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Rise to Virtual Restaurants in Chicago

Henry Cai intended to open up a restaurant earlier this year before pandemic restrictions put that on pause. Instead, Cai launched 3 Little Pigs, one of Chicago’s most successful virtual restaurants. He specializes in Cantonese food, with pork fried rice, barbecue ribs, and more.

The big-ticket item is the scrumptious barbecue pork, which sells out about a month in advance. Cai takes orders every day for smaller items like fried rice and egg rolls with homemade shrimp chips and sweet and sour sauce. The nostalgia hits in different ways. Those who grew up with Chinese-American food will notice that the sauce is thinner than those found in those familiar little plastic packets. Cai says he doesn’t use fillers like cornstarch: “That would be cheating them.”

For Cai, the nostalgia comes from continuing his father’s work. He’s the man who introduced Cai to cooking and taught him the importance of fresh, hot food: “If I brought you something cold, you’d be like, ‘Oh man, fuck this guy,’” says Cai. “‘He don’t give a fuck about me. He don’t care about quality.’”

Cai works on a schedule that allows him to hand off his food to customers when it’s at its best, he says. That means customers direct-messaging him on Instagram and ordering their food hours in advance.

“The main thing with what I’m doing is I want to make sure the quality is there. That’s why I have to make people wait,” he says.

“There’s people who don’t understand that this isn’t a ‘restaurant-restaurant.’ You wait three hours for your food to pick it up. If you come at 10, and I’ve had this happen, where you come at 10 and I’m like, ‘We’re going to have to reschedule.’ And he’s like, ‘I’ll take the food cold.’ I can’t do that.”


Slide into their DMs to order from these culinary innovators.

If you ask Henry Cai, the chef behind takeout startup @3LittlePigsChi, to divulge how he prepares his char siu-style Chinese barbecue pork, he smiles and hesitates—visibly conflicted between safeguarding a treasured recipe and disappointing you. Cai’s barbecue pork is succulent and satisfyingly toothsome, glossed in sticky-sweet sauce with tang and warming depth. He learned how to make it from his dad, an immigrant from Guangzhou, in Southern China, and chef turned jeweler who in turn learned from a Chinese si fu (master).

“Chinese cooks my dad’s age (he’s 68) are really protective of recipes; my mom doesn’t even know how he makes it,” Cai tells me. With that he relents, just a little. “Traditionally, Chinese pork is more dry. I add more sauce, because that’s how I like it, and that’s how Americans eat barbecue.”

Cai was scouting locations to open a Chinese barbecue restaurant around his native Bridgeport when COVID-19 ground those plans to a halt. Not long before, he’d started posting pictures on Instagram of his scratch-made dishes under the @3LittlePigsChi moniker.

“My friends were like, ‘Lemme get an order—I’ll pay for it,’” he says. “Some friends, without permission, started telling people, ‘My buddy is doing this.’ Then suddenly, random people started messaging me for orders.”

Thanks to ever-sleuthing food writer Titus Pullo, I became one of those random people, DMing a stranger for a pound of lacquered pork nubs and 10 juicy pork potstickers with thick, chewy wrappers edged with crunchy sear for pickup in Chinatown



Our favorite spots of the year.

This is the Year Of The Pop-Up. In fact, all of the new pop-ups are one of the few bright spots to come out of the tedium-filled highway to Hell we call 2020. And one of our favorites is Chinese restaurant 3 Little Pigs, operating out of Bridgeport. You order by DM’ing their IG account, then find out day-of the pick-up location for your food. We got our first order of sticky BBQ pork ribs, fried rice, and pork-filled egg rolls on a side street in Chinatown behind an auto body shop. We picked up our second at [REDACTED]. So if you want some delicious Chinese food, we suggest sliding into a stranger’s DMs.

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