quickly made it to the top of my list of “must try new restaurants.” Owner Austin Baker, the proprietor of Bar Marta in Humboldt Park – another favorite – told me in an interview for restaurant development + design magazine that he was inspired by his time living in Asia and recent travels in China to focus on Sichuan cuisine in particular.
“Sichuan is regarded in China as the place you go for flavor,” Baker said. “They really embrace the chile. And it’s a relatively new cuisine even though it’s about 300 years old because there were no chiles in Asia until Columbus came back and introduced them. The Chinese did have Sichuan peppercorns, also called ‘prickly ash’ where you get that numbing heat. Actually, the Chinese refer to Sichuan cuisine as málà, with the má referring to the numbing aspect and the là referring to the spiciness of the dehydrated or fermented chile peppers used in many dishes.”
Baker went on to say that many Chinese restaurants embrace málà, but almost to a fault so dishes are spicier and oilier. At WonFun, he and Chef Ben Ruiz made sure to only include some dishes with heat and at least half of the menu with no heat whatsoever.
There seems to be a growing rash of modern Chinese restaurants popping up here and there. I thoroughly enjoyed an amazing, multi-course lunch at DANDAN in Milwaukee not long ago, and have gone back to Stephanie Izard’s Duck, Duck, Goat on a few occasions to get my Peking duck fix. Now I can also get that at Wow Fun, which serves the crispy-roasted duck with steamed buns, traditional garnishes, duck fried rice and even duck bone broth for sipping.
The WonFun in the dual named concept refers to the 60-seat , inspired by “Chinese film noir” as Baker puts it with its red, black and gold color scheme, silk Chinese lanterns and moody vibe. The 2Fun part refers to the upstairs, 140-seat lively bar/lounge, complete with a DJ Booth, live karaoke on some nights and dim sum-like snacks meant to tide you over while you wait for your seat downstairs.
The only other color in the space – a bright blue – pops up on the menu and on the classic, patterned china bought in Chinatown and meant to make the many share-worthy dishes pop.
When I stopped in with a group of girlfriends for a birthday we had a few favorites.
1) General Tso’s Chicken Wings:
These sweet and savory wings – though slightly challenging to share –plays off the sweet flavors you’ll find in Shanganese cuisine and the spice from Sichuan in the form of chiles balanced out by the caramelized crust. “General Tso’s is a storied dish invented by a Chinese chef in Taiwan and brought to America, but instead of cut-up pieces of chicken, we used whole wings,” Baker says. In China, dishes like that come with actual bones cut up into the mix so he skipped the tradition for an easier-to-eat and digest version.
2) Dan Dan Noodles (featured image)
“These noodles are extremely classic and one of the original street food in the Chengdu capital of Sichuan,” Baker said. “They’re sold by a guy with a pole with noodles on it and every time he hits the pole you hear the Dan Dan sound.” This dish is an example of that málà Baker talked about – the noodles, hand-made using a mixture of flour, water and salt and a lot of kneading for chewiness – are dressed with a savory sauce spiked beef, those numbing Sichuan peppercorns and chile oil. It’s spicy, but manageable, and not too oily or greasy so they go down really easy.
3) Sichuan Pork Wontons
These super soft dumplings are more delicate in texture and flavor so Baker actually recommends not ordering them at the same time you get the Dan Dan noodles (which we did). “There are only four ingredients – pork, scallions, ginger and garlic so you get all the sweetness of the pork without overpowering it,” he said. The dumplings are served in a shallow bath of aromatic soy sauce brewed with seven different spices (Chinese cinnamon, black cardamom, star anise and others) and only a touch of chile oil. Baker even likes to make these dumplings at home for parties. See the recipe below.
Note: the restaurant now serves lunch Tuesday through Saturday if you’d rather skip the crowds and just fill up on some delicious comfort food.
Sichuan Pork Dumplings
- 1 pound ground pork
- 1/4 cup peeled, minced ginger
- 1/4 cup sliced scallions
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons chicken stock
- 1 to 2 (12-ounce) packages won tons wrappers (or enough for 50)
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon peeled, minced ginger
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 3 dashes chile oil, or to taste
For the dipping sauce: (note: I made this up, not the chef)
In a large bowl, combine all ingredients with chopsticks, stirring in one direction.
Spoon 2 tablespoons of the filling in the center of each wonton wrapper. Dip index finger in a small bowl of water and brush the edges of the wrapper to moisten. Bring each of the four corners toward the center to seal.
Working in batches of about 4 to 5 at a time, simmer wontons in water for about 4 minutes or until tender and just cooked through.
For the dipping sauce, combine the soy sauce, ginger, garlic and chile oil in a small bowl and serve with the warm wontons.