Peking Mandarin restaurant of Albany Park
is one of those classic Chicago Chinese-Korean restaurants that feels like it always has been and always will be. The simple green awning outside the corner building is itself a throwback to an earlier time, and as one walks across Lawrence, it's not hard to imagine dodging streetcar traffic.
Inside, that feeling is further reinforced. Half the restaurant is given to a large banquet style room with circular tables for small family groups. The other half of the place recalls a '50s-style diner, with a long counter and requisite rotating stools built into the floor. It's easy to get the sense that perhaps you're an extra in a melancholy Adrian Tomine drawing.
Luckily, at Peking Mandarin, there's very little to be melancholy about. Indeed, most of the servers seem to be jolly older women who are on a constant patrol of the dining room with pitchers of hot tea at the ready. Much of the food isn't anything you wouldn't expect to find on any other Chinese-Korean menu, but there certainly is a good deal of it. One could bury almost half a ruler in the mountain of fried rice that comes in an order.
There are, of course, exceptions to the above, and much of it is from the Korean side of the menu. The noodles are local stars here, with the champong (or chow ma mein, depending on who you ask) earning its place as a winter comfort food. The lively, but not too spicy, noodle dish has kept many a regular warm on a cold winter night, the noodles, seafood and vegetables mixing perfectly to produce a satisfied, interior glow.
If you need to bolster your defenses further against the frigid temps outdoors, Peking Mandarin keeps a stocked bar behind the counter. Order a cocktail and a hot bowl of soup, and you can literally drink in the tradition here.
Centerstage Reviewer: Bill Burman