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The Sriracha King of Chicago? Maybe

By Paul Biasco | January 8, 2013 9:58am | Updated on January 8, 2013 11:33am

LINCOLN PARK — Don't call him the Sriracha King of Chicago yet, but thanks to his rooster sauce-loving customers, the owner of a Hawaiian Lincoln Park restaurant says he could be in consideration for the title.

As the eighth anniversary of Aloha Eats, 2534 N. Clark St., approached late last year, Ivan Lee wanted to treat his customers with a special item menu based on their favorite sauce and ended up selling 300 Sriracha lollipops at $3 a pop.

The Sriracha hot sauce, a paste of chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt, has an almost cultlike following, and goes well with the Hawaiian plates Lee and his family have been serving up.

While he struggles to get more lollipops on the shelf at his restaurant, Lee, 36, has been gifting some customers with a lip balm version of the sauce, which he admits he hasn't dared get near his mouth.

"You want to smell nice when someone's coming up to your face," he said. "I love Sriracha, but it's so stank."

Despite that pungent chili smell, he said, devotees of the sauce have been grabbing a stick for their pockets.

The restaurant, which Lee runs with his father, William, and sister, Isabel, goes through about four bottles of the 17-ounce sauce a week.

But Lee said it wasn't until he saw the sauce in an episode of AMC's "Breaking Bad" that he knew it had truly made it big.

"That's how you know it's arrived," he said. "It's in the background of a diner in a TV show next to the ketchup and mustard bottles."

The rooster sauce, as it is known because of an illustration on the bottle, is believed to have originated in Thailand, and while Lee aims to keep his menu as authentically Hawaiian as possible, he has no problem with the addition of the chili-based paste.

"Our food for some reason just goes really well with Sriracha," he said. "One of the things I pride myself on, I tell people, there is no pineapple on our menu."

Aloha Eats is one of only a handful of Hawaiian restaurants in Chicago, and about 20 percent of its customers are people who have lived in Hawaii for some time, according to Lee.

"It's the only real Hawaiian place I know," said Don Krueger, a 31-year-old Wicker Park resident who made the trek on a late Monday night.

The restaurant's menu features the cultural diversity of a Hawaiian lunch spot, including many fresh fish, chicken katsu, teriyaki barbecue beef and a number of SPAM-based dishes.

"I went to Maui. Everything in Maui you can get here — macaroni salad, mahi mahi," said Ty Whitley, 32, of Wicker Park. "It's all about the fresh foods."

When Lee finished studying at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, he made the move to Chicago and talked his father into opening up the Hawaiian grill in Lincoln Park.

His family, which moved to the mainland from Hawaii about 25 years ago, had operated a number of Chinese and American-style restaurants, but this was their first go at their native foods.

"Maybe for selfish reasons I wanted him to open it," Lee said. "Anytime you move away from a place, the first thing you will miss is the food."