Best of the South Side 2008: Chinatown

Chicago’s Chinatown district has changed a substantial amount since the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the beginnings of a Chicago Chinatown were born. In the late 1800s, most of the Chinese immigrants in Chicago lived near Clark and Van Buren in downtown Chicago. However, Chinese-Americans faced substantial housing discrimination in Chicago, and established Chinatown as a safe haven Today, Chinatown continues to expand as a neighborhood, recently spilling over into the neighborhood of Bridgeport to the south. The hustle and bustle of the Chinatown neighborhood is hard to miss, as the streets of Chinatown are lined with hole-in-the-wall restaurants and delectable bakeries, frequently busy and serving a diverse group of customers. There is also no shortage of grocery stores and specialty stores. From its summer festivals to the countless number of gift shops, Chicago’s Chinatown may not be the biggest Chinatown in the country, but it certainly is one of the most vibrant.

Best Baozi
Chiu Quon
Simply put, Chiu Quon is a Chinese bakery par excellence. Located on Chinatown’s main drag just southwest of the Cermak Red Line stop, it does a brisk morning business with cheap dim sum and equally cheap baked goods all day. But while the dim sum is merely decent, the pastries verge on transcendent. Baozi, or Chinese buns, are clearly the main attractions. Ninety cents gets you a fist-sized hunk of breadlike dough encasing any number of savory fillings. The smoky, succulent BBQ pork is a highlight, but none of the various offerings disappoint. While lacking somewhat in variety, the bean paste-focused sweet end of the pastry spectrum is also worthwhile. In addition to custard and bean paste baozi, there’s the small, dense, and bean paste-filled seventy cent moon cakes, and best of all, sesame balls, ninety cent lumps of bean paste surrounded by a ball of fried sticky rice covered in sesame seeds. Chiu Quon is one of those rare restaurants where the bill is smaller than the CTA fare; ride a bike and use the savings on some extra buns to take home. Cash only. 2242 S. Wentworth Ave. 10am-9pm every day. (Michael Joyce)

Best Dim Sum
Shui Wah
While food is the lifeblood of Chinatown, most Chicagoans will stick to their old leanings when it comes to dim sum there–Phoenix, Three Happiness, and Happy Chef are perennial favorites. Shui Wah, located in New Chinatown north of Cermak, serves up much cheaper and equally delectable fare. Sadly, the cramped space leaves no room for jolly cart-tenders, so the conventional method of serving dim sum is eschewed in favor of cranky waiters who will be a bit slow. This is also a result of Shui Wah’s popularity (especially among Chinese), but if you bring some earplugs and scrunch your eyes, the food will speak for itself. 2162 S. Archer Ave. 8am-3pm, every day. (312)225-8811 (Lisa Bang)

Best Rock Club
Reggies
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the owner of Reggies is not named Reggie. Maybe that’s why there’s no apostrophe. The name came about in homage to famed Green Bay Packer Reggie White…no wait, it was baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson. Or maybe it was both–otherwise it’d just be called “Reggie.” The owner’s name is really Robby Glick, but he thought “Reggies” sounded cool because it added “a little shadiness.” Apparently Reggie is a shady name. But I don’t mean to make fun of the guy, because he’s got a pretty cool place here. One part record shop and music memorabilia store, one part restaurant and bar, and one part bare-bones rock’n’roll joint, Reggies has a lot going for it. Shows are incredibly diverse (previous performers include AIDS Wolf and Shonen Knife; Fucked Up plays October 23 and Danielson hits the stage November 5) and generally pretty cheap. Also, most are all ages, which is considerate, considering popular venues like the Empty Bottle are always 21+. And it’s only about two blocks from the Cermak-Chinatown Red Line stop, in an area that only continues to ride the wave of gentrification. Which is good–after all, we wouldn’t want too much shadiness. 2105-2109 S. State St. Record Breakers: 11am-11pm every day; (312)949-0125. Music Joint: Sunday-Friday 11am-2am; Saturday 11am-3am; (312)949-0120. Rock Club: open for shows; (312)949-0121. www.reggieslive.com (Gavin Fox)

Best Tea Room
Ten Ren Tea
Old Chinatown has myriad colorful signs jutting into the street competing for attention. Ten Ren Tea’s green and white Chinese characters are some of the most inviting. Step off the street into the mahogany interior, especially on a chilly day, and take in the smell of the revered brew. The store is neatly cluttered with beautiful teapots, assorted small Chinese remedies, everything from small boxes to giant urns filled with tea, and every conceivable device for the used for the production of tea. The selection covers the entire spectrum of Chinese tea from fruity hibiscus teas to the earthy pu-erh. If you’re lucky, they’ll have a couple samples. 2247 S. Wentworth Ave. Monday-Sunday, 9:30am-7pm. (312)842-1171. www.tenren.com (Ellis Calvin)

Best Country Food, if the Country You’re Referring to is China
Lao Sze Chuan
Chef Tony Hu is a bigshot. He owns three Chinese restaurants, and even used to have his own cooking show. How’d he get so big? It all started with a little restaurant called the Lao Sze Chuan. Lao, in Chinese, means “old”–Old Sze Chuan therefore refers to the “old Sze Chuan style,” Sze Chuan (or Sichuan) being Hu’s hometown province. As hometowns tend to do, Sichuan left a lasting impression on Hu, and in his homesickness here in America he decided to recapture the flavor of the meals of his homeland. With most Chinese restaurants here in America, the preparations are done in Chinese style, but the ingredients come from a variety of places closer by, from which they’re often easier and cheaper to ship. But Hu would have none of that. He prepares his Sze Chuan cuisine with authentic ingredients straight from Sichuan. It’s a strategy that’s paid off handsomely–Lao Sze Chuan has been so successful, he’s gone on to open Lao Beijing and Lao Shanghai. It just goes to show: you can’t beat good old home cooking. Lao Sze Chuan: 2172 S. Archer Ave. 11am-midnight every day. (312)326-5040. Lao Beijing: 2138 S. Archer Ave. Sunday-Thursday 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday 11am-11:30pm. (312)881-0168. Lao Shanghai: 2163 S. China Pl. Sunday-Thursday 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday 11am-11pm. (312)808-0830. tonygourmetgroup.com (Sean Redmond)