(Photo: At Pilsen’s Take Me Out, the hot wings are to die for.)
There are many ways a birthday run for Asian hot wings can turn out. Cowering for your life in the loading dock beneath the Merchandise Mart isn’t usually one of them.
So Yours Truly is 38 now. I know because a recent count of the rings beneath my eyes came up with one extra, so Happy Birthday to me.
That leaves me one fewer year to indulge my passion for spicy food before I’ll have to start permanently washing everything down with a Maalox chaser. Could there have been a better day to revel in the legendary little hotties lollipop wings at Take Me Out Let’s Eat Chinese in Pilsen?
Yes, as things would turn out.
The legend of the wings first arose at Great Sea, a long-established Chinese-Korean fushion restaurant in Albany Park. The brainchild of longtime owner Nai Tiao, the wings are fried to a succulent, caramelized, crispy goodness reminiscent of roast duck, then smothered with a spicy-sweet mix of soy sauce, chili, ginger, and garlic.
Tiao’s daughter, Karen Lim, has been serving the wings at her verbosely monickered eatery in Pilsen since opening the oddball storefront this spring. The design of the space screams chain, but the wings are transcendent.
Pastry chef Chris was still getting over spraining his liberty bone, so Cincinnati Jamie and I took the trip in his soccer-mom Volvo station wagon to 18th and Ashland to score some hot wing goodness. Silly us, we ordered the family size lollipop wings.
The meat somehow magically pushed to one end, the protruding bone made the wings easy to eat. The fact that there were 12 of them and they were enormous, however, did not. I knew the wings would be on my short list of favorite Windy City eats when, after I could eat no more, I had an overpowering urge to suck the sauce from the serving platter with a straw.
Mouths happily aflame from the creeping hotness of the addictive molasses-thick goo, we decided to head for ice cream to cool the burn. On the way to Margie’s Candies, Bucktown’s 87-year-old ice cream icon from which I have been known to stagger away with a sugar coma lasting until the next day, Chris called.
“The sirens are going off all over Oak Park. The TV says the entire city is under a tornado warning. Where are you?”
“We’re on our way to ice cream now. What are you talking about?”
In the pause before Chris answered, I could hear the faint wail of the civil-emergency sirens through the phone. “It’s the biggest storm I’ve ever seen. You guys better take cover. Call me and let me know where.”
And I repeat, huh?
I wondered if that’s why Philosuburban Val had called, too. I was stuck to the side of a hot wing at the time, so I let the call go to voicemail. I dialed her number.
“Oh my God, it’s a freak show in Brookfield right now. The lightning is like strobe lights and the thunder won’t stop. Honey, you two better get indoors.”
And then she said the words that made it all sink in. “I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
By now, Jamie had pulled up the weather radar on his iPhone. Looking at the big, red blotch on the screen, at first I thought he had zoomed in on the storm cell. Then I realized the big, red blotch was the size of Chicagoland.
“Don’t worry,” Jamie said. “I grew up in tornado alley and we’re in no immediate danger.”
I’ve lived in the Midwest long enough to recognize famous last words when I hear them. “There’s lightning on the horizon,” I said. “Let’s head back downtown.”
I guided Jamie east to Halsted. We turned left and drove towards the Loop as the wind picked up and the lightning morphed from distant flashes to approaching electrical doom. Somewhere around Madison Street, the Chicago Office of Emergency Management turned on all 118 tornado sirens within city limits. Unlike my introduction to the sirens in 2006, at least this time, I wasn’t stuck on the 38th floor of Marina City.
“Roll down your windows and listen,” I said.
Jamie obliged. “Is that what that was? I thought they were birds.”
Raised in tornado alley my ass. “We’re not going to make it back to Marina City,” I said. “We have to find shelter now.”
But we were already past Restaurant Row on Halsted, in the middle of the after-hours Fulton warehouse district no-man’s-land. As the rain started to fall, we scanned for a place to park and an open lobby to run into. Right on Wayman. Left on Jefferson. Right on Kinzie. Everything closed. Fat chance.
I turned to see a giant wall of black could behind us. “Blow the stop sign and go!”
We sailed over the Kinzie Street Bridge and into River North as darkness fell. “Where am I going?” yelled Jamie.
I could see the comforting hulk of the Merchandise Mart looming larger. Formerly the largest commercial building on earth, I was pretty sure we’d be safe there.
“Turn right into the loading dock!”
“The sign says No Entry” Jamie protested, as a curtain wall of water slammed into the car from behind. He made the turn. We drove as far underneath the structure as we could without coming out the other side. We looked back to see rain falling sideways.
We turned on the radio and Twittered our whereabouts. As the rumbling intensified outside, I tried not to pee my pants for good measure.
Chris called again, “You have 10 minutes before the heart of the storm gets there. Stay where you are.”
You mean it gets worse?
“I love you, you know,” I said. Then I returned to my smirky self, “I’ll let you know if we live.”
As I hung up, Jamie tried to comfort me, “Don’t worry, we’re fine. This is a Volvo, nothing’s getting us in this tank.”
We sat tight and listened to radio alerts from nervous reporters giving a very literal blow-by-blow of every alleged funnel cloud sightning across Chicagoland. Ten minutes later, right on schedule, the little bit of the sky that we could see turned a deep, roiling green and even the bowels of the Mart were shaken by the non-stop peals of thunder.
When water started shooting upwards out of every manhole cover in the loading dock, I had to laugh. I had the feeling I was living through a particulary cheesy after-school special about weather awareness. I could just picture the rescue team finding our lifeless, waterlogged bodies clinging to the remains of our little hotties with one hand and our iPhones with the other.
And then it was over. Jamie dropped me off at my Marina City high-rise home, where several residents were still too afraid to head back up to their apartments.
“You could feel the buildings swaying,” one of them said.
Safely upstairs, as I surveyed my waterlogged balcony, I knew I had just lived through Chicago history. Although meteorologists warn us not to, we Windy Citizens tend to live under the faulty assumption that for some mystical reason, tornadoes cannot enter the city limits.
Monday night, many of us shared that collective moment of fear that Californians long have known well. With every major rumble in that state, until the shaking stops, your heart is in your throat as you wonder, “Is this the big one?”
A lot of people wondered the same thing in Chicago Monday night as we took shelter in our own personal Merchandise Mart loading docks.
And that’s about all the excitement this old body can stand for one birthday.