Chicago

A Food Expert's Guide to Chicago's Chinatown

Just in time for Lunar New Year.

Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram
Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram
Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram

Chicago’s Chinatown, a triangular slice of the Near South Side loosely bordered by Cermak Road, Wentworth Avenue, and a northbound-snaking branch of the Chicago river, has been fueling Grace Wong’s culinary cravings long before she cut her teeth dishing on the city’s vibrant restaurant scene for the Chicago Tribune

“Both my parents are from Shanghai and they immigrated to Naperville, which is about 40 minutes outside of the city,” says the esteemed former dining reporter, recalling her suburban upbringing. “When I was growing up, we’d make this semi-monthly pilgrimage into Chicago, especially Chinatown and the Argyle area, to get supplies because there was no real Asian population where we lived. There were maybe two small Asian grocery stores at the time; when we got an H Mart, it was literally the biggest news of my life. My mom was so hype about it.”

“It was always just a huge deal, piling into the van,” she continues. “We would go for dim sum in the morning and then the entire afternoon we’d be following my mom around to all these different specialty grocery stores so she could get the ingredients she needed to make dishes from her homeland. I remember being a kid and carrying giant plastic buckets around because we would pick up live crabs and live fish, stuff like that.”

Wong now lives on the North Side and although both the pandemic and her recent departure from the Tribune and their centrally located office has made travelling down to Chinatown a bit less convenient, she still manages to pay her favorite establishments a visit every now and then.

“I haven’t gone much since the virus hit but I have made the trip a few times, mostly when I’m just like, ‘I need my Boba fix!'” she says with a laugh. “And then once I get down there I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I need barbecue pork from BBQ King House. And I need my roast duck. And I might as well go to Park To Shop because I’m out of like, I don’t know, oyster sauce or whatever.’ It always ends up being an extended time.”

Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram
Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram
Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram

Getting the lay of the land

It might look like one cohesive cityscape at first glance, but according to Wong, Chicago’s Chinatown is actually composed of two distinct, nuanced districts.

“So, there’s new Chinatown and there’s old Chinatown,” Wong explains. “The big plaza with all the Zodiac animals next to it-that’s considered, at least to my parents, new Chinatown. And then old Chinatown is down Wentworth Avenue, south of Cermak. If you look at a map, there’s a little triangle where Archer, Clark, and Cermak meet. Everything south of Archer is more old Chinatown and everything north of Archer is more new Chinatown.”

“Growing up, we spent a lot of time at old Chinatown, mostly because there are a bunch of bakeries there and we would bring home pastries to eat for weeks and weeks,” she says. “As I got older, we started going to new Chinatown more. You’ll see a younger demographic in new Chinatown, trendy places like Bonchon and Mango Mango-that’s more of the vibe. And it’s more touristy in the sense that the people who go into new Chinatown to walk around and spend their day there, they might not necessarily live there. Whereas with old Chinatown, you’re bumping past the old ladies that have lived in that neighborhood forever.”

What makes the neighborhood stand out?

After high school, Wong moved to California to pursue a degree in journalism at USC. And while she enjoyed the years she spent on the (much, much) sunnier West Coast, her experience in Los Angeles only further cemented her devotion to Chicago’s Chinatown.

“I think a lot of Chinatown’s across the country are kind of going away,” she says. I was in LA for like six and a half, seven years, and the actual designated “Chinatown” there is maybe one city block. Here, you can bump into people who straight up just arrived from China or Taiwan one minute then turn around and talk to someone who has lived in the area for generations the next, that’s all they know. I think that’s really cool.”

“Another important thing to note is that Chinatown is not only for the people who live there but also for all the Asian-Americans who in the surrounding suburbs, of which there are so many,” Wong adds. “To be able to go to a place where my parents can just chit chat with whoever without any worries about language, or where I can tell someone my very specific boba order and they’ll get it exactly right without asking me all these questions-I don’t know, it’s just a really special place for everybody.”
 

Grace’s list of can’t-miss Chinatown spots:

Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings
Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings
Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings

Qing Xiang Yuan

“One of my favorite places to get dumplings is Qing Xiang Yuan. They also have a location in the Loop. They do a lot of different styles, all handmade, which is really awesome. They’re really playful with the fillings and you can customize if you want them boiled or fried. And they have these really amazing takeout boxes that they designed for themselves-yes, I’m here for that packaging. They’re also pretty new and modern. I don’t know if my parents would love it, per se, because they’d be like, ‘This is a fancy restaurant.’ But it’s just dumplings! Go there and you’ll have a really great time.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Elitea

“Just south of QXY is the entrance to the Richland Center, which is basically a glorified food court. It’s one of the few places where you can get really regional cuisine and it’s also home to Elitea, one my favorite places to get boba. They have this fire brown sugar boba that is just, I mean, incredible.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

 

Hing Kee

“For soup dumplings, I like to go to Hing Kee. Back in the day there were always, like, aunties making dumplings in the window-I loved that. Every now and then I’d go for some other kind of snack, but their soup dumplings are the best.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Hello Jasmine
Courtesy of Hello Jasmine
Courtesy of Hello Jasmine

Hello Jasmine 

“Hello Jasmine on Clark Street is really good for Taiwanese snacks and boba. I usually get their roasted oolong, popcorn chicken, and maybe some sausage skewers. They also have this fried chicken sandwich that’s unreal. It was definitely a spur of the moment decision to get it, but it was so good I posted about it on Instagram.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

 

Laojiumen

“For hotpot, there’s this new place called Laojiumen. They basically do ‘fancy hotpot’ and I honestly can’t wait to go there when I feel like it’s safe to do so.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Bingo Tea

“Bingo Tea has the best cheese tea. They were one of the first and the biggest to do it. You know how cheesecake is cheese but not really? Like how it’s sweet but has a touch of like salt to it? Imagine that but whipped. There’s a fruit or loose-leaf tea on the bottom and on top there’s this foam-like latte foam but thicker. The name might be a little bit of a marketing issue, but don’t knock it until you try it!”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Lao Sze Chuan

“Lao Sze Chuan is a classic for Sichuan food across the board. It might be an unpopular opinion, but I love their dry chili chicken. People say it’s for tourists, but it’s actually so good!”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine
Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine
Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine

MingHin

“Right next to Lao Sze Chuan is MingHin. I’m telling you, no dim sum trip is complete without a stop there.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles
Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles
Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles

Slurp Slurp Noodles

“Slurp Slurp Noodles is in the old Chinatown area and their hand-shaved noodles are some of my all-time favorites. They’re super bouncy and springy and served in this delicious sauce. And they’re not soupy noodles-more like the dry, tossed-in-a-wok kind. They also make their own mustard greens, which are fire. It’s a solid spot.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

BBQ King

“BBQ King is the absolute go-to for all your barbecue needs. And they’re for sure doing takeout right now, I know that from experience.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

MCCB

“MCCB, they do ridiculous, mouth-numbingly spicy food and it’s fantastic. Their grilled whole fish, it’s just swimming in chilies, and you’re like, ‘I’m going to die and I’m going to enjoy every moment of it.’ I love it there.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Chef Xiong
Courtesy of Chef Xiong
Courtesy of Chef Xiong

Chef Xiong

“Another good place for spicy Sichuan-style food is Chef Xiong. They have a really cute logo with a Panda on it. I don’t know if I have a favorite dish, but I would say just go, sit down, and whatever they tell you to eat, do that. You won’t regret it.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Dolo Restaurant and Bar

“If you want to feel like you’re at a club but also eating Chinese food, Dolo is the spot for you. They also do cocktails and their food is definitely good, but it’s just like, ‘I’m here with my parents in this dark room with this loud music… I don’t know what to say.'” 
How to order: Click here to order online.

Feida Bakery

“Barbecue pork buns? Obviously great. Ham and egg buns? Obviously great. Cream horns? Obviously great. Am I missing anything?”
How to order: Call 312-808-1113 to order.

Park To Shop

“You have to check out a grocery store because grocery stores are the best. We love going to Park To Shop-there are two big locations in Chinatown. One is on Archer and one is farther south but both are great.” 
How to order: Click here to order online.

Xi’an Cuisine

“Xi’an Cuisine, they do what people call Chinese hamburgers. I kind of hate that name because it’s a bun that’s been pan fried and stuffed with cumin-spiced meats-to me, that’s not really a hamburger, but I understand the desire to assign it a name you’re familiar with. Either way, they taste great.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Aji Ichiban

“Up near the Richmond Center there’s this little candy specialty store called Aji Ichiban. I love going in there for sweets-they have Japanese candies, Korean candies, Chinese candies, all the candies.”
How to order: Click here to order online. 

Nine Bar

“More recently, there have been a few pop-ups coming from second generation Chinatown kids like this one out of Moon Palace. Pop-ups are such a big COVID thing. I would be remiss not to mention them.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago
Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago
Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago

Meet Fresh

“Another place for dessert is Meet Fresh-it’s so good. And you will definitely be shell-shocked by a tiny, 90-pound Asian girl eating an entire mountain of ice cream on her own because, yeah, that’s a normal occurrence there. It’s happened to me twice now and I’m shocked every time. I’m talking a mountain of shaved ice and pudding and taro balls-delicious, but you’d need at least four people to eat it. It’s amazing.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Meredith Heil is originally from St. Louis, now lives in Chicago, and in between has been to all 50 states (that’s feet on the ground, none of that airport BS). She enjoys reading about, thinking about, talking about, writing about, putting on events about and drinking about craft beer.

Chicago

Chicago's Coolest and Most Romantic Date Ideas

Spice things up.

Courtesy of The Forge: Lemont Quarries
Courtesy of The Forge: Lemont Quarries
Courtesy of The Forge: Lemont Quarries

Let’s face it: Lockdown has not made dating easy. If you’ve managed thus far to weather the ups and downs of the almighty quar with your relationship intact, may the gods bless you eternally. And if you’re single and trying like hell to mingle at a safe and sanitary distance these days, may they bless you doubly. It’s rough out there, and with Valentine’s Day approaching faster than Cupid on a bottle rocket, it’s only getting rougher. That’s why we put together this ingenious list of Chicago-centric, quarantine-approved date ideas to keep your little love flame a-burning for many, many months to come. Now grab your sexiest face mask and get on out there.

Cuddle up at a drive-in movie 

All outdoor everything is the name of the game this year, a mantra that extends to entertainment even in the coldest of months. Grab your coziest blanket and cruise over to ChiTown Movies in Pilsen for some good old fashioned front seat fun set to the tune of modern classics like “Mean Girls,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Scream,” and more. And remember to come hungry-resident snackbar ChiTown Grille is standing by to deliver a full bill of tasty treats right to your driver’s side door. 

Put your relationship to the test in a private escape room

Prove once and for all that there’s no I in TEAM by booking your very own date night-worthy escape room experience at Fox in a Box. A web of thoughtfully appointed scenarios awaits, imbued with enough twists and turns to get your blood pumping and your brain ticking. And don’t worry about wasting precious time fretting over your health-each and every space is sanitized to perfection between games.

Courtesy of Half Acre Beer Company
Courtesy of Half Acre Beer Company
Courtesy of Half Acre Beer Company

Embark on a DIY brewery crawl

With so many great craft breweries clustered around the city, organizing a bicycle- or foot-powered suds crawl for two is always a failsafe date idea. What’s more, plenty of taprooms have expanded into beer gardens, heated patios, and other sidewalk accomodations for sharing pandemic-friendly pints. Just pick a neighborhood (pro tip: Milwaukee Avenue from the Near Westside to Logan Square is a fantastic place to start), bundle up, and hit the streets in search of sweet Chicago-brewed suds.
 

Level up with a sky-high curling session

Take your dating game to new heights by throwing in a little friendly-and frosty-competition alongside the cocktails. Thanks to the virus-fueled push outside, curling has become Chicago’s latest must-have bar game and drinking dens all over the city are getting in on all the slip-sliding broom-pushing action. Reserve a lane at Kaiser Tiger, Whiskey Business, Harvest at Lakeshore Sport & Fitness, or Upstairs at the Gwen and prepare to sweep your beloved off their feet, pun very much intended.

Courtesy of Ice Castles
Courtesy of Ice Castles
Courtesy of Ice Castles

Soak up the scenery on a wintery weekend getaway

Have car, will travel. Pack your best snow boots, build a killer playlist, and direct your GPS to the corner of nature and beauty for a seasonal escape to some of the mighty Midwest’s most idyllic towns. Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva, with its wide open shoreline, panoramic vistas, and friendly downtown-not to mention seriously majestic ice castles-makes for an excellent relaxing sojourn while powder-packed slopes all the way from Otsego, Michigan to Illinois’ own picturesque Galena beckon the stir crazy ski bum set. Got a little extra cash on your hands? Go ahead and treat yourself to a top notch stay in one of these luxe Airbnbs.
 

Crush a few cold ones at a heated rooftop or patio bar

If this hellscape of a pandemic has had any silver linings, it’s undoubtedly the newfound and widespread incentive to do our drinking outdoors, even when old Jack Frost starts his nipping. Make the most of it with some swanky open-air sipping at winterized al fresco watering holes like Lincoln Park’s towering J. Parker, Wicker Park newcomer Kennedy, loungey River North hot spots I|O Godfrey and Joy District, South Side haunt the Woodlawn, and other al fresco winners including the limited-run Fire & Ice pop-up at Recess in the West Loop. You have to admit that’s a real win-win in a scenario where even the smallest win is cause to celebrate.

 

Courtesy of The Darling Chicago
Courtesy of The Darling Chicago
Courtesy of The Darling Chicago

Dine beneath the heat lamps at a romantic outdoor restaurant

Staying socially distanced doesn’t mean having to sacrifice the pleasures of fine dining. Impress your special someone by snagging an appropriately spaced (and appropriately heated) outdoor table at Chicago date night institutions like Restaurant Row’s aptly named The Darling, Lincoln Park stalwart Avli Taverna, or River North stunner RPM Seafood, among others. Thinking about throwing a known aphrodisiac into the mix? We’ve got all your Chitown oyster bar needs covered right here.

Enjoy dinner and a show from the best seat in the house

Take advantage of Chicago’s unprecedented take-out and delivery boom by copping chef-driven supper for two from one of the city’s buzziest restaurants before settling in for some award-winning live entertainment. There’s plenty to stream, from knee-slapping comedy acts featuring the likes of the Neo-Futurists and CSz Theater Chicago to on-demand illusions from the Magic Parlour and even exclusive concerts curated by indie legends like the Hideout as well as international start-ups like Bandsintown. Just sit back, relax, and appreciate this bizarre new normal. 

Sharpen your knife skills at a virtual cooking demo 

Roll up your sleeves, fasten your apron, and ready yourself for an at-home kitchen showdown with help from all-star local chefs. Culinary giants from Boka’s star-studded roster to two-time James Beard winner Paul Kahan and everyone in between are going digital this season, hosting interactive live streamed cooking classes complete with expert guidance and all the ingredients you need to whip up a gourmet meal with your own two hands. 

Courtesy of The Violet Hour
Courtesy of The Violet Hour
Courtesy of The Violet Hour

Shake things up with a take-home cocktail kit 

If COVID’s wrath has put the kibosh on your favorite date night drinkery, you’ll be stoked to learn that a slew of award-winning local cocktail joints have been lovingly boxing up their boozy splendors just for you. We’re talking big names like the Aviary, Violet Hour, 3 Dots and a Dash, and more, all exquisitely prepared and portioned for at-home consumption. So snap on your fanciest suspenders and get ready to transform your humble living room into Chicago’s hottest club.  

 

Take your ice queen (or king) for a spin around the rink 

Millennium Park’s traditional rink might not be an option this year, but you can still tear up the track this winter at a few different Chicagoland arenas. Make a reservation at Maggie Daley Park’s Ice Skating Ribbon to wind your way down the rippling path beneath downtown’s glittering skyline or truck out to the suburbs for a chance to glide like the pros at Rosemont’s Chicago Wolves Ice Rink. More adventurous lacer-uppers might even consider a trip to The Forge: Lemont Quarries, a massive 300-acre adventure park that morphs into a winter wonderland each yuletide complete with a top-of-the-line skating rink plus climate-controlled dining globes for the requisite apres-skate snack.
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Meredith Heil is a contributor for Thrillist. 

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