You’re not coming here for the aesthetic.
The dingy lights, greasy tabletops, and abundance of Styrofoam aren’t as easy to swallow as the food at Westmont’s International Mall. On most days, the place is less of a mall and more the desiccated corpse of suburban expansion: gaudy and empty.
The grocery store next door is surprisingly still open. It’s a big store, and made all the more so with aisles empty of everything but dust and crumbs. The deli in the back is evacuated, and the produce department holds more packing boxes than anything fresh. It’s hard to imagine that people would drive for more than hour to come to this isolated island of MSG products that have a shelf life longer than you’ve been alive.
Yet, it’s true that Chinese immigrants flocked here to shop. It’s the 1990s, and for a second, you can imagine you aren’t somewhere so foreign, so spacious, so white when you’re here, reaching for a jar of fermented bean paste as two kids that look like you whiz by.
In better times, the International Mall was the biggest Asian food stop in the Chicagoland area other than Chinatown. While Chinatown’s restaurants focused on Cantonese fare, the food stands at International Mall offered more diverse regional cuisines, like Northern noodles or Taiwanese treats. If you couldn’t find prepared food that reminded you of home, you could always go to the Chinese supermarket next door and pick up ingredients to prepare traditional dishes at home.
As time passed, Chinese grocery stores began to pop up in other suburbs. Tofu, bok choy and fish sauce became so fetishized by yuppies and granolas alike that Chinese cuisine staples could be picked up even at Jewel-Osco. The drive down to Westmont wasn’t so urgent, and slowly the realization came that the food at International Mall wasn’t even that good.
It’s not that the food is bad, per se. The fact remains that it’s not that great. It’s rich without being decadent: a poor man’s feast. The changing tastes of poor Chinese immigrants as they transformed into health-conscious middle-class Americans slowed foot traffic throughout the years.
But as dead as the International Mall is during weekdays, the food court is packed during the weekend. Either out of nostalgia or old habits, first and second generation Chinese Americans return. One store in particular has a line longer than other stands tenfold. Only during the weekend is Chinese breakfast served at Chinese Cafe, which is not to be confused with dim sum, the strictly Cantonese version of Chinese brunch that’s become so popular with Chicago millennials. What’s offered at Chinese Cafe is dense, hearty, anything but the delicate tapas-like dishes of dim sum. These dishes were also delicacies at one point in China’s history, when the country was extravagantly poor and anything with calories was luxurious.
There’s you tiao, or “Twisted Cruller” on the English menu. What is essentially deep fried dough, they’re tough and crispy on the outside, while the inside’s cavernous air bubbles make them surprisingly light. One order of you tiao comes with two sticks as long as your forearm, but they have no flavor of their own. You tiao is meant to be eaten with an order of soy milk (“Bean Milk”), where the dough stick is dunked into the milk to transform the texture of the you tiao. Who says you’re not supposed to play with your food? The soy milk comes in two versions: sweet and savory, which is definitely something to work up to. In the vein of soy products, the silky tofu dessert (“Soybean Jello with Peanuts” and “Combo Soy Bean Jello”) is sweet, simple, and fun to slurp.
There’s also the noodles, a common breakfast dish in northern China, where wheat fields outnumber rice paddies. The soup base is ladled with MSG, making all noodles a rich experience in umami. In particular, the beef tendon and fried pork chop noodle dishes are recommended. Beef tendon is difficult to make tender on a small scale; a lot of time in braising is needed for little pay off, and you’re better off buying than making the dish. The fried pork chops are crackling crispy and seasoned well, and a side order of vinegary cabbage slaw stops the fattiness of the chops from being overwhelming. Either protein benefits from getting handmade noodles for an extra dollar.
Other dishes like congee and dumplings are available, and Chinese Cafe’s sister store Yu Ton Dumping House even sells home grown vegetables.
There are other stands too, selling tapioca fruit smoothies, bao zi and pre-packaged dishes of duck, fish and more. Next to Chinese Cafe is a Korean food stand with white servers sporting head buns, which feels wildly out of place in a food court of old school styles. International Mall isn’t the only place trying to modernize, but it is a rare find where you can’t run too far from the past. Come for the food that hasn’t changed too much in the past decades, greasy and delicious, and stay for a moment longer to recognize this place’s history.
Find it: International Mall | 665 Pasquinelli Dr. | Westmont, Ill | Weekend breakfast served starting at 10am.
All photos by Sherry Zhong.