Chicago’s “Second City” moniker extends to its Chinatown. By population and business density, it’s no Manhattan or San Francisco. Few would name-check Chicago as a North American Chinese culinary mecca, unlike a Flushing or Monterey Park.
The city’s Chinatown is a compact neighborhood where you can walk from one end to the other in 10 minutes. But what the neighborhood lacks in size, it makes up for it — especially in recent years — in variety and eclecticism.
Gone are the days when Chinese gastronomy is consigned to “Cantonese” and “Mandarin.” In the last decade, the neighborhood has seen restaurants devoted to Yunnan and Taiwanese cuisine, places specializing in hand-pulled noodles and Sichuan hot pots. Chinatown remains one of the finest dining deals in town, especially when compared to the Michelin-rated tasting menus found two miles to the north. In fact, ask the chefs and line cooks of those $250-a-person restaurants, and many will say Chinatown is their preferred destination for a hot meal at 2 a.m. after their shifts.
We sought the opinions of Chicago notables, from radio hosts to chefs, sommeliers to Oscar-nominated filmmakers. Through their recommendations, a theme emerges: Their city is home to a Chinatown that punches above its weight.
“We’d always go with my kids into Aji Ichiban, a Hong Kong chain that sells Asian snacks and candies. I remember my youngest daughter always getting Pocky sticks. The fun was going in and tasting the free samples: Sometimes you tasted something lavender-flavored, sometimes it’d be disgusting (I don’t like foods with tentacles). But I’d give my daughters plastic bags and they could fill it up as much as they wanted. The place felt like a cultural peephole, like trick-or-treating in a foreign country. I always got the sense that Aji Ichiban, more than any other restaurant or store in Chinatown, felt like a genuine outpost of Asian culture.” // 2117 S. China Pl., 312-328-9998.
Host of NPR’s “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”
“There’s one place in Chinatown I’d go back to so often because it has the deepest connection for me: Chi Cafe, the late-night Cantonese spot in Chinatown Square. . That restaurant lives in lore for me and my friends.
“Ideally, we’d finish a few rounds of karaoke at Sakura on Wentworth, singing our hearts out. We may have had a few drinks. Then we’d make the five-minute walk to Chi Cafe. There’s four of us, so we’d fit nice and tight in a booth. Then we’d order five to six dishes knowing that we’re going to have enough leftovers for breakfast the next morning. I’d always get the Hong Kong-style fried squid; it’s this beautiful mix of sweet, savory, spicy, crispy, with lots of peppers. They also do great string beans cooked in soy sauce and garlic, too. Every dish is to die for, and the community there is great. I mean, how many places in Chicago can you show up at 3 a.m. and have such great food?” //2160 S. Archer Ave., chicafeonline.com.
Chicago-based visual artist
“My first immersive experience with Chicago’s Chinatown happened during the year-and-a-half I attended the University of Illinois at Chicago. I gravitated towards the rec center on most of my short class days and befriended a group of Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean folks via open court basketball. Sometimes we would play until the rec center closed, well past dining hall hours, and we would drive into Chinatown to grab dinner together. We would hit up a few different spots — Joy Yee, Moon Palace, Three Happiness, Triple Crown, BBQ King House. But as our after-gym dinners turned into just-hanging-out-all-the-time meals, we’d always gravitate to Ken Kee.
“Depending on class schedules, there were upward of 8-10 college kids crammed into one of the large round tables in the corner. Our Cantonese friends would order for the entire table — sometimes they’d ask for items that weren’t on the menu but had specific memories attached to their families, their upbringing, or — for some — their life back home. I can’t specifically remember most of the dishes (there were preserved duck egg congee, tofu and whitefish in gravy over rice, extra crispy char siu chow mien), but the overall feelings and memories are tied into deeply sentimental smells and sounds. The wall-mounted TV of muffled Chinese variety shows, the wall of mirrors with menu specials taped all over, the taste of hot bitter tea and the noisy chatter of a few kids still in their teens packed around a table, holding onto our chopsticks, and holding onto each other.” // 2129 S. China Pl., kenkee.com.
“Richland Center is a food court with zero ambiance. It’s a shame; you look around and think, “Why aren’t there more people here?” If this was in Taiwan it would be super busy. There’s a lot of turnover of food stalls here, but the one constant is Snack Planet. I like the food, there’s a good array of dishes, and the guy behind the counter is friendly. The main thing I like is the cold Sichuan chicken with chili oil. It’s Chinese-style poached chicken: He chops it up with the bones intact, and there’s a lot of fat under the skin and slippery cartilage to chew on. The chicken is incredibly silky, and it’s served with a Sichuan pepper-accented chili oil, peanuts, bamboo shoots and scallions. It’s an amazing dish and it’s something like $6. It ticks every single box in my checklist of deliciousness: Spicy, crunchy, soft, silky, lots of sauce leftover. I remember driving back after tasting this and thinking to myself: ‘Why the hell for $6 didn’t I order two more containers to take home?’
“The guy manning Snack Planet — he’s attentive, and he’s got pride in his products. He’ll look at you while you’re eating to make sure you’re enjoying it. If you’re running low on rice, he might bring out some more rice. I love that. It’s the attention to detail you don’t expect in a dreary basement of an office building in Chinatown. “ // 2002 S. Wentworth Ave. (Basement of Richland Center food court), qmenu.us/#/snack-planet-chicago.
Co-founder, Chicago food message board LTHForum.com
Lao Sze Chuan
“I was born in Beijing, but I spent time in Chengdu when I was little. My grandma made a lot of home-cooked meals in the Sichuan style. Even today, every time I go back to China, my uncles and aunts would take me to a hot pot place. It’s a very specialized cuisine that’s hard to get right and hard to get authentically. Lao Sze Chuan does it.
“I tend to eat simpler dishes, nothing too overly complex in flavor. At Lao Sze Chuan, the garlic sauteed spinach with some white rice always does it for me. Or something like sauteed eggplants or lotus roots. That’s what my grandma and aunties would cook.
“I can’t handle spicy foods, but if I go to Lao Sze Chuan with friends, we’ll get something with three chili peppers on the menu. I like the self-punishing experience of it.” //2172 S. China Pl., laoszechuanusa.com.
Academy Award-nominated filmmaker of Minding The Gap
“My Chinatown love story: I adore dim sum, but until last year, I’d only ever had it out with other non-Asian folks. Last spring, then-Chicago Reader creative lead Sue Kwong took a small but diverse group of us to Cai, and it was a completely different experience being with someone who could communicate — and negotiate — with the staff on our behalf. It felt much more like being welcomed into someone’s home.
“I also love the chaos of dim sum: the carts, the rapid-fire ordering, the speed with which dishes appear on the table and are whisked away. And I have a (totally unsubstantiated) theory that the magic of dim sum ensures that everyone gets enough to eat with little to no food being wasted.” // 2100 S. Archer Ave., 2nd Floor, caichicago.com.
Editor-in-chief, Chicago Reader
“Phoenix has a warm place in my heart. Before they did their remodel — before the gold lame and linen, like it was a Vancouver dim sum parlor — Phoenix had VFW-hall chairs. It was dingy. But they had three dim sum chefs from Toronto, and on a good day, it was as good as anything you’d have in Flushing. The pleating on the har gow was right on, with the right translucency and ratio. The shu mai and Malay cake were always solid.
“But I love Phoenix because we raised both of our kids in that dining room. We didn’t live in the suburbs and wanted to take advantage of being in the city. Chinatown was a no-brainer for families — you could be messy and loud, and there’s no falling back on a mac-and-cheese situation. Taking my kids in strollers with that cacophony of carts and people yelling, that noise is part of their internal wiring. They could sleep through a hurricane because they experienced dim sum service at eight weeks old. Most importantly, we got to expose our two kids to different foods. To this day, my daughter’s favorite food is preserved eggs and pork congee. I kid you not, when my daughter was two-and-a-half, she asked my wife and I if we were Chinese.” // 2131 S. Archer Ave., phoenixrestaurantil.com.
Food Reporter, WLS-TV
Tous Les Jours
“I’ve been riding my bike like a fiend to one spot in Chinatown biweekly: to get milk bread from Tour Les Jours [a Korean-owned bakery franchise in Asia and the U.S.]. I’m telling you, I want to put everything in between those two pieces of bread. They also have their regular white bread, thick-cut bread, and they have the raisin bread. I make my husband stop on his way home to pick up that raisin bread so we can make French toast. But that milk bread: It’s so light and fluffy and golden when toasted, it’s to die-for. Everyone should have Japanese milk bread at least once in their life.” //2144 S. Archer Ave., tljus.com.
Co-owner, HaiSous Vietnamese Kitchen
Go 4 Food
“Go 4 Food is off the beaten path. It’s on a residential street, and from the outside it’s not very attractive. But it’s one of my favorite places. It’s more refined than the typical Cantonese restaurant. There’s some Indonesian, Malay, Macanese influence too. What they really specialize is in seafood.
“My favorite dish is razor clams, which they serve with ginger, garlic, green onions, on vermicelli noodles. I’ve had the whole chili Dungeness crab and the salt-and-pepper crab. They do a wonderful housemade XO sauce, and they’ve got a great hot-and-sour seafood soup. Outside seafood, they’ve got this French-style beef tenderloin that’s cubed and deep-fried, like a Chinese country fried steak.
“Go 4 Food tries to be a bit fancier, a bit more modern. And it hits the mark.” //212 W. 23rd St., go4foodusa.com.
Ji Suk Yi
Producer, WGN America News Nation
The most familiar place for me in Chinatown is Triple Crown. “When I was growing up, my parents had a restaurant in Wrigleyville — two blocks from Wrigley Field — called Pan Asia. I was in middle school and high school; my parents would work at the restaurant all day long, and the only break we had was when we closed. This was like 10 p.m. And we’d always go to Triple Crown. Looking back at it, taking a middle schooler to a 10 p.m. dinner might not have been the wisest choice, but I loved it.
“They have a late-night menu that’s a bit more family-style. There were three staples we always got: The thick chow fun noodles extra crispy with beef and extra gravy, a fish casserole, and the shrimp with walnuts. Wed go to Triple Crown maybe once a week, or once every other week. Even now, it’s one of those fond memories for me.” //2217 S. Wentworth Ave., triplecrownchicago.com.
Chef, PIKO Street Kitchen
Chiu Quon Bakery & Dim Sum
I’m a huge fan of Chiu Quon Bakery & Dim Sum. They have a huge variety of sweet and savory buns — the BBQ pork bun is my favorite. It’s also one of the few places in town where you can get Portuguese egg custards. If you’re a dim sum fan, I would highly recommend all of their dumplings. On weekends, they offer Taiwanese breakfast of you tiao (savory crispy crullers) with warm soy milk. You have to try one of their mixed fruit cakes, conveniently available in single-sized servings. You can order to-go and they have a dining area towards the back. Heads up: They are cash only. // 2253 S. Wentworth Ave., cqbakery.com.
Master Sommelier and Restaurateur, Terra & Vine