Red Alert: Won Fun Chinese Restaurant & 2Fun Chinese Lounge
PAGODA RED has some fascinating neighbors. We’re fortunate to be in the city’s most desirable area, where tech companies, cafes, bars and restaurants abound. Hunger (and thirst) is satisfied in any number of Michelin Star-winning ways around the West Loop. Our favorite recent discovery, the concept known as Won Fun Restaurant and 2Fun Chinese Lounge, is worthy of the buzz, and the perfect kick-off to our RED ALERT series, which reveals inspiring people, places and things to know right now.
Austin Baker, creator of low-lit Humboldt Park charmer Bar Marta, has cooked his way across the country, from the James Beard-winning kitchen of Frasca in Boulder, Co., to Eric Ripert’s iconic fine dining experience Le Bernardin in New York. Baker was also the head chef for Amankora, the luxury resort in Bumthang, Bhutan. He spent two years at the resort creating dishes for five private lodges, cooking every meal for a global cadre of guests. Trading the city hustle for stunning and remote scenery, Baker went head-first into the cuisine and the culture. He and his team farmed and harvested all their ingredients. Some produce, like icicle radishes and heirloom tomatoes, were grown from seeds Baker brought to Bhutan. “It’s a very young democracy and every valley speaks a different dialect of Dzongkha,” he says. “The food is such a reflection of the region—there are Tibetan, Nepalese and Indian influences.”
Foodies earning points on Open Table are not used to finding Asian flavors on Randolph Street, which is precisely why Baker and chef Ben Ruiz, who spent several immersive weeks cooking, learning and eating their way through Sichuan, went for it. “We wanted to do something different for West Loop and at lower check price—something not Italian or French,” says Baker. “I decided the next restaurant would be Sichuan-focused, and we’d try to show people that Chinese food isn’t just egg rolls and sweet and sour pork.” The Sichuan peppercorn takes a starring role on the menu. It’s an ingredient with unfettered ka-pow in most dishes from the region, but often arrives with subtlety. “Sichuan food is very rich in depth and complexity, mainly because it sat on the Silk Road and was such a big trading city,” says Baker of the peppercorn’s intriguing history. For the uninitiated, it might seem intimidating. “What most Americans react to and think of with Sichuan food is spicy and numbing. Those two things together are called mala in Chinese cuisine. Mala is one of the seven essential flavors in Chinese food,” he says. Má, the numbing Sichuan pepper and là, the spicy chili pepper, are the defining flavors in Sichuan cooking.
For Baker, the menu is all about balance. He and Ruiz have turned out dishes with soul and authenticity without forgetting the West Loop’s coordinates. In their exalted experimentation, peppercorns are ground, infused in oil, and sprinkled carefully with a gentle beckon to try something different. The Mouthwatering Rabbit is succulent meat served chilled with sesame peanut dressing generously doused in chili oil; the Dry Chili Prawns deliver a delectable fried crunch (along with a set of tingling lips) and the classic Ma Po Tofu is not for lightweights—the most mala dish in the mix, says Baker, earns a fiery designation on the menu. But it’s not all hurts-so-good fare. Ruiz and Baker have paved this divine trip with a host of flavorful comforts like foie gras fried rice, house-made dan dan noodles, fried chicken and the faithful gusto of Peking Duck, which is meant to be shared with steamed buns and duck fried rice. Everything given just enough punk rock treatment to keep even the most seasoned diner wanting more.
The 2Fun/WonFun experience isn’t confined to a typical layout. The 60-seat restaurant is located downstairs, where the alluring glow of 280 red silk lanterns, Chinese screens and leather booths promise feels-like-a-movie-set fantasy without an ounce of high design pretension. Baker was inspired by the film Raise the Red Lantern. The drenched-in-red aesthetic isn’t at odds with the original wood beams and industrial grit of the West Loop warehouse. Upstairs, one finds the 2Fun Chinese lounge, a rollicking romp of cocktails, karaoke and a 60-foot dragon sourced from Hong Kong. While most of the design elements were contemporary finds (some scored as close-by as Chinatown) there are antique, gold Tibetan door knockers poised at the host stand. But sometimes a departure from the real thing is exactly what’s on order. We found it here (and will return for more).
905 W. Randolph Street, Chicago, IL, 312.877.5967
All photography by Neil Burger, courtesy of Joy Hospitality