One of Chicago’s oldest Chinese restaurants has become the secret site of Chinatown’s only craft cocktail bar.
Lily Wang, whose parents own Moon Palace on Cermak Road, launched Nine Bar on June 1, a spectacular new space hidden behind her family’s restaurant, with partner Joe Briglio.
“We describe ourselves as an Asian cocktail bar,” Wang said.
The personal and professional partners both worked as career bartenders. She was last in Estereo, and he in Blind Barber.
“We liked the freedom of being able to draw on our past work experiences,” Briglio said.
They launched the concept that became Nine Bar as a Lunar New Year pop-up at Moon Palace in 2019.
“Lunar New Year is one of my favorite holidays that I have always celebrated with my family,” Wang said. “But I never really got to celebrate with friends.”
“It made a lot of sense to us,” Briglio said. “Because it was the year of the pig, which is my year, as well as Lily’s mother’s year.” So it was just like a nice connection.
The couple pitched the idea to Wang’s parents, but there was some confusion initially.
“I think they felt like we just wanted to have our friends here just for a party,” Wang said. “But we were like, no, this is going to be legit. We’re going to make cocktails. We’re going to sell stuff.
“And it ended up being quite successful,” Briglio said.
In 2020 they held their second Lunar New Year pop-up, called Dim Sum Disco, then the pandemic hit Chinatown first and hard with fears of coronavirus.
“My parents had already experienced a drop in business just because of the fear surrounding COVID,” Wang said. “It was just xenophobic and COVID-related scare.”
When the bars closed, the bartending duo were out of work.
“Lily started posting photos on Instagram of bento boxes, which were actually just her cooking lunch for us,” Briglio said. “And people started messaging him asking if they could buy them. I think that really snowballed into what became Nine Bar konbini.
The first iteration of the new brand took off from there as a virtual pop-up featuring awesome food and drinks.
“Thanks to Moon Palace, we were very lucky to be able to share their space and use their liquor license when we started making cocktails,” Wang said. “It was a real collaborative effort.”
Two years later, Moon Palace has become a completely redefined space, housing two new concepts. The former family restaurant has become primarily a take-out place, with the Nine Bar hidden behind what looks like the kitchen door.
But they brought back a familiar fan favorite sandwich.
“The McKatsu sandwich,” Wang said. “When we went back to our regular jobs, just bartending, people were like, ‘When are you going to make that sandwich again?'”
This is panko breaded pork cutlet deep fried with American cheese and pickled radishes.
The new mapo hot fries were inspired by his father.
“My dad’s mapo tofu is one of my favorite dishes,” Wang said. “And if I see loaded fries on a menu for me, that’s a no-brainer.”
Chili pork in sauce, spicy mayonnaise and pickled peppers smother the fries.
Chef Elvis Mom, last at Spinning J, where he ran a Khmer and South Asian pop-up, oversees the food.
Meanwhile, the Nine Bar mai tai, from the original year of the Lunar New Year celebration in the year of the pig, is a tribute to Wang’s mother and the history of tropical drinks in Chinese restaurants.
“At Moon Palace, they had an old-fashioned bartender, with sour mix and pre-made juices,” Wang said. “But a lot of people really liked my mother’s mai tai. I think it’s probably because she makes them really strong. Ours is a connection and a tribute to that.
They use fresh juices and make everything possible at home.
“We make orgeat with almond cookies,” Briglio said. “We make a syrup from the almond cookies, as the sweetener component of the almonds. And instead of a traditional orange liqueur, we use Apologue Persimmon Liqueur, which is made right here in Chicago.
Exaggerated garnish finishes the drink served in tropical glassware.
Cocktails with little or no alcohol are also on the menu.
“One of our favorite low-ABV options is in the highball section of the cocktail menu. It’s called the Chu-Hai,” Wang said. Chuhais, short for shochu highballs, are popular in Japan and often sold canned in creative flavors.
Their variant uses shochu, melon liquor, Calpico, and Ming River baiju, the Chinese liquor made from sorghum.
“It has some baiju complexity, like a bit of funk, but it’s a pretty neon green drink,” Wang added. “If you want to drink, but don’t want to go crazy, you can always have a fun and cute cocktail.”
Siren Betty Design, the design firm that subtly transformed the legendary California Clipper, created the new Moon Palace and Nine Bar spaces.
“The forehead is meant to be minimal and a little nondescript,” Wang said. “It’s supposed to look like any other take-out Chinese restaurant you’d see anywhere in the country.”
The entrance to the bar is what you would assume to be the kitchen behind the counter.
“And then when you walk in, it’s a very different vibe from the front,” she said. “It’s dark. It’s a bit moody. It’s a bit industrial.
Nine Bar is first come, first served. You sit at the bar or on the benches. There is counter service for drinks and food, only on site, and a server will be available on weekends. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays there will be DJs.
In addition to craft cocktails, the new bar tries to bring back the sake bomb with Asahi beer and sake on tap.
“I think it’s very fun together,” Wang said. “We don’t do the chopstick thing, but we drop the shot glass.”
216 W. Cermak Road, 312-225-4081, ninebarchicago.com
Chef Kenta Ikehata just celebrated the grand opening of his second restaurant located just steps from his critically acclaimed Chicago Ramen. Chicago Sushi just opened Monday in Des Plaines. Ikehata offers what it calls three-second rolls, marking when you should eat the crispy nori with hot rice and fresh fish. It also offers “red chili noodles” not found on the ramen house menu, with chicken soup broth available at your choice of spicy heat.
574 E. Oakton St., Des Plaines; 847-813-5647; instagram.com/chicago.sushi
Partner Stephanie Guerre’s family shared their recipes from Kalamata, the city in Greece famous for its purplish black olives. Kala, part of the growing modern Greek food scene around Chicago, began serving June 12 in the Park West neighborhood of the Lincoln Park area. You will find a plate of skewers with pork, prawns or keftedes. The latter is traditionally meatballs, made with meat, but here they are made with plant-based feta. Plus, the Greek burgers come with granche, a Greek yogurt ranch.
2523 N. Clark St., 773-560-6412, kalachicago.com
Cooper’s Hawk founder Tim McEnery fell in love with pizza in Rome. The resulting Piccolo Buco pizzeria launched its first pies on June 12 in Oak Brook. The collaboration with Roman chef Luca Issa, who cooks a unique contemporary Neapolitan-style pizza, with an unusual super puffy crust, is available in three sauces: classic red, under fried eggplant and Parmesan fonduta; sweeter yellow tomato, with four cheeses including gorgonzola dolce and nutmeg; and white, for the carbonara made with guanciale and dried egg yolk.
1818 Oakbrook Center, Oak Brook; 630-592-8885; piccolobuco.coopershawk.com
Former Rye Deli + Drink chef Billy Caruso created a new concept for the hotel which took over the former Ace space. Selva, a rooftop cocktail bar, began sinking on June 10 at the Emily Hotel in Fulton Market. Beverage director Cristiana DeLucca, formerly of The Office at The Aviary, pairs a Mexican-inspired menu (think chicharrones and queso) with a homemade daiquiri mixed with Uruapan charanda blanco, a rum-based spirit and fruit liqueur of Chinola passion.
311 N. Morgan St. (in the Emily Hotel), 312-764-1934, selvachicago.com
Chef and partner Mitch Kim, previously at Toro Sushi just down the street, is back behind the counter. Sushi Hall, a Japanese-inspired restaurant, just opened on June 17 in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, a few doors down from Wieners Circle. You can get a Spicy Tuna Crisp Roll now, but you’ll have to wait for the Pan-Seared Wagyu Beef Nigiri to arrive soon.
To eat. Look. Do.
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2630 N. Clark Street, sushihallchicago.com
Dream BurgerThe unlikely pandemic pop-up restaurant Ever by chef Curtis Duffy, ranked among the best cheeseburgers in town, will close for good on July 2 in the West Loop, its temporary home set to be demolished for a new tower.
The darlingthe cocktail bar, which featured burlesque performances, suddenly closed on June 12 in the West Loop after a nearly four-year run, and the business was bought out by another hotel group.
vajrathe chef-run Indian restaurant, which just retained its Michelin Bib Gourmand status in the guide published in April, unexpectedly closed on June 19 in West Town, unable to withstand the socio-economic fallout of the pandemic.
Do you know a restaurant in the Chicago area that is new and remarkable? Email food critic Louisa Chu at [email protected].
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