A shout out to my buddy, Tony Jobe, who casually mentioned on his Facebook page one day earlier this summer that he really missed Smiling Buddha in Schaumburg, IL for Chinese food. I quizzed him on it and he told me that he didn't live too far away from the place at one point and that he used to go there quite a bit. "It's about as authentic of a Chinese restaurant you can find," he told me. During a trip to Chicago a few weeks ago, I made it a point to find Smiling Buddha and give it a try.
Originally opened in 1977, Smiling Buddha is a little tough to find (see map), nestled off of Golf Ave. and back off of Valley Lake Drive in a small shopping complex. It looks like it could have been an old fast food restaurant or an old pancake house that they transformed into a Mandarin/Szechuan restaurant. It's definitely nothing fancy on the inside as far as their decor is concerned, but it was comfortable enough to make the dining experience pleasurable.
There weren't many people in the restaurant when I went there one evening. There are two dining rooms at Smiling Buddha, one on the right as you come in, the other on the left. I was seated in the room on the left that particular evening. Unfortunately, there was a local guy sitting near my table pontificating about this and that with some of the people who evidentially worked there. He was sort of loud and somewhat obnoxious in his observations about local schools, police departments and other topics that he felt were compelling to talk about. I tried my best to shut him out as I alternately read the menu and a Chicago Tribune.
Tony was right about Smiling Buddha having authentic Chinese food. Their selection of Mandarin and Szechuan dishes was rather impressive. It was far from the same old "Beef and Broccoli" that you get at most homogenized Chinese restaurants. There was something on the menu called General Tso's Chicken that is both sweet and spicy. That was intriguing, as was their Moo Shu Pork, shredded beef with scrambled egg in a sesame seed oil and topped with mushrooms and a ginger sauce. Mmmmm....
When my waitress came to my table - a very pleasant young Asian girl - I was torn between three or four items. I ended up getting the Szechuan beef with mixed vegetables. I also ordered up a couple of egg rolls and a Tsing Tao beer. She took the order and in moments my beer was on the table in front of me.
It wasn't long after that two very large egg rolls came to the table. They were - by far - the largest egg rolls I've ever had in my life. It was almost a meal in itself. Unfortunately, the egg rolls were also way over-cooked. The cabbage was mushy, the beef was dry and the shell was too crunchy. It was a big disappointment. I only finished one, not only because it wasn't very good, but because I wouldn't have been hungry for my Szechuan beef when it came out.
My waitress brought out the Szechuan beef, a large plate of spicy beef with assorted veggies topped with a wonderful brown sauce that featured hot peppers and peppercorns. From the first bite, I could tell this was no ordinary Chinese restaurant. The peppercorn sauce left sort of a smokey flavor in my mouth. I couldn't really tell if I liked it or not, it was just different. It was a sort of pleasant shock to the taste buds. The beef was tender and tasty, the veggies were far from over-cooked and the hot peppers also had a spicy and smokey taste to them. All in all, it was very good. Very authentic, that's for sure. It was nothing like I'd had before in Chinese food.
A couple days later, I sort of remembered the smokey taste sensation I'd had at Smiling Buddha. It lingered in my mind for a few days after. I'd never had a taste like that where it was pleasantly different. Sure, it was kind of a burnt taste, but not a displeasing burnt taste. It was something I suddenly craved.
Smiling Buddha was everything Tony told it would be. It is definitely on my list of places to go back to when I'm in the Chicagoland area and I have a hankering for very good - and very authentic - Chinese food.
(Update - A dealer of mine in the NW suburbs told me that Smiling Buddha was one of his favorite places to eat, but unfortunately it had closed.)