Many foreign cuisines undergo significant adjustments as they adapt to American tastes. For example, a food that we consider solidly Mexican, the burrito, was actually invented in California in the 1930s. Dishes that morph to suit Western palates tend to thrive, while other, less malleable foods are far less celebrated. As good as the dishes can be, one hardly ever hears, "Let's order Filipino!"
Chinese food is probably one of the dishes that has changed the most since its introduction to the U.S. by railroad workers on the West Coast. Some of the dishes that are considered as classic Chinese food were invented within the last century, such as cashew chicken or sweet and sour pork. Luckily for food lovers of all types, these "new" American dishes can sometimes be found alongside truly traditional Chinese dishes.
That's the case at Phoenix Inn. This small dine-in or take-out joint has been in the 600 block of Davis Street in some form or another since the 1940s. Newly reopened after a fire shuttered it for almost a year, Phoenix Inn has gone right back to serving Evanston residents affordable, traditional and American Chinese food.
The appetizers alone exemplify Phoenix Inn's dual nature. Crispy, delicious American treats like Crab Rangoon ($4 for six) and egg rolls ($3) are served alongside scallion pancakes ($5) and mung bean noodles with chicken ($6). The noodles have an earthy sweetness that isn't wildly popular in the U.S., but is considered delicious in China.
The dichotomy continues throughout the menu, sometimes in the same dish. The traditional Cantonese dish of salt and pepper shrimp, usually flavorful and spicy, is a disappointingly tasteless dish: the shrimp is breaded to the point of blandness and rather than using vegetables to accentuate it, the shrimp are served in a bed of lifeless iceberg lettuce and green onion. At $13, the dish can easily be skipped, unless you can persuade the kitchen to make the Cantonese version.
On the other hand, the beef brisket and Chinese eggplant is a treat. At $11, the large dish can be split between two people. This is one of the better examples of Cantonese family-style eating in the restaurant.
The particularly adventurous may want to taste the Chinese version of blood sausage ($16). In this case, congealed pig blood is first dried, then cut into rectangles and cooked. The taste is unique, spicy and strong, and perfectly absorbs the flavor of that with which its cooked.
Phoenix Inn caters to both the most discerning foodie as well as those in the mood for simple American-style Chinese. It may take a bit of trial and error, but there are great dishes to be found on the menu no matter which side of the Pacific Ocean they originated.