Tony Hu, one of Chicago’s most popular restaurateurs, has been charged with allegedly withholding sales tax from state authorities.
The 48-year-old Hu, whose real name is Hu Xiaojun, runs the Tony Gourmet Group.
When Hu opened Lao Sze Chuan in Chinatown in 1998, he was a pioneer—presenting the most authentic regional Chinese food in the city. Foodies swarmed to his restaurants and over the last few decades he’s become a Chicago food celebrity. In recent years, his empire has expanded to include Lao Beijing, Lao Shanghai, Lao Yunnan and more than a dozen spots all over Chicago, the suburbs and even Connecticut and Las Vegas.
Federal agents executed search warrants at several of Hu’s restaurants in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood in October 2014. They also searched his Michigan Avenue condo.
Hu is president of the Chinese American Association of Greater Chicago and is a member of the advisory council of the Illinois Restaurant Association.
On Friday afternoon, at his original restaurant Lao Sze Chuan in Chinatown, customers like Chris Ochic were surprised.
“It is kind of shocking to hear that,” Ochic said while waiting for his food. “I’m really just here for the amazing shrimp in mayonnaise sauce, but to hear that he might be a criminal is surprising.”
Outside the restaurant, Neil Ramchandani, who lived in Chicago for many years, said he wasn’t entirely surprised but still pretty upset.
“I would be extremely mad if this went away,” Ramchandani said. “This is my favorite restaurant in Chicago by far so I would be very sad if this went away. I just ate at the downtown location last night.”
Ming Xue Huang is a student from Sichuan province studying in Michigan. She was on her way to Lao Sze Chuan for lunch when she got the news. She and her friend immediately asked if the charges were about food safety violations, which are the the source of many arrests in China. Still, she worried about the fate of the restaurant.
“I would be very sad if it closed,” she said. “Every time I come to Chicago I always go to Lao Sze Chuan restaurant. Everytime.”
The two official counts of wire fraud and money laundering would be punishable by up to 30 years in prison or up to $500,000.
WBEZ asked staff at Lao Sze Chuan for comment but they said no one there could give it.
Telephone calls to Hu for comment weren’t immediately returned to the Associated Press.