I never need a reason to visit Chicago's Chinatown, but I used the upcoming Chinese New Year on Sunday as an excuse to delve deeper into the neighborhood's incredible restaurant scene than ever before. Last year I focused on the many restaurants owned by Tony Hu, figuring that his restaurant group was a sensible place to start, since they manage to be both accessible and genuinely delicious. But this year I opened the flood gates, deciding to eat at as many of the non-Tony Hu Chinatown restaurants as I could. And there are a lot of them.
I failed miserably, though not for a lack of trying. It's hard to comprehend just how many restaurants there are in this tiny neighborhood. The Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce puts the total at over 40, though I'm sure there are even more. I hope you won't be upset that I didn't make it to each and every one. Instead, I only visited ones that sounded interesting or were trying to do something unique, though even that left me with quite a large number. I'm sure I missed a few key places.
The Menu Dilemma
But even if I only visited one place, there was the menu problem, which afflicts basically every single restaurant in the area. How am I supposed to get a sense of a place when each and every menu lists literally hundreds of different dishes? Someone would need years to accomplish the goal at just one place.
Instead, I followed the same formula used for my Tony Hu project:
- Stick to Regional Items: For the most part, I tried to only order the dishes particular to that restaurant's regional focus, though the lines were often blurred.
- Ignore the American-Chinese Dishes: Almost every menu had a laundry list of standard American-Chinese dishes. I basically ignored them all.
- Do the Research: I looked through reviews of the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Time Out Chicago, LTHForum, and even Yelp for any helpful hints, while also scouring through the many Chinese cookbooks I have at home for any regional highlights to look out for.
- Take Advice: Armed with recommendations, I'd usually order at least one thing that the waitstaff suggested or that looked interesting. Unlike the Tony Hu restaurants, this didn't lead to that many finds. I think the language barrier was more distinct this time around.
The Restaurant Lineup
View Chinatown Dishes We Love (Non-Tony Hu Edition) in a larger map
- MingHin Cuisine
- Double Li
- Hing Kee
- "Little" Three Happiness
- Go 4 Food
- Snack Planet
- Ma Gong La Po
- Lee Wing Wah
- Sweet Station
- Crazy Pot
- Chiu Quon Bakery and Cafe
What I Learned
As I expected, there were far more misses this time around. Though I prefer certain Tony Hu restaurants over others in his group, the quality at each is high. This time dishes varied wildly in quality, from the delectable to the disastrous. On one sad occasion, I was served chicken still very raw in the middle.
Along the way I developed some personal preferences, which I think speak most to the kind of Chinese cuisine I enjoy (namely, Sichuan). In general, I prefer the newer restaurants to the older, mostly Cantonese ones, not because they are shinier, but because the food is often less greasy and much spicier. Before the hate mail starts, know that I still enjoyed quite a few of the old school joints, especially the ones that served immediately satisfying food in a warm and welcoming room.
In the end, this felt like an extended exercise in getting out of my comfort zone. Whenever I used to dine in Chinatown, I'd head immediately for a Hu restaurant. While I encountered some duds, I did gain an immense amount of respect for the other players in the scene, which are scattered all over the place. Though many were in the Chinatown Square mall, others were located south on Wentworth Ave and along Cermak. You can even find one of my picks in the Richland Center's subterranean food court. Basically, there's great food everywhere you look in Chinatown.
Check out my favorite dishes from Chinatown by clicking on the slideshow, or by visiting each individually below.
- Macau-style Roast Pork at MingHin Cuisine
- Baked Egg Tarts at Cai
- Grilled Fish Hot Pot at Ma Gong La Po
- Dumplings at Ma Gong La Po
- Spicy Braised Beef Broth at Hing Kee
- Xiao Long Bao at Hing Kee
- Salt and Pepper Shrimp at "Little" Three Happiness
- Dumplings at Phoenix
- Hot & Sour Seafood Soup at Go 4 Food
- Fried Silverfish at Go 4 Food
- Laganma Chili Paste with Beef at Snack Planet
- Stir-Fried-Clams in Black Bean Sauce at Lee Wing Wah
- Salt and Pepper Chicken Wings at Sweet Station
- Portuguese Pork Chop Sandwich at Sweet Station
- House Special Braised Water Duck Pot at Crazy Pot
- Lamb Yakitori at Crazy Pot
- Mapo Tofu at Double Li
- Barbecue Pork Bun at Chiu Quon Bakery