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All photos courtesy of Chef’s Special

The RundownChicago

Everything You Need to Know About Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar

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There’s a special place in many hearts for American Chinese food, the cuisine that brought us General Tso’s chicken and crispy deep-fried egg rolls. Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar in Bucktown is a love letter to the genre, from the crew behind nearby Giant, helmed by executive chef Aaron Kabot with managing partner Chase Bracamontes behind the bar.

The duo mined their deep-seated affection for the cuisine to build out the menu, which features recognizable if slightly cheffy takes on classics like potstickers and Mongolian beef, alongside tropical-leaning drinks with names like the ChiChi Colada and Tanline Express. Chef’s Special is both a cocktail bar and a restaurant, equally ideal for visiting with a group (the food is all served family-style, natch), or on a date to linger at the bar. We spoke to Kabot and Bracamontes about their inspiration, favorite dishes, and the story behind the name. Here’s everything you need to know about Chef’s Special before you go.

1. The menu offers a cross-cultural approach. 

Why American Chinese food? Kabot says he’s long been fascinated by the history and culinary techniques used in Chinese cooking. “There’s centuries worth of knowledge and inspiration to draw from,” he says. “Many of the techniques are counterintuitive to the European and Western methods I was trained in, which makes them all the more intriguing to me,” such as steaming, wok-tossing, and flash-frying. 

Kabot is also interested in the way that Western ingredients have found their way into Chinese dishes in the States, retrofitting themselves into the American palate (think cream cheese-stuffed crab rangoons). “Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous to the average American, but each one has its own unique nuances,” he says. “I have always been interested in exploring that nuance.”

It’s worth noting that Kabot is not of Chinese descent. His introduction to the cuisine began with an early job at an American Chinese restaurant in his hometown of Highland Park called New Diamond (today known as Jade Cafe). “When I’d get in and see the owner’s mother making potstickers and wontons I remember thinking to myself, ‘I want to learn how to do that someday,’” he says.

Later, after graduating from culinary school at Kendall College, Kabot worked at the acclaimed Nightwood (where he met Giant chef and owner Jason Vincent) before it closed, the Duck Inn in Bridgeport, and eventually moved to Giant to work alongside Vincent again, before spinning off to oversee Chef’s Special. 

2. Start with the dan dan noodles (and a few other suggestions).

For first-timers, Kabot suggests starting with the dan dan noodles. They’re made with a thicker, chewier noodle than many, and dressed with a heritage pork shoulder ragu that’s seasoned with Sichuan pepper and housemade sesame paste. Preserved mustard greens go in for balance, along with a dose of chile oil for some heat. Other must-orders include the dry-fried green beans with crispy garlic and a sweet-and-spicy glaze, crab rangoons, and the thick, golden-brown egg rolls stuffed with shrimp and pork, which Kabot says “speak for themselves.”

When it comes to his own favorites, Kabot points to the Mongolian beef. “We use tender hand-cut slices of prime flank steak and marinate it overnight. It gets wok-tossed in a caramelized sauce with just the right balance of sweet and savory flavors, with black pepper notes, and the perfect glazed consistency.” It’s served with crispy cellophane noodles. And he has a particular affection for the wontons, stuffed with pork and garlic chives, served with a garlicky black vinegar sauce laced with charred scallion and Sichuan peppercorns. 

3. Cocktails are a key part of the experience.

Cocktails are a big deal at Chef’s Special. An initial scan of the cocktail menu reveals an abundance of bright flavors like lemongrass, pineapple, and citrus. This is by design, says Bracamontes, another Giant alum. “The cocktails focus on tropical and botanical flavors — we love that as a complement to our food, which features a lot of umami and spice,” she says. “We needed to make sure the flavors were bold enough to stand up to the dishes.” 

Though there aren’t supposed to be any favorite children on the cocktail menu, Bracamontes has a soft spot for the ChiChi Colada. It pairs well with the wontons in chile oil, she explains: “The coconut soothes the spice, the mezcal matches the chiles, and the orange blossom accents the floral notes of the Sichuan peppercorns.” 

4. Don’t judge a cocktail bar by its location. 

Chef’s Special is on an admittedly less-scenic stretch of Western Avenue. But the other side of the building’s edifice belies what Bracamontes says is one of the nicest areas on the North Side. It’s a beautiful but urban-feeling nook of Bucktown that we love,” she says. “We’re also perfectly situated between several different neighborhoods, including Logan Square, Wicker Park, Avondale, not to mention that the Fullerton highway ramp is blocks away.”

The space is designed by Erin Boone of Boone Interiors (Elske and The Dawson), and evokes comfort without being specifically pegged to any one particular place or time. There are touches both homey and modern throughout, with a bit of that classic Chinese restaurants-as-portrayed-in-Hollywood vibe. The dining room seats 60, plus a 20-seat island bar in the center of the room. 

Sharing is heavily encouraged, to the point that the restaurant offers customizable menus for parties of six and up (inquire online or email reservations@chefsspecialbar.com for more info).

 

5. The name is a menu reference.

“Chef’s Special” is a reference to the section on many American Chinese menus where the restaurant gets to flex a bit and showcase dishes that otherwise might get lost. It might include a regional specialty or more traditional preparation. For me, it was like you always had to order a couple go-to classics that you couldn’t live without, but also needed to indulge or experiment with a new dish from the Chef’s Special section,” says Bracamontes. “It’s what makes places exciting.”

 

Dennis Lee is Chicago-based food writer and former pizza-maker who has written about food for over a decade. Follow his newsletter, The Party Cut, which highlights restaurants around Chicago, for more. While you’re at it, follow Resy, too.