Mantou Noodle Bar Review: Mantou

Mantou Noodle Bar Review: Mantou

Guest PostTime for another guest post! Man I love these things. Once again, the man who brought you reviews of Urban Belly and Hot Doug’s is here again. Jonathan brings us another tasty tale from Chicago, and this time it’s about mantous. If you don’t know what they are, read on! Also keep reading if you do know what they are…

I recently lost a bet. You see, I have always thought that mantou, the soft white steamed Chinese buns, referred only to the plain and not stuffed buns from northern China. And as I walked into Mantou, the new hipster noodle bar in Wicker Park, I questioned the appropriateness of the name because there are in fact no plain steamed buns on the menu. There are, on the other hand, filled buns, which I have always referred to as baozi. Then, my-ever-knowledgeable and clearly better half said that she remembered watching epics on TV (television being the ultimate source of all knowledge) back in Hong Kong, which referred to the filled buns as mantou. She hypothesized that mantou was an older term and that baozi must be a newer term for the steamed buns with filling. I, of course, scoffed at this assertion; and we made a bet.

While I was googling the answer on my blackberry, my wife chose a selection of buns (Sui-house pulled pork, spicy Shao Shing chicken and sweet potato), a kimchee sampler, pot stickers, a noodle dish and a rice dish. At the front of the dimly lit dining room at the end of the bar is an oyster bar. I was tempted to get some oysters, but decided against it.

The steamed buns and pot stickers arrived first. I was surprised by what came, but not in a good way. The buns were off-white and dense with an underwhelming filling. On the plus side, they were definitely homemade.

The udon with braised Berkshire pork and the Japanese style steak and eggs over rice were better. The noodles were rich warm and comforting, while the rice was generous on the steak.

Midway through dinner we finally got the answer to the bet. It turns out, she was right: Mantou classically translates into ‘barbarian’s head’. As the story goes, during the Three Kingdoms period in China, Zhu Ge Liang defeated the barbarian king Meng Huo. On his journey back he faced a river, which he could not pass. One of the barbarians said that they had in the past sacrificed 50 men and thrown their heads into the river to appease the river just to cross. Not wanting to sacrifice his men, Zhu Ge Liang wrapped meat in bread roughly in the shape of a head to throw in the river. And mantou are born! (PS, thanks wikipedia!)

I spent the rest of the meal sulking. It was difficult to concentrate on the food after having been so thoroughly crushed. So, I guess I was wrong. But even though the name of the restaurant may be technically correct, I’m not sure if it is appropriate. It just seems odd that the dish that the restaurant is named after may be its worst. Moreover, it’s not like Chicago is unfamiliar with mantou or baozi. The truth is, not even considering the offerings in Chinatown, you can find much better, softer and flavorful ‘bao’ at the institutionally sterile Lettuce Entertain You’s Asian fast food creation – Wow Bao.

Bet or no bet some things are worthwhile at Mantou. They make a nice bowl of rice; and with no entrees over $13 it certainly is worth a stop if you’re hungry late in Wicker Park. So if I ever get over the sting of defeat, I might go back to Mantou, but just not for the namesake buns.

Mantou Noodle Bar1633 N Milwaukee Ave.Chicago, IL 60647773-772-8688

Posted by Danny on December 12, 2008 at 3:59 pm

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