Zup Pizza: A Chicago Hou-Lee Trinity of Dough, Sauce & Cheese

By Sophie Steiner, January 4, 2023

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The Place 

Pizza is up there as one of the most unifying and polarizing of iconic worldly foods. In Chicago, pizza is a sacred entity; when attacked by New Yorkers, Neapolitans, Sicilians, Californians and the lot, us Chicagoans circle our deep-dish walls in defense, breadsticks at the ready. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

While some will balk, objecting that real Chicagoans don’t eat thick crust pizza, they’re wrong – of course we do. But our go-to, neighborhood pizza, consumed on the daily, will forever and always be the thin-crust. 

And this is not just in Chicago; this underrated pie that is finally receiving its long overdue recognition is a Midwest staple found in local pizza taverns from the lakes of Minnesota to the dairy farms of Wisconsin, from the cornfields of Iowa to the central plains of Ohio. 

For those from the American Midwest, tavern style pizza is a cracker crust pie – haphazardly sliced into squares – concealed by charred-edge pepperonis, pools of fat forming in each spicy meat-ring’s center, at a neon-lit dive bar with Neil Diamond’s 'Sweet Caroline' playing in the background.

It’s nostalgia on a plate.

And finally, it’s made its way to Asia, at Shanghai’s very own Zup Pizza Bar – a 90-seater spot above Jax Bistro on Fumin Lu.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Following numerous popups around the city, Zup – the brainchild of Chicago born and raised Wayne Hou and partner Lee Tseng (Liquid Laundry, Boxing Cat) – opened in the middle of pandemic takeout mode in August of 2022 to popular acclaim.

Having spent 19 years in China, the majority of which was in Dalian as the owner of a New York gastropub called Brooklyn, Wayne is no stranger to pizza culture of the East.

"Deep dish wouldn’t work as a staple in Shanghai because it’s too dense, and New York style has its bases covered already with Homeslice and Joe’s," he explains. "So this is where Chicago tavern style pizza steps into the limelight – fitting in ideally with a pizza plus bar concept."

The pizza and dishes are meant for sharing, a backdrop for value-driven drinking and partying. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

And it is just that. The venue stays open late, with pizza and snacks served until 2am on weekends – the smell of freshly baked pies plus a rotating set of DJs and live music pulling the Donghu Lu-Fumin Lu contingency upstairs. 

The Food 

The crust is the true mark of pizza craft. At its best, tavern style pizza defies the laws of physics with both crunch and flavor in such a small density of bread. The crust is not just crisp, but complex, with its own personality that can’t be found in any other pizza across the globe. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

And the process to make said crust at Zup is a scientifically calculated method – a multifaceted math equation and labor of love that sounds like something only Bill Nye the Science Guy could cook up.

The inputs of daily air, dough and flour temperatures are balanced by the friction factor to determine the necessary water temperature that ensures the pizza dough begins its 72-120-hour cold fermentation process at exactly 76 degrees Fahrenheit.

These inputs are meticulously recorded daily to manage calculated tweaks to the scientific method for discovering the perfect crackly canvas on which your pizza toppings rest. 

The pizzas meet their maker in a customized, double-decker Thunderbird oven imported from the USA that can fire up 12 pies at a time, cooking low and slow for 5-6 minutes to guarantee those chewy yet airy slices. 

Each 14-inch pizza – of which there are 11 to choose from – is served with up to two servings of two weeks-pickled and hand-chopped daily giardiniera – an Italian relish of vinegar-pickled veggies belovedly adopted by Chicagoans, a city renowned for an Italian immigrant population that has so heavily influenced its food scene.

Zup goes through 50-80 kilos of the stuff a week. So yeah, it’s a Chicago pizza necessity. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Redolent of the new school style of Detroit pizza squares in their plentiful excess, the Grand Fenneli (RMB118) is heaving with toppings, yet the sturdy crust can handle it (unlike its floppy New York counterpart that requires a fold and bite-like-a-taco situation).

The sausage is in a league of its own – fatty, spiced heavily with fennel and finished with herbs. But the sauce is tried and true Italian American ‘red sauce,’ cooked down, caramelizing and sweetening the tomato before spreading it to the edge of that glorious dough. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Wayne’s favorite that also happens to be a play on both his last name and that of the other founder, the Hou-Lee Trinity (RMB108)

It is all about the sauces – tangy red sauce and a smooth pink vodka sauce with an acidic tomato-y bite tempered by a cream finish act together as the base, while the addition of an herbaceous pesto transforms the alliance into a veritable ménage a trois. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Pizzas can also be split half-half for dine-in only, of which we doubled up on the Clemenza (RMB128) – a vodka sauce base littered with meatballs, house ricotta, red onion, giardiniera and fresh basil for brightness; and the Walter White (RMB98) – humble in its simplicity with just creamy ricotta, roasted garlic and a tangy spritz of lemon that come together to deliver on exactly what you want a white pizza to be. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The juxtaposition between the art of pizza making and the scientific method behind it is exemplified in the White Gold (RMB128) – a white base pizza scattered with pancetta bits and scallions atop mashed potato and creamy house ranch.

DSC05898.jpgImage by Sophie Steiner/That's

But the menu goes far beyond pizza, with must-orders that act as a prelude to the main event. The oh-so buttery Garlic Knots (RMB42) – generously coated in nutty parmesan wisps and meant to be dunked in vodka sauce – prove an introduction, like bubbles to Champagne, of the depth and range of flavors to come in the rest of the menu. 

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Souped-up elotes, or Mexican-style Street Corn (RMB38) arrive charred, tossed with feta, fresh cilantro and a drizzle of squeezed lime and chili. 

DSC05920.jpgMeatballs Al Forno (RMB68), Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

A southeast Asian spin on a classic coleslaw, the Cabbage Patch Salad (RMB68) is a heaping portion of cabbage and herbs doused in a coconut curry dressing, sprinkled with lime, sunflower seeds and crispy pig ear cracklin’. 

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Lovingly conjoining his Taiwanese heritage with his Southside Italian suburbs of Chicago upbringing, Wayne blends his mom’s recipe for braised pork lurou with steamed rice and cheese, rolls the whole mix into balls and fries it into the Lu Roucini (RMB58) – a playful fusion arancini of sorts, crowned with globules of orange-tinted ‘nduja mayo. 

DSC05914.jpgBaby Carrot (RMB48), Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The components of the Italian Cold Cut Sandwich (RMB68) are experienced individually rather than amalgamated, cyborg-like, into the whole.

The quartet of thinly sliced mortadella, Soppressata, smoked Praga ham and pepperoni, the buttery provolone, the pickled giardiniera and peppers contrast against fresh lettuce and tomato, a lashing of red wine vinegar, olive oil and sprinkling of oregano, and the house-baked 82% hydration focaccia.

They are all there to be tasted individually, stacked with a height that exceeds the diameter of even the biggest of yawns. 

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The coveted spot as Shanghai’s favorite burger remains under much contention, but add Zup’s Double Smash Burger (RMB88) to the list of contenders.

A US Prime double-patty meat ‘hash brown’ is layered with gooey American cheese, bread and butter pickles and special sauce mounted on a homemade milk bun. But take note – it’s only available in limited quantities on Wednesdays, so plan your weekly meat consumption schedule accordingly.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Desserts center around pies, a nod to Baker’s Square – an American diner chain – with the Wife Stealer (RMB58) clocking in as our indulgent favorite. Seventy-three percent Belgian chocolate mousse with the rich texture of Ice Box Brand ice cream fills a flaky pie crust. 

Drinks are inexpensive classics – expect the likes of Old Fashion, Negroni and Whiskey Sour (RMB65-70) done right, plus a monthly rotating selection of four tap beers (RMB40-45) and wine by the glass starting from RMB55. 

The Vibe 

More upbeat than your local pizza joint, a lot of thought went into the décor, with nods to the “the great cut” scattered throughout – tic-tac-toe shaped lighting installations, custom-made table tops with a grid-sliced pattern and even the bar’s mirrored backdrop mimics that of half a pizza pie, sliced into squares.

Plus, each light is dimmable and can change colors, so 9pm sees a switchover to hued lighting, adding to the neighborhood dive bar feel.

The whole thing is just pure Chicago.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Zup’s menu is also ideal fodder for delivery – the OG waimai guy being the pizza delivery man – and you can find nearly the entire range of dishes on both Elema and Meituan.

We can also vouch for the leftovers – when reheated following Wayne’s three-minute pan method – the crust is just as crispy as when it arrived tableside the day before. 

Zup will be closed from January 20-31 for Chinese New Year, so swing through ASAP for a much-needed pie-filled day.

Full stop. 

Price: RMB70-150
Who’s Going: Pizza connoisseurs, Midwestern Americans craving a taste of home, the Donghu Lu-Fumin Lu drinking contingency
Good For: Big lunches, late night feeds, casual dining, carbo-loading

Zup Pizza Bar, 2/F, 291 Fumin Lu, by Donghu Lu 地址  富民路291号2楼,近东湖路.

[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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