Editor’s Note 3/15/20: This piece was published several days before guidelines on containing the Coronavirus were issued and, obviously, before the shutdown of Illinois restaurants by Governor Pritzker. Follow up-to-date advice on eating out and social distancing rather than statements made at an earlier time in the article.

 

A YEAR AGO I PUBLISHED THE ORIGINAL EDITION of this guide to all the new restaurant activity in Chicago’s Chinatown. It proved to be my most popular piece last year, and I’m happy that so many people found it useful in leading them to much of the best Chinese food Chicagoland has to offer. Despite being largely off the radar of “hot” or “best” new restaurant lists and mainstream food talk (quick, name a Chinatown chef or owner besides Tony Hu), Chinatown of late has been one of the most fertile restaurant areas in town, and one of the most exciting for those who seek the authentic tastes of international food culture.

Since the piece was published the new openings have continued, and I was already considering updating it when we started having news reports of Coronavirus fears keeping diners away. I feel that there’s no reason to think Chinatown is a likelier place for exposure than any other part of town—indeed, you’re quite probably less likely to be exposed to it by modest-wage workers in a restaurant, than by friends and work colleagues who travel internationally.

But in the meantime, one of the most historic, and most active and currently vital, dining neighborhoods in Chicago stands at risk. Lowered patronage could easily result in the closing of some existing restaurants and the stalling of plans for new ones (visible all over Chinatown on signs in windows). For the last few years we’ve been the beneficiaries of a wave of investment from Chinese chains seeking to bring the tastes of China in 2020 to Chicago. Authentic flavors and hot food trends are popping up all over the neighborhood—but all that could come to a halt if Chicago’s Chinatown suffers a lasting decline in patronage and spending.

So now I present this revised guide to Chinatown spots opened within the last three years, featuring eight new places that have opened in addition to the original list of 19 (all of which are still active), in the hopes that it will inspire you to visit and support some of Chicago’s most exciting restaurants. A few notes: New entries are marked with—you’ll never guess—a “New” in the title; as before, an asterisk in the title indicates a place I found especially worth your time. It’s limited to Chinese restaurants, even as ramen joints and rotary sushi and Korean BBQ proliferate in Chinatown. And it doesn’t include the Richland Center basement food court, which I hope will have its own updated guide soon.

*  *  *

Here’s a quick guide to the new entries for those familiar with the original edition of this piece:

I. Wentworth and Cermak:
• Chef Xiong—Taste of Szechuan
• Mrs Gu Hot Pot and Skewers

II. Chinatown Square Mall:
• Tan Lu
• Mango Mango

III. Beyond Chinatown:
• Shu Tin Xia
• Hello Jasmine
• Wu Fu Hunan Cuisine
• La Mom Kitchen

Newsletter Homepage Signup

 

I. Wentworth and Cermak

What most Chicagoans think of as the traditional Chinatown was founded in the 1920s, ran south along Wentworth and west along Cermak, and is still home to the oldest Chinese businesses in the city. Dowdy for the last couple of decades, it’s suddenly booming with exciting new businesses.


Dongpo Impression


Eggplant with many, many chilis

Where: 228 W. Cermak

Ryan Hu, a nephew of Tony Hu of Lao Sze Chuan fame who has Chengdu Impression on the north side, took over the Yan Ban Cai space to continue serving authentic Sichuan food—if not as devoted to the tingly heat of Sichuan peppercorn as some of the other new places in Chinatown.

Much of the menu matches up with what’s at Chengdu Impression, so I drilled into the appetizer menu at a solo lunch recently. Dan dan noodles were comfy and mild, but perfectly satisfying, while the heat came from the plate of Japanese eggplant with many kinds of chilis piled up on it; this was an eye-opening dish in a couple of ways, but I really liked its blend of veggie freshness and spice. Rural style cured pork sounded promising but—of course—proved to just be a plate of bacon (I took most of it home with plans to use it in an omelet that weekend). Anyway, a pretty good place, but with Chengdu near me, I would seek more novel-to-me Sichuan places in Chinatown. Such as…


* Szechuan JMC


Stir-fried pork belly

Where: 243 W. Cermak

You’d better like the tingly, aluminum foil mouthfeel of Sichuan peppercorn if you try this Sichuan restaurant—because you’re going to get a lot of it. Sometimes too much: the dan dan noodles tasted like they’d been doused in after shave, which was too bad because the chewy, irregularly-cut noodles were really good.

Fatty beef in hot broth

But when they calibrate it right, this is some of the best spicy food in town. The best dish there for me so far is stir-fried pork belly in lots of diagonal-cut shards of leek. The belly, braised in star anise, is beautifully cooked, coming off as being as compulsively scarfable as American bacon, while the dish has a great balance of stir-fry sizzle and peppercorn tang. “Fatty beef” (the beef isn’t fatty, but the broth is) with clear rice noodles came to the table submerged in peppers and looking like a mouthful of hurt, yet surprised with its subtle use of heat and the wok hay of the noodles. There’s a lot of skill in this tiny place’s kitchen.


New: Chef Xiong—Taste of Szechuan


Where: 2143 S. Archer

Chef Xiong was the chef at Sze Chuan Cuisine on Wentworth when Anthony Bourdain and Stephanie Izard dined there for his last Chicago episode; reportedly he opened this spot with the backing of the people behind Evanston’s Peppercorns Kitchen. Common recommendations here include the Taiwanese popcorn chicken, which was highly scarfable if diced a bit small, and the Chonqqing chicken, which is roughly the same thing with a bounty of spicy red peppers.

Taiwanese popcorn chicken

If you want something like hot pot, get the spicy Szechuan skewers, which come in a bowl of spicy beef soup divided into nine chambers; there’s also a specialty called fish and frog head hot pot. More conventional dishes like ma po tofu were well made, though I suspect a request from my son for a mild spice level on a beef and noodle soup led to the heat on everything we tried being tamped down a bit. In all, it seemed a pretty good Szechuan restaurant worth exploring further.


* Gao’s Kabob Sports Grill


Where: 232 W. 22nd Pl.

One of the hot trends in Chinatowns everywhere is Northern Chinese skewers, or chuanr, grilled meats (especially lamb) in a cumin-heavy spice blend. (Mike Sula wrote more about their history here, and see this LTHForum post as well.) They turn up all over at the moment as appetizers at hot pot restaurants and elsewhere, but there are two spots dedicated primarily to them, Gao’s and Friend BBQ.

Gao’s is located obscurely up 22nd Place off the main Wentworth strip, but that hasn’t stopped it being full most nights, and it would be my first choice to sample this style of dining, doing an expert job grilling lamb, beef, squid and other meats. By chance, though, the people next to us had ordered an entire grilled Japanese eggplant and it smelled good even a few feet away—so we ordered it too, and it was outstanding, the inside doused with a spicy-sweet sauce very similar to that on the bell dumplings at A Place by Damao.

Grilled eggplant, squid and lamb skewers, and Northern dan dan noodles

Gao was the clear winner for skewers, though not so much for larger meats—we tried “chicken bone,” grilled chicken skeleton with some bits of meat clinging to it, and grilled pig’s foot, but they came in second to Friend BBQ and A Place by Damao, respectively.

Curious about what separates “Northern dan dan noodles” from others, we also ordered that and got a huge bowl of noodles, peanut sauce, Sichuan peppercorn and some fresh veggies, served kind of cold. It would have been a great dish—reminding me a little of the veggie-rich bibimbop at En Hakkore—except that the noodles didn’t measure up, coming off like slippery, overcooked American spaghetti. Maybe that’s the Northern style, but I dreamed of a combination of Szechuan JMC’s chewy, square-cut noodles and these toppings.


Little Lamb Hot Pot


Where: 2201 S. Wentworth

Slowly I begin to understand hot pot, the Chinese (allegedly Mongolian) form of social eating in which you get broth boiling at the table and a host of things to dunk in it till they’re cooked. My first experiences were bland and baffling, literally just boiled meat, but over time I’ve kind of worked out how to have a decent meal at it. More than anything, it’s having a flavorful broth to begin with that makes this work or not, and the Mongolian Herbal broth here was a quality chicken broth bubbling with ginger, goji berries and other things. It made up for a generally disorganized atmosphere in the restaurant, if somehow always saved from sinking into complete chaos by the hustling staff.

I found beef picked up the broth flavor best, followed by pork and lamb; seafood less so, tofu not at all. You probably should have some veggies, but nothing I had, from broccoli florets to mountain yam trailing slime like okra, really gained anything from the broth. So order some meats (cook them just till they turn from red to gray, then eat, or at least take them out to cool a little), eat some veggies just for their own sake, then add the excellent fresh noodles at the end and eat them from the broth. One more note: the all you can eat option ($21.95) is almost certainly a better deal than ordering off the check-off sheet individually, since it is virtually impossible not to over-order, and to rack up a bigger bill than you were expecting, even when the veggies you picked were only a couple of bucks each.


* Wentworth Seafood House


Where: 2229 S. Wentworth

Salt and pepper tofu

With so many new restaurants in Chinatown serving Sichuanese flavors, it’s kind of refreshing to find a new Cantonese restaurant. Wentworth Seafood House, which sounds like it could have been there forever but is only about a year old, offers a dim sum menu and lunch specials through the afternoon, and a Cantonese menu stressing seafood at night. Salt and pepper tofu had a creamy custard-like inside under a crisp fried shell; my first bite was kind of, huh, that’s pretty basic, what it says it is, and by my third bite I was in love. Yelp reviewers strongly recommended seafood pumpkin congee; I usually find congee bland but this was a chickeny broth with bits of seafood in it, and quite comforting (especially with bits of cruller to dip in it).

Seafood pumpkin congee

We dabbled around the menu, trying to taste from as many categories as we could. Xiao long bao were routine, if not frozen from a bag at least passing for same, but fried rice with dried shrimp and bits of Chinese sausage was completely scarfable, and stir-fried watercress in a seafood broth with bits of preserved egg smelled like the fish section at an Asian market. I mean that in the best possible way.


* Daguan Noodle


Where: 2230 S. Wentworth

Daguan Noodle is one of only two places in Chinatown to have Michelin Bib Gourmand recognition (the other is MingHin), and if it seems curious why they singled out this one spot above others, you can see why when you order the house specialty, chicken soup—specifically, a style called guoqiao mixian (mixian is the style of fermented rice noodle, and the name means “crossing the bridge noodles”). Steaming broth is served with a tray of meat, veggies, mushrooms, etc., plus the noodles, all of which is dumped into your bowl before you even have a chance to look at it and know what you’re getting.

The broth is very good—best chicken soup south of Manny’s, maybe!—and the noodles and meats are very high quality, so for its type, it’s top level. It fits Michelin’s criteria of a high quality, hard to screw up experience that delivers exactly what you’re expecting. My idea of how to eat in Chinatown favors discovery over predictability, but if what you want is a bowl of chicken soup, this is as good as any in town.


* Slurp Slurp Noodles


Where: 2247 S. Wentworth

Until recently, with a couple of openings in the Richland food court, Slurp Slurp had been the only place presently doing hand-pulled and shaved noodles in Chinatown. The hand-pulled are like fresh pasta, and plenty good, but I really love the thickness and the raggedy texture of the shaved noodles (see this piece on another shaved noodle in town)… assuming they have something good to soak up.

At Slurp Slurp, you basically have two choices for that—soup or stir fried noodles (chow)—and then you have different meats which can be added to them (brisket, pork belly, etc.) The soup, rich with five spice flavor (my son said “It smells like Christmas”), is the best way to go; compared to that the stir fry noodles seem a bit bland, though you have various things on the table to doctor them with, and I liked mine just fine once they had some vinegar and chili oil on them. Beyond the noodle dishes there are only a couple of choices, but the steamed potstickers with pork and chive, which I feared might come out of a bag frozen, proved to be housemade and pretty terrific, too.


Yummy Yummy Noodles


Where: 2334 S. Wentworth [entrance on 23rd Place]

Beef brisket noodle soup with egg noodles and pork wontons

Yummy Yummy Noodles got its start in the Richland Center food court before finding a bigger and more attractive space just off Wentworth; it still seems a little undiscovered, so it might be a place to find a seat when hotter nearby spots are giving half hour waits. The thing to have has always been the beef brisket noodle soup, a comfy broth with hunks of five spice-scented beef; it’s a steal at $5, so you might as well spend $2 more and get a few pork wontons, which have complexity of flavor the simple soup lacks otherwise. I ordered pork with XO sauce to see what stir-fry dishes would be like now that they offer a much longer menu, and it was fine, good wok hay and lots of green vegetables. It’s a pleasant place, if not a destination worth traveling for from across town in itself.


* Happy Lamb Hot Pot


Where: 2342 S. Wentworth

This hot pot spot opened as Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, part of a Chinese chain purchased in 2011 by Yum Brands (Taco Bell, KFC). But as of a recent visit, the signage has been changed to Happy Lamb Hot Pot, so my guess is the local franchisee bailed on being part of a chain which nobody recognizes the name of anyway.

Nevertheless, time spent as part of a corporate chain seems to have paid off in this place generally having its act together better than others I’ve been to, making it an easy first choice for hot pot novices, who can start with with the recommended items on the check-off menu.

Streaky bits of lamb belly and beef shortrib (maybe; somewhere in the vicinity, anyway) were served well by the broth, which is accompanied by little dishes of other ways to doctor it up like chopped garlic or peanut sauce. I also enjoyed the shrimp paste, more like shrimp batter, which you scooped bits of and dropped in the broth to make dumplings. All in all, the most successful hot pot experience I’ve had, at $22.99 worth the $1 premium over the competitor mentioned above.


Friend BBQ


Grilled bao and lamb skewers

Where: 2358 S. Wentworth

Friend BBQ seems to be the name everyone has settled on for this Northern Chinese grilled skewer business, which is either related to or copying a New York spot called Friendship BBQ, but at least when I went, that name didn’t appear anywhere, so find it by the address. Anyway, it’s another Northern Chinese skewer place, serving various meats (and the hunk of bread seen above) seasoned with the same spicy seasoning and grilled. Lamb was good, grilled squid was very good… and then there were a few surprises, like “aorta,” which I took to be a pig aorta, though after I posted the picture someone suggested “trachea” was a more likely description.

Aorta skewer

That was a novelty unlikely to be repeated, but another item we ordered just because of the name, “chicken skeleton,” proved to be one of the stars—hacked up pieces of a carcass after it was mostly cleaned of meat, grilled. You had to work with your teeth to get those last bits of meat off the carcass, but it had great grill flavor and was surprisingly satisfying. There are some veggie side dishes too (we had a very good plate of stir-fried pea shoots), but by and large everyone in the room is eating meats off sticks, and dropping them in buckets; they also offer a version of hot pot in which you dip the skewers in the broth bubbling at your table.


New: Mrs Gu Hot Pot and Skewers


Where: 2407 S. Wentworth

Okay, I’m just going to say it: by now, I’ve tried hot pot enough to know that I prefer almost any other way the Chinese have of cooking things. But hot pot continues to boom in Chinatown, and it’s not hard to see why: for younger diners in particular, it’s a fun, sociable way to eat together. (It’s not coincidental that a lot of Korean BBQ has opened near Chinatown, too. Somebody open a fondue spot there, quick!)

Mrs. Gu is a Chinese chain which has made its U.S. debut here with the help of Chinatown veteran Tony Hu, who’s also rehabbing Won Kow up the street into a hot pot spot. It makes sense to open two of the same thing because where the Won Kow will likely be upscale and glitzy, this is more fast food hot pot, with big screen TVs and convenience store-style cases from which you pick your meats and vegetables, while they bring you the broth to cook it all in. Assuming you have three or four people to split the base price of $9.95-12.95 for the broth, it’s a fairly inexpensive take on the style of dining.

Pick your skewers, 36 cents each

That said, as still a relative novice, I found it all confusing, with multiple areas to choose ingredients from (most of them portioned for a group), often unclear about how much different things cost. There’s one area, that looks like a salad bar with assorted sauces, toppings (chopped chives), and even fruit and cookies, that I had no idea if I was allowed to dig into or not. (If you have a sauce, does it go in the soup, or do you dip the meat in it after you cook it, or what?) In short, this hot pot spot wrestled me to a draw. What I had seemed all right—the broths were good, the meats tended toward the gristly—but Mrs Gu’s is for people who know what they’re doing with hot pot, which is not me.

 

II. Chinatown Square Mall

The Chinatown Square mall along Archer has long been where to go for many of Chinatown’s newest and most popular restaurants, including much of the Tony Hu empire when it was at its peak, and the Richland Center food court. It’s been eclipsed of late by new openings on Wentworth, but it still packs a lot of interest into a modest area, with several new outposts of international chains choosing to open here.


* MCCB


Where: 2138 S. Archer (Chinatown Square mall)

For this one, I’ll just quote me, from the previous edition of The Fooditor 99:

Chicago’s Chinatown is changing in fascinating (if often baffling to an outsider) ways… MCCB, which stands for Modern Chinese Cook Book, sums up both the fascination and the bafflement for me. Some of it is recognizable enough for anyone who’s been eating at Lao Sze Chuan—dan dan noodles, Chengdu spicy dumplings, mapo tofu, dry chili chicken; even the whole fish or charcoal grill ribeye steak is basically recognizable as protein buried in a ma la-heavy soup base in an ornate rectangular box.

Pig Oil Green Onion Noodles

But then there are dishes out of some food culture you’ve never seen before—the cold noodles coated in smoky wok hay-tasting lard (Pig Oil Green Onion Noodles), the fresh okra served on ice like a shrimp cocktail (a slimy one). And that’s just scratching the menu; who knows what else is in this modern cookbook, waiting to blow your mind.

Fresh okra


Bonchon


Where: 2163 S. China Place #1f (Chinatown Square mall)

The mirrored wall at this Korean-owned fried chicken chain’s Chinatown shop (there’s also one in Wicker Park) cites dozens of place names… apparently representing just the American outposts of this popular global chain. (It was one of the first things we saw in Bangkok, too.) The chicken is fried twice for a super-crispy exterior, and then gets either a sweet soy-garlic glaze or a spicy one—which I should point out would rank near the top on a Nashville Hot chicken scale, capable of inflicting serious pain. There are other things like dumplings and pork bao and even some full dishes, but I didn’t see anyone not ordering chicken, and if the food has a slightly factory-produced feel inevitable in this big a chain, it’s about as good as chain fried chicken gets.


New: * Tan Lu


Where: 2101 S. China Place (Chinatown Square mall)

Tan Lu is a Chinese chain which has opened its first U.S. location in Chicago; the focus is on whole fish (mostly various kinds of catfish) served in one of several broths, with add-ins of vegetables and noodles, all served in a box-shaped hot pot. Yelp reviews pointed me toward a Chengdu style pickled cabbage broth, a bilious yellow and bitter rather than spicy. The presentation was impressive, but I was tempted to rank it as a bit overpriced—starting at $40 and ascending with the add-ons, for not too fancy fish and vegetables. Then we tasted it.

And, well, this is one of my favorite new finds in Chinatown. The fish is cooked to a perfect tenderness, while the vegetables (I didn’t actually find out about the noodles till after, sadly) soak up the sour broth and are delicious (I was especially on the hunt for the rare slivers of onion). As a social activity for 3 or 4 eaters, I would easily do this over hot pot next time. It helped, too, that our waiter seemed genuinely excited, promising that I was about to have something I’d never seen before. (Well, I have seen it, at MCCB and elsewhere, but I played along.)

Beyond the main attraction, one of us enjoyed a fruit-filled passion fruit tea (above), and we also ordered lamb skewers which were excellent, with a more dimensional spice mix than you usually get. Enjoy those as appetizers, but the fish is the standout, and don’t be afraid to load the broth up with other things to pick at for just a couple of bucks each. It’s worth it.


Tous Les Jours


Where: 2144 S. Archer Unit A (Chinatown Square mall)

Another international chain (there are other Chicagoland outposts in Schaumburg, Glenview, Vernon Hills and Naperville), this Korean take on French pastry-making reminded me of the deliriously colorful pastries I saw in Tokyo’s food halls, acres of brightly kawaii fruit colors and white frosting making the whole food hall look like a place where My Little Pony would frolic. There are so many choices, changing constantly, that it’s not hard to fill up a tray with choices ranging from cream cheese-and-fruit stuffed croissants to rice flour doughnuts to savory pastries with hot dogs or brie cheese.

Overall, I’d rank them as pretty good, not up to Princi as local chain arrivals go, but certainly pleasant enough, and delighting with all their unexpected variety; while the shop seems a bit of an escape from the general franticness of Chinatown Square dining. The time I took these photos, there was a group of schoolgirls singing Happy Birthday to one of their party. It was like living in an animé.


Bingo Tea


Where: 2150A S. Archer (Chinatown Square mall)

Bingo Tea is a small snack shop offering teas and a few baked goods (similar to Tous Les Jours above), that has since spun off a more elaborate restaurant on Argyle serving Malaysian dishes as well as tea drinks. Some of the teas come with a “milk cap,” which is their attempt at finding a better term than the one that Chinatown watchers have already heard for the layer of salty cream on the top of these teas—”cheese tea.” Either way, it’s an unusual sensation that may quickly grow on you, the lightly salted foam coming off a little like yogurt as it mixes with the tea (fruity or tannic) below. (My technique is to take a little sip of the cream, then a thick slurp of the tea.) Cheese tea—count me a fan!


New: * Mango Mango Dessert


Where: 2161 S. China Place, Floor 2 (Chinatown Square Mall upper level)

At last the Archer mall has the kind of dessert place that’s more typical of the little Clark Street mall. Located on the second level roughly above Joy Yee, Mango Mango is as kawaii as a button, offering mango-based dessert bowls loaded with ice cream and gummy things, as well as some more western-style desserts (like the mille crepe cake that’s a hot thing in Asia right now). They’re all very nice, the atmosphere is adorable—as an after-Chinatown dinner treat, this goes on my list of places to take visitors, for sure.

HP

 

III. Beyond Chinatown

Long confined to Chinatown’s borders by the Irish and Lithuanians of Bridgeport, Chinese businesses are finally spreading to the surrounding neighborhoods. Two strip malls—one on the other side of the El tracks northeast of the Chinatown Square mall, the other west of Chinatown on Halsted in Bridgeport—are establishing the borders of a new Chinatown with their food.


New: Shu Tin Xia


Where: 2428 S. Wallace

Tucked on a gritty side street of warehouses and auto shops, almost under the highway, Shu Tin Xia looks like it should be a slick nightclub out of a Johnny To movie. But the space has been several places in the last few years, including a karaoke bar called 15/20 Lounge and Original Steam, which had a strange—and quickly doomed—concept involving steaming seafood at the table in special high-tech devices that filled themselves with broth and then served as a communal hot pot.

Disco lamb and cumin

Shu Tin Xia offers hot pot and Cajun seafood, but also has a full menu of Sichuan and other Chinese dishes, making it more approachable than its predecessors in the space. Lamb with cumin was very well stir fried, but missing the strong cumin seasoning and funk of versions elsewhere. Ma po tofu—priced at a loss leader $3.95, a steal compared to the rest of the menu—was excellent, and certainly one of the few bargains I found doing research for this edition (Chinatown’s newest places tend to all be on the high side for the neighborhood). Based on two things, I would explore this menu more, even if I wouldn’t rank it at the top for Sichuan just yet. Here’s hoping they last in the pretty-hard-to-find space.

Ma po tofu, for a shockingly reasonable $3.95


Meet Fresh/New: Hello Jasmine/Tsaôcaa


Where: 2026 S. Clark, Unit A&B/Unit C/Unit G

The small new strip mall on Clark is mainly home to tea and dessert shops, making it a popular destination for teens. More variety is promised with signs announcing more food-focused spots, but for now, it’s where you go for something sweet.

Meet Fresh is a Taiwanese chain with some locations in California and major cities elsewhere. The focus is on various cold treats in bowls, built around things like cold grass jelly (think a vegetal Jell-O) or Taiwanese shaved ice. Whatever the base is, it’s topped with squiggly gummy treats, from taro balls to mochi gummies to milky gelatins a la panna cotta. On Friend of Fooditor Brian Eng’s recommendation, I tried Pudding & Q Mochi Milk Shaved Ice (below), which was full of interesting tastes. It was also big enough for four or six people, and accordingly cost as much as a pizza, so this is the kind of thing you get when you’re a group of teenagers hanging out together—not when you’re a food writer trying to finish an article by yourself.

Pudding & Q Mochi Milk Shaved Ice

Hello Jasmine started in the Richland Center basement food court before moving here (and spawning a West Loop location). It was the first place to offer cheese tea, the combination of fruit tea and a yogurt-like salted milk that’s a bit of a sensation, and it also offers the best food item in this mall, Taiwanese fried chicken strips. As I said then:

Imagine a fried chicken patty coated in Asian seasonings and sliced into ribbons of chicken. I CAN’T HEAR YOU! Imagine a totally awesome, delectable strip of chicken fried to crispy crunchy perfection that tastes like Chinese food. I STILL CAN’T HEAR YOU! Did you go wait in line at Jollibee, only to find that… it was fine, but not that great? This is that great.

Tsaôcaa has some shaved ice and jelly desserts, as well as French macarons and even tiramisu, but its main focus is on tea, including cheese tea as mentioned above. I told Brian Eng that I was interested in fruitier teas as opposed to oolong, and he suggested their osmanthus milk tea, called “fragrans” on the menu, which he says is very common in the Chinese community in L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley, but which he had not seen here until Tsaôcaa opened. It was an excellent recommendation, a beautiful floral tea which complimented the milk in a way that stronger green and black teas do not. To judge by a sign in the window, they will be expanding their food offerings soon.


Taipei Cafe


Where: 2609 S. Halsted

Meanwhile, over on Halsted, this Taiwanese restaurant in the city draws a crowd for milk tea and comfort foods like popcorn chicken (the Taiwanese version of fried chicken, which is wonderfully crispy and insanely scarfable; a required order) and braised pork over rice. The milk tea is excellent; I find the comfort foods, well, comforting if sometimes a bit on the bland side. Potstickers looked cool in the lacey batter that you break them out of, like removing the parts of a model airplane from the plastic, but didn’t quite live up to the presentation.

The beef and the noodles in their beef noodle soup were both excellent, but the broth improved a lot once you gave it some drips of the tableside hot chili oil. Braised pork belly on rice is simplicity itself, but there’s so much five-spice flavor in the pork that it triumphs not only over the rice but even the large portion of steamed broccoli. And pork belly is the star again of gua bao, buns with pork, peanuts and greens. So a variable menu where you want to seek out their strengths, but the best things were very pleasing—starting with a glass of milk tea.

Braised pork over rice and pork gua bao


* A Place By Damao


Handmade bell dumplings

Where: 2621 S. Halsted

The subject of this Fooditor piece, A Place by Damao has jumped to foodie fame for a clear, authentic concept: Chengdu street food, usually things as simple as noodles or dumplings or fried duck necks, and volcanically spicy. But there’s variation within the heat—sometimes a little note of sweetness, as in the signature bell dumplings, other times the metallic tang of Sichuan peppercorn. Either way, everything is pleasingly handmade.


New: * WuFu Hunan Cuisine


Where: 3205 S. Halsted

Unfortunately at the moment, it is very hard to look at the name on the awning and not see the word “Wuhan.” But WuFu just means something along the lines of “good luck,” and Hunan is at least a little ways from Wuhan; anyway, you can just refer to it, as the cover of the menu does, as “Happy Cafe,” under which name it was in Chinatown proper for some years.

The atmosphere when you step inside is pure old school Chinese-American, and you may instinctively look (in vain) for eggrolls and sweet and sour chicken. The emphasis here is on Hunan stir-fry dishes, heavy on oil and chili peppers, with lots of wok hay, the crispy-smoky taste of the wok permeating throughout. One of the standouts was “Hunan chicken in mini wok,” which I resisted at first because I thought the hostess was pointing me toward what she thought would be acceptable to a non-Chinese guest.

And maybe she was, but served bubbling in a crock above a hot plate, this was everything you want from a stir-fry dish of chicken and vegetables. Also first-rate was Fish Fillet in Hot Pot, tender fillets of white fish in a complexly flavored, judiciously spicy broth with cabbage and peppers:

Mao’s Pork Belly, advertised on the wall as seen above, was fine but not as sweet and delectable as La Mom Kitchen’s Shanghainese variation below. While pickled green beans with ground pork seemed harshly vinegary at first, but grew on me.

In any case, this is a comfy mom-and-pop (hilariously, whenever our sweet hostess went back to the kitchen, we could hear and her husband/chef immediately getting into it like an old married couple) whose menu is pretty much,  what you read is what you get. I will be back to explore things—if not the $88 braised turtle.


New: * La Mom Kitchen


Hong Sue (lacquered) pork

Where: 3312 S. Halsted

La Mom Kitchen had already opened when I did the original version of this piece, but I passed it by because the main thing it seemed to be pushing was a Chinese burrito, which seemed a pretty clear sign to me that by this far south on Halsted, we weren’t in Chinatown any more. Admittedly, something like jiang bing comes close to resembling a burrito, so the idea wasn’t totally illegitimate, but still, it didn’t seem like anything that was likely to make La Mom Kitchen a standout for authentic fare.

But a month or two later, that’s exactly what La Mom (which had briefly existed before in the Chinatown Square mall) had become, with reviews like Mike Sula’s. Although the menu has some of the usual Sichuan peppercorn-fiery dishes you expect to find, it also has a section of Shanghainese dishes, and the hong sue pork, sweet-savory lacquered hunks of pork belly, might be the most perfectly executed Chinese dish in town. Likewise, Shanghai dumplings are not exactly xiao longbao, yet they might capture the warm, juicy, comforting delights of soup dumplings better than any actual named xiao longbao in town.

That’s the good news, but on my visit, for every thrilling star there was an equally bumming dud. Spicy beef noodle soup tasted like the peppers were wok-burnt to an ashtray crisp, while a chicken noodle soup was simply bland (and there was nothing on the table to doctor it with). So it’s a long minefield of a menu with highs and lows, and you’re advised to read up before you go—Sula’s and John Kessler’s reviews each list dishes to try, and Brian Eng recommends this list: “fried fish filet with egg yolk, sweet and sour pork ribs, salted crispy chicken, four seasons gluten, smoked fish, hong sue pork, organic cauliflower dry pot.”


Min’s Noodle House


Where: 3235 S. Halsted

This Szechuan restaurant’s specialty is Chongking noodle soup, that is, crinkly noodles in a volcanic bowl of spice and oily broth, served with half a hardboiled egg and a braised meat cut of your choice (beef or pork, mostly). It’s reasonably satisfying on a wintry day, but I wanted the broth to have more dimension to it, to be a worthy competitor for ramen or pho, and it wasn’t, really. It’s mainly just hot and oily.

What saved my lunch here was the pork bao I ordered on the side. The size of a cinnamon roll, it was full of minced Asian pork goodness, and I’d have had another if I hadn’t been looking at a half-eaten bowl of soup. It’s good to know that it exists, if I’m ever in need of a lifesaving snack in Bridgeport—and I saw another tempting one as I was leaving; it looked like a Chinese family was chowing down on crullers and soy milk, a popular breakfast dish I’ve only seen at the food court in Westmont where Hanbun used to be.

After my so-so visit, I saw Brian Eng on Twitter talking about liking this place, so I asked him what stands out for him. He praised the bao as the best in town (hurray, I got one right) as well as diced chicken noodles with serrano chilis, hot and sour soup with sweet potato noodles, and dan dan noodles. So now, even after trying this many restaurants, I have something new to try when I go back to Chinatown… and I hope you do, too.

 

 


Michael Gebert is the big gua bao as editor of Fooditor.

Special thanks to Brian Eng for many insights (only I am to blame for my good or bad opinions, though), and to fellow diners including Liam Gebert, Susan Snyder, Ka-Leung Ngai, Sabine Rishell, John Lenart, Keng Sisavath, and John Kessler.


Sparrow Black 2019


Latest



Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you're not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.