A LOUD CRASH AS MY SONS AND I walked from the Cermak-Chinatown station: a demolition crew was taking down the building containing Cantonesia, an old-school 1960s Chinese-Polynesian restaurant. That’s pretty symbolic of the story of Chicago’s Chinatown—much of it is still 1960s, or even older, Chinese-American, the world of Suzie Wong, and yet there’s also a boom of tearing down the old and popping up with new places reflecting recent Chinese immigration as well as the ambitions of a younger, hipper generation.
For me there’s no better place to sample how this is happening than the food court in the basement of the Richland Center, a building at the eastern edge of the Chinatown Square mall. This despite the fact that it is, at first glance, a bit forlorn; if your image of cutting edge immigrant culture is an open-air fair of lively street food, this bland, fluorescent-lit hall is the opposite in every way. It feels like old people should be playing bingo in here. This is definitely not the hipper part I was talking about.
And yet you should get past that initial impression, because the ten food stalls that line two of the walls here are a modern Maxwell Street, designed to give entry-level entrepreneurs an inexpensive place to offer the food from home in America. This was a deliberate choice of the Chicago-based development company that built it; as their spokesperson told Mike Sula in 2010, “A lot of little entrepreneurs I come across don’t have enough revenue to start a full-fledged restaurant. But here it is much cheaper for them to run.”
This kind of entrepreneurial starter space is common in western Chinatowns and, frankly, ours is pretty small—I was just in a mall outside Toronto whose stall area probably had three times the vendors. Still, this is what we have, and it offers tastes of Asia you can’t find anywhere else in Chicago, as well as having successfully graduated at least one business—Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings—to a full restaurant of its own on the Wentworth side of this same building.
There’s been coverage of different stalls here, and a couple of years ago Kevin Pang translated the entire Chinese menu at a terrific bbq skewer place called Lao Pi, a great public service. But no one’s ever reviewed all of the stands as a group that I can find, and in any case the stalls turn over regularly enough that it seemed wise to put “2016 Edition” in the title—indeed, on my last visit before publication, one of them had just bitten the dust. (Another that’s gone is, in fact, Lao Pi, though similar skewers can be found at several of the stands now.) I didn’t eat everything, obviously, and I sure didn’t translate any Chinese menus. But I did my best to suss out some representative examples at each stall, as starting points for further exploration. I didn’t indicate prices, but suffice it to say, it’s all as cheap as you’ll find anywhere in town, almost never breaking into two digits for anything.
Here they are, in order as you walk around the two sides that have food—and note that the stalls tend to open and close as they please, so if something listed here isn’t open when you visit, try again another time.
“Golden Fish” [Unnamed in English]
The first stall on the left as you enter does not even have an English name; what it has is a big golden fish in a glass case, so my sons referred to it as “the golden fish place,” which will have to do. The menu seems to have something of everything—marinated squid, chicken feet with pickled peppers, tofu hotpot, an assortment of grilled skewers, and various dumplings, one type of which was sitting on the counter. I ordered the packet of four dumplings that were sitting out; they went straight into the microwave. (On a later weekend visit, they had braised ham hocks sitting out on the counter.) I tried to order lamb skewers, but they didn’t have them for lunch, it seemed, so instead I ordered a chicken wing skewer.
If this place does have a specialty it excels at, I couldn’t spot it, but what I tried was pretty good. The dumpling proved to be the simplest kind—just a meatball inside—but dipped in the ginger soy sauce (lesson number one of these places: ignore the generic packets of soy sauce that come with the food, and make yourself a bowl of the various sauces and oils they have sitting out on the counter), it was quite tasty, with a fairly lightly-made wrapper. The chicken wings could have come from a Tyson freezer bag for all I know, but fried and dusted with the togarashi-like pepper blend that all these places use, they were excellent—plus, with the skewers running through them, I was able to tell my sons they were fried bats.
A couple of summers ago there was a flurry of internet foodie excitement over jianbing or jiang bing, a kind of street food crepe or wrap from Beijing, which was being sold at a stand called Nali’s in the West Loop. Nali’s is long gone but meanwhile, unnoticed by anyone—well, anyone but Titus—jianbing quietly returned as one of the very few offerings at this narrow stall. And they’re great! Start with what looks like a burrito wrap, but is actually a flour crepe, fry egg directly on the crepe, stuff it with some things like lettuce, scallions and a schmear of hoisin sauce, wrap it up and you have a simple, fresh-tasting and absolutely delicious breakfast food.
This stand only has a few other items, which is ironic since the owner has about the best English down here—so the guy with the best ability to communicate is the one without an endless menu full of things you want to ask questions about. Anyway, the main other item he has is potstickers which are connected by a lacy web of fried batter, like Fat Rice’s. I ordered “Nappa [Napa cabbage] and Pork” and got a terrific platter of pot stickers with admirably thin wrappers and the taste of the fresh ingredients inside. Those are recommended too, but above all don’t miss the jianbing, both for tastiness and for showing you something you probably haven’t had before.
Now this was the place to get lamb skewers these days—not least because I could see the guy standing over the narrow charcoal grill on which the sticks would be laid. I ordered a set of four (the minimum) and then looked over the rest of the menu, and figured something called “vegetable pancake” would probably represent everyday food for the people of the region where the town in the title comes from.
The lamb skewers were as perfect as Lao Pi’s—juicy grilled lamb with the togarashi spice. Good to know that’s still represented among the offerings. The vegetable pancakes turned out to have a brittle shell of a wrapper, filled with what looked like one of those Asian mystery greens that always gets called “water spinach,” plus egg and cellophane noodles. I liked them quite a bit, though the soy sauce they sent out was way too salty for them (generally the case down here, frankly) and I wound up dipping them in another stall’s ginger-soy sauce instead. Recently this stall put up a long picture menu that includes some other enticing items (smoked rabbit, anyone?) as well as a lot of familiar things like Kung Pao’s Chicken or General Tso’s Chicken, making it easy to pick by looks.
Grill N Chill (Closed)
Find yourself in a basement Chinese food court and what you’re really craving is a burger? This place, with its youth-oriented name, covered all your Asian teen junk food needs, with burgers, fries, onion rings, crab rangoon, iced coffee, avocado shakes, red bean desserts and more. Though some of it was a tease—I learned long ago not to bother asking for the Portuguese egg tarts, a la Fat Rice’s, because they just don’t have them (but I always asked anyway).
Under the right circumstances morbid curiosity could have gotten me to try the burger in a place like this, but on my first visit for this article I stuck with trying to get one of the more obviously Chinese items, soup dumplings, which were advertised on a paper sign on the wall. Instead I wound up with pot stickers, which were okay but had an absurdly thick wrapper, like three times the thickness of your usual takeout Chinese place. I tried again, finally got the soup dumplings, and… they were okay. Wrappers were kind of thick, flavor was fine, but nothing that would lure me irresistibly next time.
Which, as it turned out, didn’t matter anyway—on my final visit before publication, Grill N Chill was gone, and this sign in Chinese, with scenes of some Chinese city, was posted on the metal gate. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but it already looks more promising than Chinese burgers and avocado shakes.
A new stand, open since January (in the former Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings spot), Tientsin Restaurant was the first one I went to which made clear where its owners are from—Tientsin, more commonly called Tianjin, a major port and industrial center whose name you may have seen on containers and rail cars. I went straight to the section of the menu labeled “Tientsin Special” and ordered an onion pancake. I got a circle of fried dough, served with two kinds of preserved vegetables. One was too salty, but the other, sweet with rice vinegar, made a great topping for the starchy pancake, much like the pickled-cabbage curtido you put on a Salvadoran pupusa. Simple as could be, but this was one of my favorite bites. It came with a bowl of brown-gray congee, which I could have doctored to flavorfulness, but didn’t.
Talking about it with my friend Rob Gardner, he mentioned that he had tried something like “pig face pancake,” so I checked the menu for that and found “Pork Head Meat Pancake,” which indeed fit the bill as rubbery pig face in a pancake with hoisin sauce. Stuffing my pig face with the vinegary slaw, this too was a fantastic bite.
Still, I felt I should branch out on the menu, and on another visit I sensed a new employee (I found out it was her first day) had better English than the owners, so I asked her for some guidance on the menu. I think what I got was more like the safe choice for gringos than the most interesting choice, but I wound up with a nice looking bowl of beef noodle soup—that is, a little beef in chicken broth with thick udon-like noodles and a few greens. I liked this quite a bit, with its hearty, cloudy chicken flavor; just be warned that one son and I both dug into it substantially, and we hardly seemed to make a dent in it. So if you’re there to try a lot of things, this is definitely meal-in-a-bowl-sized by itself.
The Szechuan Snack Planet is one of the only stalls here to have much documentation to date—there’s an LTHForum thread which isn’t terribly long, but identifies several standout dishes. Although most of the menu is stir-fried items, they also have a number of cold dishes, which is a common Chinese thing though something of an acquired taste for non-Chinese. Here’s what I ordered on a first try:
The stir-fry dish was lamb with onions and peppers in soy sauce—a very solid rendition, if not terribly unusual. More interesting was the cold chicken dish next to it. Nanshan chicken is poached white meat—this felt silky enough to be sous vide—served cold in an oily sauce spiced with Szechuan peppercorn, as the telltale tingle around the lips soon revealed. This is a delicate, sophisticated dish that made me think of fine dining versions of chicken like the $75 sous vide chicken at NoMI or the chicken salad portion of the $55 chicken entree at the Roister—though it’s rather more of a deal than those, at $3.95.
Snack Planet seems one of the most stable stalls here, but on my last visit a new sign went up touting a bunch of additional items to the menu:
Yes, Snack Planet has joined the Chicago Asian craze for Cajun seafood. I ordered a tub of crawfish, and they were pretty decent (I find the spices almost always a bit one-dimensional at these places, except for the great Saigon Bistro) and, at $7.95, the price was right.
Ike Bukuro Sushi/Ky Lin Teppanyaki
Part of what sets Richland Center apart from the older parts of Chinatown is a conscious appeal to younger, hipper and more internationally-minded Chinese-Americans—who grew up eating all kinds of Asian food (and the occasional burger and avocado shake), not just their folks’ Chinese food. So two of the first stands in Richland Center were actually Japanese—Ike Bukuro Sushi and Ky Lin Teppanyaki a few stalls over, which have the same owners. (There was also a Korean noodle place and a banh mi shop down here early on, but I don’t remember trying either one.)
Which raises the question—if you’re here to eat authentic Chinese food, should you waste stomach space eating some other cuisine that’s here for Chinese people who want a break from Chinese food? I have to admit I’ve never tried the sushi, which looks fine but like you’d see anywhere; the only thing on the menu that intrigues me was baked mussels. But there are a couple of reasons to try Ky Lin Teppanyaki—specifically these two, classic Japanese street foods, both associated with Osaka, which are not always easy to find in America:
The takoyaki, octopus-filled fritters topped with mayo and takoyaki sauce (which is kind of like BBQ sauce) and fishy bonito shavings, are pretty decent. The okonomiyaki, a kind of seafood and vegetable pancake likewise drizzled with mayo and a sweet sauce, is quite good. This isn’t the only place in town you can find either one, but they’re not that common, either. Beyond those two items, the Japanese dishes are pretty run of the mill—beef udon was pretty weakly flavored, and a bowl of beef teriyaki with rice was fine but nothing you couldn’t find in plenty of other food courts where the competition would be Sbarro’s, not Snack Planet.
Jue Wei Ya Ba Wang
This stall is frankly something of a mystery. It has a printed menu—an actual takeaway menu—containing 136 numbered offerings, ranging from stir-fry dishes to dry wok dishes to broiled fish dishes. Yet when I walked up and tried pointing to a couple of items. I was told they didn’t have them. Instead, the guy working the counter finally just said, “Here’s what we have.” He went back in the kitchen and came back with a large bowl full of ham hocks. And for $10, I got a freshly-braised ham hock, giving off wafts of pork and star anise, neatly chopped by hand and coated with a spicy-sweet sauce. It was pretty good, though obviously a bit impractical as a lunch.
I thought maybe he was just doing prep during lunchtime, so I made a visit at dinnertime. I picked up the menu, tried to order one of the noodle dishes off of it—and he pointed me to an English list of braised meats. So far as I can tell, that’s all they serve now… but they still have the old menus sitting out, to confuse people. Anyway, that evening, besides the pork hocks, they had duck heads, duck necks and pig ears, so if you need Chinese meats for your feast, this is the stall.
Yummy Yummy Noodles
This one is certainly easier to figure out—as the name says, noodle dishes of various kinds (you have your choice of noodle types for soups). A fish ball soup was pretty good, a well-made broth, though I didn’t think the egg noodles were especially interesting.
On my next visit I decided to try to improve my odds, ordering the braised brisket soup with rice noodles. Bingo—this was the soup to get here, with a good but not too heavy beef broth, nice hunks of delectably tender brisket rich with five-spice flavor, and outstanding soft, supple rice noodles. An excellent bowl of soup.
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So that’s what I’ve found, but I know it only scratches the surface. If you find something delicious on your visits, comment below, shoot me a tweet (@Fooditor) or send an email (Mike@fooditor.com), and entirely at my own discretion, I may send a Fooditor mug for tips I especially like. There’s always the 2017 edition—I’ll be watching that space where Grill N Chill used to be.
Michael Gebert considers Fooditor a basement food court of the mind.
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