Ping Tom Park, Chinatown (Photos ©City of Chicago / GRC)
A little taste of Asia
While Chicago boasts a wealth of ethnic eating and shopping opportunities, none are quite so evocative of another world as Chinatown. A living and working neighborhood, Chicago's Chinatown and its adjacent neighborhoods are home to over a third of the city's Chinese-American population, which numbered more than 32,000 in 2000. As a result, the neighborhood offers more than 70 restaurants, 20 bakeries, 40 grocery stores and a colorful street life.
The community dates from the early 1900s. Chinese immigrants began moving to Chicago from the Pacific Coast even earlier, in the 1870s, pressed by rising anti-Asian attitudes in the West. Some 500 had settled near Clark and Van Buren streets before 1893, and then opportunities offered by the World's Columbian Exposition attracted a new wave of immigrants from around America.
But anti-Chinese bigotry in the period prompted landlords in that area to jack up rents. The community shifted south to the neighborhood around Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue, where Chinatown today welcomes visitors with the now-shabby yet still colorful Peter Fung gateway. Erected in 1975, it's inscribed in Chinese, "The world belongs to the people."
Most of the early Chinese settlers in the Midwest originated in southern China — Canton's Guangdong Province — but since World War II, Chicago has attracted many immigrants from elsewhere in mainland China as well as Taiwan and Hong Kong. Today, metro Chicago has the third-largest Chinese population in America, so you'll hear Mandarin and Toishanese as well as Cantonese in Chinatown.
Chinatown restaurants offer everything from Cantonese to Mandarin to Shanghainese to Szechwan, and historic architecture to boot. The building housing Won Kow Restaurant, 2233-2239 S. Wentworth Ave., designed by architects Michaelson & Rognstad, boasts open balconies and decorative tiles with a pai lo gateway decorations. Up steep stairs, on the second floor, the restaurant, Chinatown's oldest, has been dishing up dumplings and noodles since 1927. Dragons wind around the pillars of another Michaelson & Rognstad building, 2238 S. Wentworth Ave., a striking example of charming, faux-Chinese ornamental tile work and architecture, today housing Emperor's Choice Restaurant.
The plaza outside Chinatown Square, near Archer and Wentworth avenues, holds 12 bronze zodiac sculptures from China, open, salmon- and teal-colored steel pagodas and four friezes depicting Chinese inventions of printing, paper, gunpowder and the compass. Nearby, a 38-foot, 100,000-tile mosaic, made in China and assembled here, depicts the Chinese experience in America. Posted maps list the businesses inside the adjoining shopping mall.
Designed by Chicago architects Harry Weese and Associates in 1993, the open-roofed Chinatown Square building itself is rather forbidding, as all the shops face inward, showing ugly metal garage-type doors to the street, and you enter its poorly lit interior through relatively small doorways flanked by jail-like gates. Persevere, however, because some of the best restaurants in Chinatown lie within: If you love chilies, head for Lao Sze Chuan, and the zesty cuisine of Chef and owner Chef Xiao-Jun "Tony" Hu, who stars in a cooking show on local Chinese TV. His fare offers real depth of flavor, both spicy and mild. Don't miss the fragrant, succulent tea-smoked duck.
In summer, Joy Yee's Noodles is always crowded with young people scarfing large portions of inexpensive, pan-Asian dishes and a vast variety of cool fresh-fruit drinks. It's among Chinatown's best places to sample "bubble tea" or "boba" drinks studded with chewy blobs of tapioca, an Asian craze Joy Yee claims to have introduced to Chicago. However, the noise of the constantly whirring blenders make dining here less than a restful experience.
If you know your dim sum, Shui Wah offers first-rate dumplings, but you have to know what you're ordering, since you check off what you want on a menu. Across the street is Phoenix Restaurant, where, on weekend mornings, there are always long lines waiting to be seated for dim sum served in a traditional way from carts. Cantonese for "heart's delight," dim sum are small plates of steaming dumplings, hot buns, crispy fried tidbits and more customarily eaten for breakfast or lunch with tea. Servers wheel up to your table and display their delectable dishes and you point at what you want. It's an easy way to delve into this fare, since you get to see what you're ordering, and waiting to see what comes next is always exciting.
Back over by the Peter Fung gateway at Cermak and Wentworth, you'll find Moon Palace, which specializes in the cuisine of Shanghai. Be sure to try the xiao long bao, savory, soup-filled dumplings, a Shanghainese specialty. Also nearby is "little" Three Happiness (not to be confused with its larger, unrelated namesake across the street), a Cantonese restaurant so hallowed by local foodies that one group named their online discussion site "LTH Forum" in its honor.
Other things to see
Besides restaurants, Chinatown provides a wealth of shopping opportunities and plenty of things to see. Don't miss the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, which concentrates on the experience of Chinese immigrants and their descendants in America.
And take some time to explore Ping Tom Memorial Park, where you're surrounded by Chicago as a transportation hub. From the park, you can see two sets of railroad tracks, including a rare, 1915 vertical-lift bridge crossing the Chicago River South Branch; as well as both the red and orange L lines; the Dan Ryan Expressway; and an unusual single-leaf drawbridge on 18th Street; not to mention the river itself, where dragon boats race in the summer. Named for a community leader, the 12-acre park with an open Chinese pavilion was carved from a disused rail yard in 1998. Four dragon columns guard the entry.
Chinatown does have a few downsides. It offers no visitors' center and few conveniences for tourists (although group tours can be booked through the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce). Many restaurateurs have limited English. Because of its easy accessibility, the neighborhood can sometimes be plagued by panhandlers from elsewhere in the city.
Few other neighborhoods in the city, however, will make you feel so much like you're on another continent.
Read more from Leah A. Zeldes at the official Dining Chicago Blog.