When the final stake was hammered into the transcontinental railway in 1869, many Chinese immigrant workers found themselves without a home. One year later, Chicago’s Chinese population was first documented, and from this original population, today’s Chinatown developed. Bolstered by a second wave of immigration in the ’50s and ’60s, the area has developed two distinct sections.Â “Old Chinatown” runs down Wentworth Street, and is a string of family restaurants and shops that have been in the neighborhood for years. Here, the iconic Pui Tak Center, designed in an exaggerated pagoda-style by Norwegian architects in 1926, ushers in Chinatown visitors. “New Chinatown” on Archer AvenueÂ attracts a diverse, younger clientele. Two of the neighborhood’s most popular restaurants, Joy Yee’s and Lao Szechuan, are located here, drawing crowds from across the city. Nearby, statues of the twelve zodiac animals stand guard over college kids clutching cups of bubble tea.
The streets mimic the bustle of Hong Kong’s crowded roads, with cars and jaywalkers fighting for road space. The shop signs here are bilingual (traditional Chinese characters displayed more prominently) and most, if not all, of the shop owners speak Cantonese. But this district is a quieter replica than the Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco. It lacks the claustrophobia, the ear-splitting market yelps, and the breathless pace that any modern Chinese city notoriously features. On weekends, the streets are more lively with echoes from karaoke bars, but overall, the neighborhood has a subdued spirit characteristic of the city of Burnham’s wide boulevards.
Best Place of Solace
Tucked away between a tea shop and the World Treasures Emporium, this little Buddhist retreat is concealed from the ordinary, wandering tourist. Its humble storefront is only distinguished by an overhanging yellow sign, informing visitors that behind the display glass is the Buddhist Enlightenment Temple. Those so inclined can pray, light incense, and set their offerings on the altar inside. Otherwise, visitors can browse the temple’s gift store and purchase talismans, rosaries, and devotional statues. The sanctuary is maintained by dedicated nuns under the International Buddhist Friendship Association, who not only lead prayer and scripture sessions, bust also care for the temple’s famed thousand-armed Guan Yin Bodhisattva. 2249 S. Wentworth. Daily, 9am-6:30pm. (312)881-0177 (Wenjia Zhao)
Best Chinese-Style Breakfast
For those looking to deviate from a run-of-the-mill American breakfast, this stylish, contemporary restaurant on Archer Avenue is a must-try. In addition to typical Chinese restaurant fare like congee and fried dough, Chi-CafÃ© offers harder-to-find delights such as honey garlic chicken wings and baked rice bowls. On weekends, while most of the other restaurants on the street are closed, this place is full of hungry customers. Diners can sit and relax on its comfy white booths, and enjoy the sunlight reflecting off the glass art panels on the walls. Early-risers and nights-owls can both rejoice: Chi-CafÃ© opens early and closes past midnight. A meal for two (including tips) typically costs between $8-12, and so even the budget-conscious can have their fill. 2160-A S. Archer Avenue, Sunday—Thursday, 8am—2am; Friday- Saturday, 8am—5am. (312)842-9943 (WenjiaÂ Zhao)
Best For the Novelties Collector
World Treasures Emporium
With so many gift shops in Chinatown, it might be easy for the passing traveler to simply accept shelves crammed with a boilerplate repertoire of overpriced miniature Buddhas, plastic flowers, and lucky cat charms. Fortunately, World Treasures Emporium sets itself apart. Despite the name, this shop does not actually carry wares from across the globe, or even attempt to go beyond Chinese borders.Â Excuse the stretch, though: they sell higher quality trinkets than most of their counterparts, and the store is neatly organized–you’ll find no random piles of wholesale items here. Its comfortable aisles offer breathing space for the visitor to marvel at merchandise supplied nowhere else in Chinatown–a golden hand-painted ship, for instance, or scented sandalwood fans. True to its name, this shop may actually contain modest treasures for the keen of sight. 2253 S. Wentworth Avenue, (312)808-1818 (Wujun Ke)
With a conspicuous glass rotunda and red block lettering resembling that of an office supply chain, the entrance to Richland Center towers over a corner on Wentworth Avenue just north of the Red Line stop. Home of the Richland Real Estate Group, this three-story building also houses an indoor/outdoor food court and shopping center on its ground floor. While Bollywood crossover hit “Jai Ho” inexplicably plays on a never-ending loop, the food stalls are truly reminiscent of those in China–compact, flamboyant, and arranged around a cafÃ© area. Shoppers may enjoy a quick Chinese bun or sit down at an Asian buffet, teppanyaki grill, or sushi bar. From the purikura sticker booths where friends can squeeze into a snapshot to the practitioners of acupuncture, Richland Center offers a range of merchandise, food, and services found all over China but nowhere else in Chinatown. 2002 S. Wentworth Ave. Opening and Closing times vary by vendor. (312)225-2828 (Wujun Ke)
Best Grocery Market
If you’re looking for food so fresh it’s alive, forget your local Dominick’s or Jewel Osco and head over to this supermarket on the border of Chinatown. Not only can you get crawling crabs in the back, but a more typical selection of fresh fruits and vegetables is also available. Though the live fish market is the biggest draw, don’t forget to grab a tasty bun from the bakery. The condiment aisle features all sorts of ingredients for every variety of Asian cooking, from the ubiquitous Sriracha chili sauce to Bagoong, a Filipino fish sauce. Located slightly off the beaten trail, and away from the general Chinatown vicinity, make sure you don’t fill too many bags with your purchases–it’s a 20-minute walk to the Red Line. 1835 S. Canal St. Daily, 9am—7:30pm. (312)226-9611 (Wenjia Zhao)