When we published our last guide to Chinatown five years ago, we knew the neighborhood was changing fast.
We didn’t know that what was to come would make that moment feel like five lifetimes ago.
As Lunar New Year approaches Sunday, the Year of the Rabbit in the Chinese zodiac calendar, I revisited Chinatown with intention.
If you plan a winter visit, you might note the Lunar New Year Parade in Chinatown will take place Jan. 29, although there are many events around the city and suburbs to mark the new year.
Perhaps start at the Chinese American Museum of Chicago, with its newest exhibit, “Chinese Cuisine in America: Stories, Struggles and Successes.” The museum reclaimed the former Quong Yick Co. warehouse market, where I once picked dried shrimp from barrels as a childhood treat, capturing the elusive essence of umami. My family has a connection to the neighborhood that dates back roughly a century, through both my maternal grandparents’ fathers, although we never lived there.
You’ll find this food critic’s perfect day and night in Chinatown deeply rooted in food memories. It’s a guided insider’s itinerary on what to eat, drink and do around the neighborhood.
I’ve focused on locally owned establishments — not that spots such as Haidilao, the biggest hot pot chain in China, which opened its Chicago location in 2021, aren’t worth a visit. (And don’t get me started on why Din Tai Fung won’t bring its delicious xiaolongbao to our city.)
There are of course too many great destinations, and too little time. Some honorable mentions include Triple Crown for dim sum and their collaboration beer with Marz Brewing; Qing Xiang Yuan aka QXY, for their dumplings and their new beer with Off Color Brewing; and Veggie House, the only dedicated vegetarian restaurant in Chinatown so far.
So happy Year of the Rabbit, and let’s eat.
The second generation of the Chiu family still owns and operates what’s now the oldest bakery in Chinatown, originally opened in 1986. Chiu Quon Bakery has become best known for a classic cha siu bao, the bronzed baked bun stuffed with ruby red barbecue pork. Fan favorites also include sweet egg tarts and yuenyeung (coffee milk tea). My critic’s pick is always a traditional pineapple bun, the golden encrusted bao confusingly named for its alleged resemblance to the tropical fruit, but none in the recipe (do note that it contains lard). You can take your breakfast to go, then wander Wentworth Avenue, or dine inside at the counter under the front window. The back dining room has closed, not due to the pandemic per se, but the kitchen has taken over the space, because evidently we’ve found comfort in baked goods more than ever before.
2253 S. Wentworth Ave., 312-225-6608, cqbakery.com
From the bakery, head north to the landmark arching over Wentworth at Cermak Road. Chinatown Gate, originally built in 1975, was adopted from an ancient architectural gateway symbolizing Chinatowns worldwide. You can take a photo from the front on the Cermak side with gold characters of a Chinese idiom (the world belongs to the commonwealth), or the back with the Four Cardinal Principles of Confucianism (propriety, righteousness, integrity and shame).
The winner of our Critics’ Choice Award for Best Food Court in 2022 is technically in East Pilsen just west of Chinatown, but neighborhood names and boundaries are unofficial and change constantly within the city. The 88 Marketplace food court, within the Asian mega market, has changed even faster. Chiu Quon Bakery closed its stand, but it was quickly replaced. Meanwhile B.B.Q. King, the venerable Chinese barbecue house in Chinatown Square, still keeps a flagship stall, with princess chicken and more, alongside 312 Fish Market, which offers pristine sushi. The fan favorite vendor may be Ying Dim Sum, if dumpling steamer baskets on nearly every table is a good indicator. My critic’s pick is silky longan black porridge at A Place in Northeast, but it’s almost always sold out. You can almost always order their stuffed meat pancakes for lunch or brunch instead, then watch while they’re handmade to order and fried crisp.
2105 S. Jefferson St., second floor; 312-929-4926, facebook.com/88MarketplaceChicago
From the food court, head through the posts to an Asian food wonderland. 88 Marketplace, opened in 2020, is one of the biggest and the most notable new supermarket around Chinatown. You’ll find grocery staples and the hottest snacks, as in both viral and fiery. Sweet White Rabbit Lay’s potato chips were all the rage a few years ago, then snail noodles, but now latiao, spicy snack sticks, are still trending on TikTok. The rest of the mall at Jefferson Square remains relatively empty, but you might come back another time for dinner at Holu, an Asian steakhouse on the ground floor, one of our 25 best new restaurants in 2022.
Tea has been a lifelong love story for Mia Wan, who founded her first bubble tea store as a love letter to tea culture in 2018. Te’amo Boba Bar has become best known for organic bubble tea drinks. Fan favorites include a volcano tea latte (strong black tea topped with an Oreo cheese foam) and housemade strawberry yogurt cake that’s big enough to share, but beautiful enough to covet as your own. At the Chinatown Square flagship, opened in 2020, my critic’s pick drink is the same as Wan’s, dalgona matcha with boba, with your choice of milk and green tea foam carefully layered over tender tapioca pearls. Best of all, perhaps the highest praise one can bestow on Asian drinks and desserts: they’re not too sweet.
2169A S. China Place (near Archer and Princeton avenues), 312-857-8993, teamobobabar.com
Head north on Princeton Avenue to Tan Court then Wells Street to the main pedestrian entrance of this stunning 17-acre green space along the South Branch of the Chicago River. Ping Tom Memorial Park is dedicated to the late civic leader Ping Tom, who dreamed of a park for his fellow neighborhood residents, originally opened in 1999. You can take photos at the serene pagoda pavilion, and the artists’ murals beneath the bridge underpass that depict blue porcelain and gold silk. Look for water taxis and kayak rentals in season, one of the most spectacular modes of travel between Chinatown and the Loop.
Chef Tony Hu has grown beyond his unofficial role as mayor of Chinatown. Lao Sze Chuan, the Sichuan cuisine restaurant he founded at Chinatown Square, still stands where it all began in 1998. Hu and his empire have become best known for the chef’s special dry chile chicken, or laziji, a signature dish of deep fried chicken bits stir fried with aromatic chile peppers, from his hometown province of Sichuan in China. My critic’s pick will always be the spicy cabbage, a cool and crunchy dish, complimentary if you’re dining in, but simply well worth it for you to order for takeout too.
2172 S. Archer Ave., 312-326-5040, laoszechuanchinatown.com
From Lao Sze Chuan, directly across from Te’amo Boba Bar, head right into the two-story outdoor mall. Chinatown Square, which opened in 1993, holds mostly restaurants, plus shops and a somewhat surprising number of beauty salons. You should take a photo with the statue of your Chinese zodiac animal among all 12 in the central plaza.
The first craft cocktail bar in Chinatown emerged from a dramatic transformation of Moon Palace, the Wang family restaurant, in 2022. Nine Bar, opened by daughter Lily Wang and her partner, Joe Briglio, both professional bartenders, is hidden behind what looks like a kitchen door. It’s perhaps become best known for Briglio’s Mai Tai, mixed with housemade almond cookie orgeat and inspired by Wang’s mother, who sometimes acts as bouncer while minding the new Moon Palace Express takeout-only counter up front. My critic’s picks have got to include the mapo hot fries, made by chef Elvis Mom, with Wang’s father’s mapo tofu sauce over loaded waffle-cut potatoes, plus the chef’s delicate ube egg tarts.
216 W. Cermak Road, 312-225-4081, ninebarchicago.com
From Nine Bar, head east past the fire station next door then across the street toward Chinatown Gate. Cermak Road, originally 22nd Road, is still the site of a forgotten building, according to the Chinese American Museum of Chicago archives, built for the powerful On Leong Merchants Association in 1912. You can take a picture at the vintage Ming’s Enterprise neon sign believed to date back to the 1920s or ’30s.
The Yau family, whose patriarch worked his way up from a server, has long owned what’s now the oldest restaurant in Chinatown, which opened in 1971. Once open 24 hours, seven days a week, Three Happiness is best known for its Chinese American classics, from smoky wok hei-infused fried rice to puffy egg foo young generously smothered with gravy. My critic’s pick will forever be their exemplary Chicago-style egg roll, its filling laced with the defining flavor of peanut butter. You should note they’re currently open at noon daily, closing at midnight Sunday to Thursday, 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
209 W. Cermak Road, 312-842-1964
From Three Happiness, head east then around the corner to Chinatown Gate. Wentworth Avenue remains home to the neighborhood’s most iconic building, Pui Tak Center, just south of the arch, originally the On Leong Merchants Association headquarters that dates back to 1928. Across the street, you’ll still find the sign to the closed Won Kow, once the oldest restaurant in Chinatown, opened in 1928, and a favorite of Al Capone. You can take a photo farther south at the bilingual English and Chinese art installation sign that assures You Are Beautiful.
This lunchtime-through-late-night refuge has endured since opening in 1986. Best known for the fan favorite 554 (which takes its name from a numbered place on a former menu), it offers restorative barbecue pork and lacy fried eggs over hot steamed rice drizzled with soy sauce. My critic’s pick has always been the wonton lo mein, with leftovers best eaten straight out of the takeout box (with chopsticks of course). But Mom and Pop Chu always prefer their dumplings and noodles with soup. You’ll find fellow night owls, with owner Benjamin Au among them, any day until 2 a.m., and on Fridays and Saturdays until 2:30 a.m.
2312 S. Wentworth Ave., 312-225-2668
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