From the elevated lines of the 54th and Cermak Red Line stop, the smell of dumplings beckons crowds to the gates of Chinatown. If the broad, open streets and modern buildings in this neighborhood feel different from the crowded, urban environment of the well-known Chinatowns in New York City and San Francisco, it’s largely because of the unique history of the people who built it up and still maintain a tightly knit community.
The Chinese district began first began developing in Chicago around Clark and Van Buren in the early 20th century, well after Chinese communities had been established on the West Coast. Many immigrants to Chicago were looking to escape racial violence in California, Washington, and Oregon, and to find work after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Discrimination and soaring rents pushed the Chinese population south, obtaining leases in a former red light district around the intersection of Cermak and Wentworth. The iconic building in Old Chinatown that now houses the Pui-Tak Center, a community center dedicated to the needs of new immigrants, was actually built by Chicago-born Norwegian architects in 1926. The building was intended to be a bold symbol of Chinese culture, but at the time there were no Chinese architects in Chicago.
New Chinatown, a shiny, two level outdoor strip mall area just west of the Red Line stop, was built in the late ’80s. Here, you’ll find a huge variety of restaurants (from sushi to sweet shops), hairdressers, and even a liquor store specializing in traditional baiju. All three of restaurateur Tony Hu’s restaurants–Lao Szechuan, Lao Beijing, and Lao Shanghai–are crowd pleasers, but wait times are long, so it’s worth branching out to discover something new and perhaps more traditional.
Tucked away in the strip mall of New Chinatown, the modest space of Spring World was bustling even late on a Monday night. An entire extended family squeezed into pushed-together tables, rubbing elbows with men busily devouring giant bowls of noodle soup. When I inquired about vegetarian fare, the waitress breezily gestured to the entire “vogetable” section, but be warned: a boat of Ma Po Tofu arrived speckled with chunks of pork. But despite the confusing presentation, Spring World brings the deliciously numbing heat of traditional Sichuanese fare. The Chengdu Noodles are unsurpassed, and the classic Sichuanese Dan Dan noodles were superb. Adventurous eaters may choose to sample medicinal mushroom dishes, pig’s tongue, or various intestines. For the nuts and bolts of ordering and getting the check, I would suggest bringing along a native speaker, but aside from that, good food is universal. 2109 S. China Place. Monday-Friday, 10:30am-10:30pm; Sunday, 10:30am-â€¨11pm. (312)326-9966 (Vriti Jain)
best chinese home cooking
Though it can’t boast the bright lights and glitz of neighboring Joy Yee’s, Ken Kee’s still draws in a steady crowd with its delicious home-style dishes. Half of the items are dishes I would expect my grandmother to cook up in her tiny kitchen in China, from the tender and garlicky snow pea tips to the stir-fried fish filet with ginger and onions. Ken Kee’s menu is easy to peruse, with a wide range of favorites pictured on the front followed by an extensive list of dishes. If you’re feeling bold, try one of the specials written on colorful construction paper and pasted on the walls–they include every imaginable animal part in at least two preparations. With Ken Kee’s affordable prices, it’s possible to try a wide selection of dishes, whether you’re dining alone or with a group. A note to the wise, though: skip the bubble tea here and hop over to Joy Yee’s after your meal. That is, if you can fit anything else in your stomach. 2129 S. China Place. Daily, 11am-1am. (312)326-2088 (Han Zhu)
best bubble tea
Joy Yee’s Noodle Shop
Bubble tea was ostensibly first created in Taiwan, but it’s not particularly traditional. Invented in the 1980s, the earliest forms of bubble tea weren’t popular until publicized by a Japanese TV show. Authenticity aside, bubble tea is a unique, delicious concoction, and no one does it better in Chinatown than Joy Yee’s. The food here is not particularly interesting, though it is an attractive option for those seeking more familiar fare. The bubble tea pros preside over a counter with multiple blenders, piled high with a variety of fruit. The drink menu is impressive, boasting fresh fruit “freezes,” milk teas, green freezes, shaved ice, and–my personal favorite–mini tapioca pearls. Especially recommended: the taro smoothie with tapioca. The fresh flavor, perfect consistency, and delicate lavender shade complement each other to create a great end to any meal. 2159 S. China Place Monday-Thursday, 5pm-10:30pm. Friday, 5pm—midnight. Saturday, 11am—Midnight. Sunday, 11am-10:30pm. (312)842-8928. (Vriti Jain)