Best of the South Side: Chinatown

When you’re bored of pizza or the fine eateries on Michigan Avenue have maxed out your credit card, it’s time to hop on the Red Line and head to Chinatown. Walking down the main drag takes you past restaurant after restaurant, grocery stores favoring ingredients not typically found at Jewel-Osco, bakeries, and gift shops. While the décor does tend to cater to the tourist ideal of the Far East, the cuisine is authentic and the price is right. Large tables in most of the restaurants encourage large groups and family-style dining. Joy Yee’s is a popular favorite, though the lesser-known spots are just as tasty and often far less crowded. A typical, tasty night in the area might include dinner at one of the many restaurants, bubble tea for an after-dinner stroll, and a pastry for dessert. There are also shops, karaoke, and a park for those who can’t or won’t eat any more. A real taste of China without the annoying 20-hour plane ride–what more could we ask for?

Best Place for DIY Cooking
Lao Sze Chuan
If you approach the Lao Sze Chuan restaurant from Cermak or Archer, it might not seem like all that much. There’s a small sign marking its spot amidst a strip mall filled with other restaurants and businesses, but you can’t even see inside the place. But if you approach from the entrance in Chinatown Square–well, that’s a whole other story. Two floors of large square and circular dining tables–often nearing the point of capacity–signify that the restaurant is, indeed, alive and kicking. It’s a bit pricy, but the food is definitely some of Chinatown’s finest; in fact, the restaurant is a multiple recipient of Zagat’s “Best Authentic Chinese Food” award, and Chef Tony (Xiao Jun) Hu even has his own Chinese language cooking show. And of course, there’s the Hot Pot. Get together a group of friends, get yourself a table and prepare for a night of DIY custom-made cuisine. Choose your soups, meats, seafood, vegetables, and noodles, and dip away with this Chinese fondue specialty. Mmm mmmm. 2172 S. Archer Ave. Monday-Sunday, 11:30am-12am. (312)326-5040. (Sean Redmond)

Best Place for non-Chinese to Make Educated Decisions about Their Meals Before they Order Them:
Royal Dragon
Let’s face it: unless you have extensive experience with Chinese culture (or are dining with particularly ethnic friends), you probably have no idea what half of the entrées on a Chinese restaurant’s menu are. And when it comes to picking out your dinner, you don’t want to mess around with the great unknown. So you order the Mongolian Beef or the Sweet and Sour Chicken and call it a night. That’s fine I guess, but for those looking to branch out, the Royal Dragon provides the best gateway to go from typical ignorant American to Chinese cuisine connoisseur. Why, you ask? Because the restaurant provides a full picture menu, complete with images of all the possible meal choices. And we’re not talking idealized promo sucker shots, either; these are lo-fi photographs of actual honest-to-Confucius restaurant-made meals. So you’re thinking of trying the blood cakes? You can look it up and see if it looks like something you’d want to eat. Sure, it’s not perfect, and it’s kind-of judging a book by its cover, but when your alternative is a shot in the dark or sticking with the ol’ tried-and-true, it’s a step in the right direction. And hey, if you don’t like your meal, you get a free cookie at the end of your meal. And no, not a fortune cookie–but you do get those too. What more could you possibly want? 2225 S. Wentworth St. Monday-Friday, 10am-11pm; Saturday-Sunday, 9am-11pm. (312)808-1322. (Sean Redmond)