Something very strange is happening in Evanston. Between the loathsome Scylla and Charybdis of Koi and Joy Yee, there are suddenly tiny isles of authentic Asian cuisine: First Phoenix Inn and now 527 Cafe.
At first glance, one could be forgiven for treating 527 Cafe with suspicion. The menu promises "Asian inspired sandwiches, salads, pastas, and more", which translates to dishes like "Mongolian cheesesteak", "Bourbon chicken pasta", and the quickly becoming a cliche Korean taco (for some reason served on laver instead of tortillas). The employees wear shirts with the slogan "Mi so hungry" -- offensive on so many levels. The place practically screams "marketing concept".
But take a look at the "Specialty" portion of the menu and the paper signs taped to the walls, and you will see the names of actual Taiwanese dishes. And I'm here to tell you that the niu rou mian here is very, very good.
Let's get this out of the way: This isn't Katy's. The noodles are not homemade. I wish they were, but they're not. They're properly cooked, but they will certainly not have the texture of the fresh, hand-pulled stuff. If this is a deal breaker for you, so be it, but I think you're missing out. Because in all other respects the dish is at least as good as Katy's. The soup is very flavorful and thick; it's really almost a stew. The beef shanks are meltingly tender (not always the case at Katy's). And it's topped with crunchy bok choy.
Plus, they were playing Plastic Beach all the way through. Let's see Mr. Red Shirt (if that is his real name) do that.
I also tried the lu rou fan. Some may quibble that it's not made with pork belly, but I thought it was delicious. Lots of star anise and five spice.
Other Taiwanese dishes are also starting to be offered. Salt and pepper (aka popcorn) chicken, and dishes featuring Taiwanese sausage are being added. And who knows, maybe the Mongolian cheesesteak is life-changingly delicious when served with their sweet potato fries and chipotle mayo. But I'm going to find it hard to order anything but niu rou mian every time I'm here. And I plan to be here often.
527 Davis St
Evanston, IL 60201