If you're a native of Chicago, chances are you, your parents and probably your grandparents have eaten at Won Kow. And if you haven't, it's time to rectify that situation. An old-school Chinatown icon, Won Kow might not cater to the most authentic Chinese crowd, but for good fare, fair prices and a time-warp tiki bar vibe, Won Kow delivers. (Actually, it's dine in and carry out only.)
Won Kow is the oldest restaurant in Chinatown, having opened its doors in 1927 in a three-story speakeasy-era brick and Chinese building with a terra cotta façade along the east side of the main Chinatown strip on Wentworth. The prominent sign displays "WON KOW" emblazoned on a greenish-gold circular map background, ringed with marquee lights. Beneath that is a sign featuring Chinese characters and as a subtitle, a third sign intriguingly alludes to “Cocktails.”
Won Kow is easily accessible from the Cermak-Chinatown Red Line "L" stop or one of several nearby parking lots—be sure to have your parking validated for a discount, if you drive. On the other hand, Won Kow is anything but handicap accessible... To reach the hostess stand, you'll have to climb the equivalent of two flights of stairs, with no other option available. Now I'm not saying the stairs are steep, but I did see a group making base camp halfway up before their final ascent, though they were lucky to have avoided the remnants of a dangerous hurricane that had drifted in from the Bay of Bengal. Once you catch your breath, check in with the owner-manager, who also serves as host, bartender, busboy, server, parking pass stamper, scolder of children, and unofficial house photographer.
Won Kow in 1948 courtesy of the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago
Though Won Kow is over 80 years old, you can be reasonably sure they've remodeled at least once. Fans spin from the white panel drop-ceiling, in a room filled with blonde wood paneling and modest decoration other than a striking illuminated photo of Hong Kong's Kowloon harbor. Seating occupies a "U" around the staircase, with large family-style tables with Lazy Susans located around the perimeter and a slew of four-tops filling in the void. A small tiki bar sits at the head of the dining room. With seating for six, you'll rarely see anyone sitting at the bar itself and, since they've removed the ancient TV recently, this can be a very lonely place if you're cocktailing solo. But ultimately, it's what comes from behind the bar that counts.
Won Kow has a full range of right-priced Technicolor tropical drinks, like the classic Mai Tai and Piña Colada, which can make you quickly forget about the Chicago winter. Our suspicions were confirmed that the only difference between a Zombie and a Scorpion is the cocktail umbrella, but in this case, a drink by any other name still tastes as sweet. For around $10, any of the tropical drinks can be super-sized to a 60-oz. volcano bowl complete with a flaming shot of 151 in the center, a la the old Bamboo Bernie's. There's also a full bar and a few selections including Tsing Tao for your beer drinking pleasure.
As for food, the general rule in Chinatown is: the more ethnically Chinese the clientele, the more authentic the cuisine. In the case of Won Kow, ignore this completely. Won Kow is a tradition, passed down through the generations like a family heirloom. So, it's no surprise that the menu contains Americanized versions of the egg foo young and chop suey your grandpa liked, but among the 200+ dishes available you'll find plenty of authentic selections. With seafood being a particular specialty, why not try the flash-fried shrimp served whole in the shell, legs, eyes and all. Trust me: they're crunchy, but completely edible. The spicy soft shell crab for $12.95 is simply one of the best deals in town. And then there was the crispy duck, which was truly the fairest of fowl. [Editors's note: the mundanely named "Garlic Chicken" is nothing short of fantastic.] Experimentation is encouraged and often rewarded and since the prices are so shockingly reasonable, so it's not the end of the world if you order something you don't like. Dinner is served until midnight on weekends and Won Kow also offers dim sum everyday from 9am-3pm. It should be noted that service can be spotty or a bit rushed at times, but never due to a lack of effort. You come to Chinatown for the communal food experience and unique ambience, not the white glove treatment. So, come in the right mindset and you won't be disappointed.
For the most enjoyable Chinatown scene this side of A Christmas Story ("Jingre berrs!"), Won Kow is not to be missed. For more information, you'll have to give Won Kow a call as they don't have a website or even a Facebook page (the lao-wei can go scratch). Until then, “Gan bei” which literally means, “dry the cup.”
~ Have a good story relating to this bar? Email us. ~
Need restaurant advice?
Follow the Chicago Bistro Project on:
[back to the Chicago Bistro Project]