Standing Room Only: Joy Yee Smoothie Station
Joy Yee Smoothie Window
2139 South China Place, Chicago, IL 60616 (map); 312-328-0001; joyyee.com
The Short Order: Freshly made drinks to go at the Chinatown Mall.
Want Fries with That? Joy Yee does serve dinner, but the drinks are better.
Seats? You can find some benches around the outdoor mall.
With the temperature hovering around 100 degrees all week, you can forgive me for skipping one of Chicago's many fine hot dog stands in favor of something that might actually cool me down. While the city has some great Italian ice joints waiting to refresh your weary soul, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out another refreshing delicacy that also does an admirable job: the Asian smoothie.
When I think of Asian drinks, the one restaurant that immediately and forcefully comes to mind is Joy Yee in the Chinatown Mall (though other franchise locations are scattered around). There is a reason for this. As Chinatown's most garishly and brightly lit storefront, it's kind of hard to miss. The restaurant also manages to consistently pull in a crowd. Though the scope of the menu is impressive and the food mostly works, it misses the intricacies that you can find at many other places. Plus, when you're in the same neighborhood as a great Tony Hu restaurant (or five), it makes sense to skip by the neon green lights in favor of nestling up to a plate of crack chicken.
But Joy Yee has a secret weapon that is almost impossible to deny: this place cares about blended fruit drinks. In fact, the massive restaurant even has a smoothie station walk-up window—open only on the weekends—to help deal with the intense crush for the frozen delights.
You can also order from the counter inside all week, and that's where you'll also get the best view of the impressive fruit blending operation. A fleet of blenders whir around, while mangos line one whole side of the wall.
Honestly, the hardest part about visiting the Joy Yee Smoothie Station is figuring what to order. With over a 100 options spread over 11 different categories, it can take ages just looking over it all.
One sip of the milk tea with tapioca ($3.75) and it's immediately clear that Joy Yee knows what it's doing. Only moderately sweet, the first flavor that you actually detect is the tea. And is it wrong for me describe the tapioca balls as al dente? They are squishy but not soft, with pleasingly firm centers. (These are good attributes of a tapioca ball, no?)
But it's the lychee watermelon freeze ($3.50) that really jumped out at me. Tart and wonderfully refreshing, the flavors of the fruit are paramont here, with only a slight sweet edge present. It was 90 degrees when I visited, and I'm not sure there is a more weather appropriate drink on the menu.
Why yes, those are red beans on top of the red bean and coconut crystal jelly shaved ice ($3.95). What else would you expect? Assertive and distinct, this drink was sweetened much more than the other two. I was pleasantly surprised, even if this was my least favorite of the bunch.
The fact that I still have a 100 flavors I could try kind of overwhelms me. But if you have any favorites, I'd love to hear.