One of the oldest Chinese restaurants in Chicago has become the secretive site of the only craft cocktail bar in Chinatown.
Lily Wang, whose parents own Moon Palace on Cermak Road, debuted Nine Bar on June 1, a dramatic new space hidden behind her family’s restaurant, with partner Joe Briglio.
“We’re describing ourselves as an Asian-ish cocktail bar,” Wang said.
The personal and professional partners both worked as career bartenders. She was last at Estereo, and he at Blind Barber.
“We liked the freedom of being able to pull from our past work experiences,” Briglio said.
They began 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’ve 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 mom’s year. So it just felt like a nice connection.”
The couple pitched the idea to Wang’s parents, but there was some confusion initially.
“I think they were under the impression that we just wanted to have our friends here just for a party,” Wang said. “But we were like, no, it’s going to be legit. We’re going to make cocktails. We’re going to sell stuff.”
“And it ended up being pretty successful,” Briglio said.
In 2020, they hosted their second Lunar New Year pop-up, called Dim Sum Disco, and then the pandemic hit Chinatown first and hard with coronavirus fears.
“My parents had already been experiencing a decline in business just because of fear wrapped around COVID,” Wang said. “It was just an all-encompassing xenophobic and COVID-related scare.”
When bars shut down, the bartending duo was out of work.
“Lily started posting pictures on Instagram of bento boxes, which was really just her cooking lunch for us,” Briglio said. “And people started messaging her asking if they could buy them. I think that really kind of snowballed into what became the Nine Bar konbini.”
The first iteration of the new brand took off from there as a virtual pop-up with impressive food and drinks.
“Because of Moon Palace, we were very fortunate to be able to share their space and use their liquor license for when we did start doing cocktails,” Wang said. “It was a true collaborative effort.”
Two years later, Moon Palace has become a completely redefined space, home to two new concepts. The former family restaurant has become primarily a takeout place, with Nine Bar hidden behind what looks like the kitchen door.
But they’ve brought back a favorite sandwich familiar to fans.
“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?’”
It’s a panko-breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet with American cheese and pickled radish.
The new mapo hot fries were inspired by her 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, it’s a no-brainer.”
Saucy chile pork, spicy mayo and pickled peppers smother french fries.
Chef Elvis Mom, last at Spinning J, where he held a Khmer and Southeast Asian pop-up, oversees the food.
Meanwhile, the Nine Bar mai tai, from the original Year of the Pig Lunar New Year party, is a tribute to Wang’s mother, and the history of tropical drinks at Chinese restaurants.
“At Moon Palace, they had old-school bartending, with sour mix and premade juices,” Wang said. “But a lot of people really liked my mom’s mai tai. I think it’s probably because she makes them really strong. Ours is a connection and homage to that.”
They’re using fresh juices, and making everything possible in house.
“We do the orgeat with almond cookies,” Briglio said. “We make a syrup out of the almond cookies, as the almond sweetener component. And in lieu of a traditional orange liqueur, we’re using the Apologue persimmon liqueur, which is made here in Chicago.”
An over-the-top garnish finishes the drink served in tropical glassware.
Low- and no-alcohol cocktails are also on the menu.
“One of our favorite lower 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 variation uses shochu, melon liqueur, Calpico and Ming River baiju, the Chinese spirit that’s made from sorghum.
“It’s got some complexity to it from the baiju, like a little bit of funk, but it’s a pretty neon green drink,” Wang added. “If you want to drink, but don’t want to get crazy, you can still have a fun, cute looking cocktail.”
Siren Betty Design, the design firm that subtly transformed the legendary California Clipper, created the new Moon Palace and Nine Bar spaces.
“The front is meant to be minimal and a little bit nondescript,” Wang said. “It’s supposed to look like any other carryout Chinese restaurant that you would 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 than the front,” she said. “It’s dark. It’s a little moody. It’s a little industrial.”
Nine Bar is first come, first served. You seat yourself at the bar or banquettes. There is counter service for drinks and food, dine-in only, 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 is trying to bring back the sake bomb with Asahi beer and sake on draft.
“I think it’s great communal fun,” Wang said. “We’re not doing the chopsticks thing, but we are dropping 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 two doors down from his critically acclaimed Chicago Ramen. Chicago Sushi opened Monday in Des Plaines. Ikehata features what he calls three-second hand rolls, marking the time in which you should eat the crisp nori wrap with warm rice and cool fish. He also offers “red hot chili noodles” not found on the ramen house menu, with a 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 dining scene around Chicago, started serving June 12 in the Park West neighborhood of the Lincoln Park area. You’ll find a skewer plate with pork, shrimp or keftedes. That last one is traditionally meatballs, made with meat, but here they’re made with plant-based feta. Plus the Greek burgers come with granch, a Greek yogurt ranch.
2523 N. Clark St., 773-560-6412, kalachicago.com
Cooper’s Hawk founder Tim McEnery fell in love in Rome — with a pizza. The resulting Piccolo Buco pizzeria fired its first pies June 12 in Oak Brook. The collaboration with Roman chef Luca Issa, who makes a unique contemporary Neapolitan-style pizza, featuring 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 carbonara made with guanciale plus cured egg yolk.
1818 Oakbrook Center, Oak Brook; 630-592-8885; piccolobuco.coopershawk.com
Former Rye Deli + Drink chef Billy Caruso has created a new concept for the hotel that has taken over the old Ace space. Selva, a rooftop cocktail bar, began pouring June 10 at The Emily Hotel in Fulton Market. Beverage director Cristiana DeLucca, previously at The Office at The Aviary, pairs a Mexican-inspired menu (think chicharrones and queso) with a house daiquiri mixed with Uruapan charanda blanco, a rum-based spirit, and Chinola passion fruit liqueur.
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 June 17 in the Lincoln Park area, a few doors up from The Wieners Circle. You can get a spicy tuna crunch roll now, but will have to wait for the seared Wagyu beef nigiri coming soon.
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2630 N. Clark St., sushihallchicago.com
Rêve Burger, Ever restaurant’s unlikely pandemic pop-up by chef Curtis Duffy, ranked among the best cheeseburgers in town, will close permanently July 2 in the West Loop, with its temporary home due to be torn down for a new tower.
The Darling, a cocktail bar that featured burlesque performances, closed suddenly June 12 in the West Loop after a nearly four-year run, and the business has been bought by another hospitality group.
Vajra, the chef-driven Indian restaurant, which just retained its Michelin Bib Gourmand status in the guide released in April, closed unexpectedly June 19 in West Town, unable to weather the socioeconomic fallout of the pandemic.
Know of a Chicago-area restaurant that’s new and notable? Email food critic Louisa Chu at [email protected].
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