Best of the South Side 2009: Chinatown

Chicago’s Chinatown lacks the characteristic bustle and grit of a major city Chinatown. The streets are broad and the sidewalks are crowded more with tourists than with old women pushing carts of chickens and bruised greens. This Chinatown is young; it developed around the intersection of Cermak and Wentworth when a red light district collapsed in the 1920s, and didn’t receive a major wave of immigration until the ’50s and ’60s. Much of the commercial space in the neighborhood is in the rather unsightly 1980s Chinatown Square development north of the old red gate.

Chinatown is a busy South Side commercial district with a CTA Red Line stop near its center, so it’s a popular destination. Students beware: This popularity can be troublesome. Chinatown Square’s Lao Sze Chuan and Joy Yee’s are both worthwhile culinary destinations, but you will probably be seated in between your ex and that kid from your humanities class.

best spot to practice tai chi
Ping Tom Memorial Park
On the former site of a rail yard, the pavilions and bamboo gardens of Ping Tom Memorial Park offer one of Chicago’s finest river vistas. Nestled between rows of gray townhouses and two aging bridges, the park is an uncrowded oasis, with gently rolling lawns dotted by boulders and low trees. Amtrak and freight trains roll over the rusty skew bridge to the south every few minutes, but the swans floating in the river and the old men practicing tai chi in the pavilion don’t seem to mind. Encouraged by and posthumously named for a local businessman and civic leader, Ping Tom belatedly compensates Chinatown for the two parks demolished in the Dan Ryan Expressway’s construction. An underpass to the north leads only to a damp baseball diamond at the moment, but the Chicago Park District has plans to add tennis courts and a pool. A word of caution: the park’s single entrance can be maddeningly obscure (the final episode of a reality show challenged contestants to race there from downtown, sans map), but if you head north from Chinatown’s commercial heart on Wentworth and then head west on 19th Street, you won’t miss it. 300 W. 19th St. (Michael Joyce)

best sichuanese
Double Li
There are plenty of Sichuanese restaurants in Chinatown, but Double Li stands out. Sinus-clearing heat is the order of the day, assuming you can manage to convince the staff that your palate is up to Chinese standards. The black pepper garlic beef tenderloin is a star of the menu, and chef Chungjun “Ben” Li claims most chefs don’t know how to make it. He’s probably right–I’ve never seen it elsewhere. Served with a side of steamed broccoli, the tenderloin chunks are covered in a black pepper and diced garlic rub and cooked more or less dry on the surface. The dry chili chicken and bear paw tofu have received favorable reviews too. Unfortunately, the menu isn’t translated very clearly–the idiomatic meaning of the character translated as “maw” is a Chinatown-spanning mystery, and it’s not apparent that many of the tofu dishes contain chicken and egg. But the staff is helpful, and if you can go with a native speaker, all the better. When asked for hours, an employee reported more hours than occur in a typical 24-hour day. Take these as an educated guess and call ahead. 228 W. Cermak Rd. Monday-Friday, 11am-9:30pm; Saturday, Sunday 11am—10:30pm. Entrees about $10. (312)842-7818 (Michael Joyce)

best alternative to joy yee’s
Saint’s Alp Teahouse
Living up to its name in most regards, this outpost of the Hong Kong-based Saint’s Alp Teahouse serves a confusing variety of small plates and tea-ish drinks. I tried #59, the Double Chocolate Sorbie. Clearly invented by someone who’d never tasted a milkshake, the texture resembled ice ground with chocolate syrup and small pieces of mud. In contrast to the MatchaAgar, FavorWater, Coco de Nata, and most of the menu, the Sorbie was not trademarked. But like most of the menu, and the paintings of an Asian-populated cityscape with palm trees, Mediterranean architecture, and double-decker buses, it baffled me. Though not as popular a spot for drinks as Joy Yee’s, Saint’s Alp has a few things going for it if you’re willing to try something new. The service is efficient, but without the bedlam atmosphere, and though the benches are firm, they’re an order of magnitude more comfortable than the Chair Ones at Joy Yee’s. Perhaps the only downside was the Avril Lavigne-heavy soundtrack. 2131 S. Archer Ave. 11am—midnight. (312)842-1886 (Michael Joyce)

best tea shop
Ten Ren Tea
When I was last visiting Ten Ren, a tourist and paterfamilias boldly led his family to the door of the shop. Gazing upon the entirely white and mostly confused customers and the lone, annoyed Chinese employee, he declared, “This is where the real Chinese locals go.” He wasn’t particularly observant, but Ten Ren is an excellent place to buy Chinese and Japanese tea and tea ware. It is the lone Chicago branch of a Taiwanese export company, and Chicago’s only Chinese tea shop that focuses more on good ol’ camellia sinensis than on sea cucumbers, mushrooms and medicinal herbs. Their collection ranges from the lightest senchas and silver needles to the blackest pu-erhs at every quality grade, and their prices are low. The Chicago store with the most comparable selection–Germany’s TeaGschwendner in Old Town–has prices several times Ten Ren’s. While you wait for the clerk to bring you bins of tea to sample, you can admire the perversely intricate sculptures that are their high-end yixing teapots and tasting cups. 2247 S. Wentworth Ave. 9:30am—7pm. (312)842-1171 (Sam Bowman)