IT HAPPENS SOMETIMES WHEN YOU’RE trying to write to a schedule, you have half a dozen stories half done and nothing ready to publish. (February’s gonna be great!) I spent Wednesday working the emails trying to keep something moving for today, but I couldn’t face another day of being my own prisoner in my house that way, on yet another gray January day. I decided the only thing to do was to go out and find stories, maybe not for today but for sometime. I went to Chinatown.
I’m always curious about breakfast in cultures where that doesn’t mean eggs and pancakes and bacon. There’s a lot of that in Chicago, I wrote about both Ethiopian and Turkish breakfast for Serious Eats back in the day, and of course we all know one morning food for Chinese—dim sum. But dim sum is more like brunch or lunch, it often starts later in the morning at many of the places that serve it and runs through the afternoon or even later. I wanted to see what really happened during breakfast time.
As much as people rag on Yelp, there are certain things you can do very efficiently with it. Like search “Chinese breakfast,” which turned up the phrase “Hong Kong style breakfast” in a review of a place called Happy Cafe (2351 S. Wentworth). I knew the place from the outside, from the days when one of the main reasons to visit Chinatown was to try to find VHS tapes of Hong Kong movies starring unknown-to-Americans figures like Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat; the main video store on Wentworth was a door or two over in the same building. But I’d never been in, so I set Happy Cafe as my destination.
I never knew how busy the streets of Chinatown were at 10 am on a weekday before yesterday. Maybe the fact that it’s almost Chinese New Year had more people shopping yesterday, but I suspect this wasn’t that far beyond normal—lots of sidewalk traffic, trucks and cars clogging the streets, pedestrians dashing between cars, guys standing on the street talking and gesticulating loudly and good-humoredly. I took in quotidian details—the discarded cigarette pack with entirely Chinese labeling (how does that work? Does the FDA allow that, or does somebody smuggle in the authentic taste of Old Canton?) The thick-necked guy working on a street crew in a windbreaker and bare chest? (He’d have been perfect as a tough in a Chow Yun-Fat movie.)
Happy Cafe, modest store front, turned out to be as busy as a stock exchange when I got inside. Tables jammed with people—by which I mean men; these kinds of places always seem all-male—and at the counter, half a dozen guys shouting for service, each waving the bill in their hands so that there need not be a wasted moment in the ordering process. With everybody in a winter coat, steam rising in the kitchen, it felt like it could have been anywhere in China, a border town in Mongolia as much as in Beijing. (The only place it couldn’t be was America, a few blocks from baseball and Irish bars.)
I scoured the walls for those signs of Hong Kong style breakfast, but the signs were purely in Chinese characters and the few menu pictures were plainly lunch dishes. I also didn’t know if I’d get a seat, so I gave up on the idea of ordering congee, the Asian rice porridge which I’ve had a few times without really understanding. (It’s very plain.) The one category I did feel I recognized, thanks to both experience at Chiu Quon and writing this article, was the pastries in the case, so when it was my turn I ordered an egg tart and a bun covered in fuzzy pork floss (the woman had no idea what “pork floss” meant, but I pointed and she said something about cream, and I said yes; when in doubt, agree with everything). I added tea (she said something, I agreed) and it came to all of $3.
I sat down and watched the crowd. A few of the men seemed to be in social groups, but many were just lone members of a collective hubbub. Who were they? Itinerant workers waiting for a gig, new arrivals in this country—any of these. There was a pretty ungulfable cultural gap here, yet I admired how little attention I drew as the oddest man out by a considerable distance, big white guy in red winter coat. Clearly, strangers could find acceptance here. Another ungulfable cultural gap: my pork floss bun did turn out to have a cream in it, it was stuffed with mayonnaise. A Hellman’s eclair with hairy pork on top. This was not as awful as it sounds, indeed I finished it after squeezing it like a toothpaste tube to get about half of the mayo out, and what was left was kind of like a ham sandwich. A ham sandwich eclair, anyway.
I walked up the street and took in more. I used to go to the Chinatown mall because Wentworth was all old places—Won Kow, one of the bigger restaurants, is the last restaurant in the 1931 book Dining in Chicago still in operation (other than mention of the Walnut Room)—and the mall was home to all the exciting new places, Lao Sze Chuan, Shui Wah, Cai and so on. But there’s been a renaissance on Wentworth since then, lots of new activity, hot pot places and spicy crab places and everywhere, signs with friendly Asian cartoon figures. It’s a new strip to discover.
Close to Cermak I saw another bakery I had never noticed before, somehow. Maybe the very fact that its name, Feida Bakery (2228 S. Wentworth), didn’t sound Chinese made me miss it before and want to check it out now, to have more of my Happy Cafe experience. The front was all bakery and I picked out a lotus moon cake. It looked like there were a couple of seats along the side, but as I walked that way the back opened up to reveal a whole room.
It was less packed than Happy Cafe, but there was one big table where close to a dozen guys sat, talking and laughing loudly. I was reminded of Ken Raskin’s description of mornings in the old days at Manny’s, the merchants of Maxwell and Halsted kibitzing the morning away. The more things change, the more they stay the same in a city of constant change and new arrivals like Chicago.
Michael Gebert travels the world for $2.25 as editor of Fooditor.
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