Chicago

A Food Expert's Guide to Chicago's Chinatown

Just in time for Lunar New Year.

Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram
Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram
Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram

Chicago’s Chinatown, a triangular slice of the Near South Side loosely bordered by Cermak Road, Wentworth Avenue, and a northbound-snaking branch of the Chicago river, has been fueling Grace Wong’s culinary cravings long before she cut her teeth dishing on the city’s vibrant restaurant scene for the Chicago Tribune

“Both my parents are from Shanghai and they immigrated to Naperville, which is about 40 minutes outside of the city,” says the esteemed former dining reporter, recalling her suburban upbringing. “When I was growing up, we’d make this semi-monthly pilgrimage into Chicago, especially Chinatown and the Argyle area, to get supplies because there was no real Asian population where we lived. There were maybe two small Asian grocery stores at the time; when we got an H Mart, it was literally the biggest news of my life. My mom was so hype about it.”

“It was always just a huge deal, piling into the van,” she continues. “We would go for dim sum in the morning and then the entire afternoon we’d be following my mom around to all these different specialty grocery stores so she could get the ingredients she needed to make dishes from her homeland. I remember being a kid and carrying giant plastic buckets around because we would pick up live crabs and live fish, stuff like that.”

Wong now lives on the North Side and although both the pandemic and her recent departure from the Tribune and their centrally located office has made travelling down to Chinatown a bit less convenient, she still manages to pay her favorite establishments a visit every now and then.

“I haven’t gone much since the virus hit but I have made the trip a few times, mostly when I’m just like, ‘I need my Boba fix!'” she says with a laugh. “And then once I get down there I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I need barbecue pork from BBQ King House. And I need my roast duck. And I might as well go to Park To Shop because I’m out of like, I don’t know, oyster sauce or whatever.’ It always ends up being an extended time.”

Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram
Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram
Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram

Getting the lay of the land

It might look like one cohesive cityscape at first glance, but according to Wong, Chicago’s Chinatown is actually composed of two distinct, nuanced districts.

“So, there’s new Chinatown and there’s old Chinatown,” Wong explains. “The big plaza with all the Zodiac animals next to it-that’s considered, at least to my parents, new Chinatown. And then old Chinatown is down Wentworth Avenue, south of Cermak. If you look at a map, there’s a little triangle where Archer, Clark, and Cermak meet. Everything south of Archer is more old Chinatown and everything north of Archer is more new Chinatown.”

“Growing up, we spent a lot of time at old Chinatown, mostly because there are a bunch of bakeries there and we would bring home pastries to eat for weeks and weeks,” she says. “As I got older, we started going to new Chinatown more. You’ll see a younger demographic in new Chinatown, trendy places like Bonchon and Mango Mango-that’s more of the vibe. And it’s more touristy in the sense that the people who go into new Chinatown to walk around and spend their day there, they might not necessarily live there. Whereas with old Chinatown, you’re bumping past the old ladies that have lived in that neighborhood forever.”

What makes the neighborhood stand out?

After high school, Wong moved to California to pursue a degree in journalism at USC. And while she enjoyed the years she spent on the (much, much) sunnier West Coast, her experience in Los Angeles only further cemented her devotion to Chicago’s Chinatown.

“I think a lot of Chinatown’s across the country are kind of going away,” she says. I was in LA for like six and a half, seven years, and the actual designated “Chinatown” there is maybe one city block. Here, you can bump into people who straight up just arrived from China or Taiwan one minute then turn around and talk to someone who has lived in the area for generations the next, that’s all they know. I think that’s really cool.”

“Another important thing to note is that Chinatown is not only for the people who live there but also for all the Asian-Americans who in the surrounding suburbs, of which there are so many,” Wong adds. “To be able to go to a place where my parents can just chit chat with whoever without any worries about language, or where I can tell someone my very specific boba order and they’ll get it exactly right without asking me all these questions-I don’t know, it’s just a really special place for everybody.”
 

Grace’s list of can’t-miss Chinatown spots:

Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings
Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings
Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings

Qing Xiang Yuan

“One of my favorite places to get dumplings is Qing Xiang Yuan. They also have a location in the Loop. They do a lot of different styles, all handmade, which is really awesome. They’re really playful with the fillings and you can customize if you want them boiled or fried. And they have these really amazing takeout boxes that they designed for themselves-yes, I’m here for that packaging. They’re also pretty new and modern. I don’t know if my parents would love it, per se, because they’d be like, ‘This is a fancy restaurant.’ But it’s just dumplings! Go there and you’ll have a really great time.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Elitea

“Just south of QXY is the entrance to the Richland Center, which is basically a glorified food court. It’s one of the few places where you can get really regional cuisine and it’s also home to Elitea, one my favorite places to get boba. They have this fire brown sugar boba that is just, I mean, incredible.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

 

Hing Kee

“For soup dumplings, I like to go to Hing Kee. Back in the day there were always, like, aunties making dumplings in the window-I loved that. Every now and then I’d go for some other kind of snack, but their soup dumplings are the best.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Hello Jasmine
Courtesy of Hello Jasmine
Courtesy of Hello Jasmine

Hello Jasmine 

“Hello Jasmine on Clark Street is really good for Taiwanese snacks and boba. I usually get their roasted oolong, popcorn chicken, and maybe some sausage skewers. They also have this fried chicken sandwich that’s unreal. It was definitely a spur of the moment decision to get it, but it was so good I posted about it on Instagram.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

 

Laojiumen

“For hotpot, there’s this new place called Laojiumen. They basically do ‘fancy hotpot’ and I honestly can’t wait to go there when I feel like it’s safe to do so.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Bingo Tea

“Bingo Tea has the best cheese tea. They were one of the first and the biggest to do it. You know how cheesecake is cheese but not really? Like how it’s sweet but has a touch of like salt to it? Imagine that but whipped. There’s a fruit or loose-leaf tea on the bottom and on top there’s this foam-like latte foam but thicker. The name might be a little bit of a marketing issue, but don’t knock it until you try it!”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Lao Sze Chuan

“Lao Sze Chuan is a classic for Sichuan food across the board. It might be an unpopular opinion, but I love their dry chili chicken. People say it’s for tourists, but it’s actually so good!”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine
Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine
Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine

MingHin

“Right next to Lao Sze Chuan is MingHin. I’m telling you, no dim sum trip is complete without a stop there.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles
Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles
Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles

Slurp Slurp Noodles

“Slurp Slurp Noodles is in the old Chinatown area and their hand-shaved noodles are some of my all-time favorites. They’re super bouncy and springy and served in this delicious sauce. And they’re not soupy noodles-more like the dry, tossed-in-a-wok kind. They also make their own mustard greens, which are fire. It’s a solid spot.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

BBQ King

“BBQ King is the absolute go-to for all your barbecue needs. And they’re for sure doing takeout right now, I know that from experience.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

MCCB

“MCCB, they do ridiculous, mouth-numbingly spicy food and it’s fantastic. Their grilled whole fish, it’s just swimming in chilies, and you’re like, ‘I’m going to die and I’m going to enjoy every moment of it.’ I love it there.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Chef Xiong
Courtesy of Chef Xiong
Courtesy of Chef Xiong

Chef Xiong

“Another good place for spicy Sichuan-style food is Chef Xiong. They have a really cute logo with a Panda on it. I don’t know if I have a favorite dish, but I would say just go, sit down, and whatever they tell you to eat, do that. You won’t regret it.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Dolo Restaurant and Bar

“If you want to feel like you’re at a club but also eating Chinese food, Dolo is the spot for you. They also do cocktails and their food is definitely good, but it’s just like, ‘I’m here with my parents in this dark room with this loud music… I don’t know what to say.'” 
How to order: Click here to order online.

Feida Bakery

“Barbecue pork buns? Obviously great. Ham and egg buns? Obviously great. Cream horns? Obviously great. Am I missing anything?”
How to order: Call 312-808-1113 to order.

Park To Shop

“You have to check out a grocery store because grocery stores are the best. We love going to Park To Shop-there are two big locations in Chinatown. One is on Archer and one is farther south but both are great.” 
How to order: Click here to order online.

Xi’an Cuisine

“Xi’an Cuisine, they do what people call Chinese hamburgers. I kind of hate that name because it’s a bun that’s been pan fried and stuffed with cumin-spiced meats-to me, that’s not really a hamburger, but I understand the desire to assign it a name you’re familiar with. Either way, they taste great.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Aji Ichiban

“Up near the Richmond Center there’s this little candy specialty store called Aji Ichiban. I love going in there for sweets-they have Japanese candies, Korean candies, Chinese candies, all the candies.”
How to order: Click here to order online. 

Nine Bar

“More recently, there have been a few pop-ups coming from second generation Chinatown kids like this one out of Moon Palace. Pop-ups are such a big COVID thing. I would be remiss not to mention them.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago
Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago
Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago

Meet Fresh

“Another place for dessert is Meet Fresh-it’s so good. And you will definitely be shell-shocked by a tiny, 90-pound Asian girl eating an entire mountain of ice cream on her own because, yeah, that’s a normal occurrence there. It’s happened to me twice now and I’m shocked every time. I’m talking a mountain of shaved ice and pudding and taro balls-delicious, but you’d need at least four people to eat it. It’s amazing.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Meredith Heil is originally from St. Louis, now lives in Chicago, and in between has been to all 50 states (that’s feet on the ground, none of that airport BS). She enjoys reading about, thinking about, talking about, writing about, putting on events about and drinking about craft beer.

Chicago

Robyn DaCultyre Is Doing It for the Culture

"The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone."

Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi

I was introduced to Robyn DaCultyre at an Untitled Queen show at C’mon Everybody in late January, and it was one of the most unique drag shows I’d seen in a while. Afterwards, I tracked down this self-described “drag creature” and video chatted about her drag origin story, the state of drag in her native Ohio, and the dual identities that make up her persona. Thrillist: I want to ask you about how Robyn DaCultyre came about and your point of view behind your performance.

Robyn DaCultyre: I’ve been travelling around the country from a young age in ministry and Christian studies. I moved to Chicago right after high school. Four years later, moved back to Columbus and decided I didn’t really want to do church anymore; that wasn’t where my heart was.

I had a really low point in my life and had a suicide attempt and then really found drag and started doing drag as a coping mechanism and way to let off steam. I started in July of 2019, and it was really a lot of punk and metal music. I created this drag creature of sorts and they were really out of this world and celestial and all of those fun alien type terms.

And then we went into a global pandemic and I had a lot of time to figure out who I wanted to be. Digitally I was still doing a lot of drag creature-esque numbers and all of that, but I had this moment where we’re on the front lines getting hit with pepper spray and rubber bullets and pepper spray-all of those lovely things. And I said, I have this platform and I need to start showcasing what’s happening.

Untitled [Queen] stepped in at the right time and messaged me and said, “I’m doing this show for Independence Day called Untitled in America with 52 different performers and I want you to be a part of it.” It was at that moment I was able to take the footage I had been recording on the front lines and incorporate it into digital content. I did a song called Black Like Me by Mickey Guyton that talks about white picket fences, but if you want to see how America is, then you should try being Black like me. The imagery of what’s literally happening in Columbus in that digital performance really spearheaded me into focusing on people who look like me.

Nina Simone is one of my biggest inspirations, and one of her quotes that resonates with me is that it’s the duty of the artist to resonate with the times. My art is politically charged. I like to entertain, but there will definitely be a time when you come to a show expecting to have your drink and be chill and that might not be the case.

How did the name Robyn DaCultyre come about?

I was smoking with Ursula Major, who was on season one of Dragula, and the first time I introduced myself to her I was Robyn Banks, which is my drag name originally. She said, “Well, do you just not want to be original at all?” [Laughs] And I sat with that for a couple of months, and I got really stoned one day and was listening to Janelle Monae, and she talks about doing it for the culture, and I said “I do it for the culture, too!” And the rest is history.

And you started a series called Melanated.

We started Melanated last February. I told the idea to my show director that there were no shows specifically run by Black people that only featured Black entertainers. I wanted to do this show for a night and she said, Why don’t we do it once a week for the whole month? The first show happens, and it’s a sold out crowd, and [my director] comes back and says we should do this every month. So I sucked it up and here we are a year later.

Melanated is the only fully Black show in all of the state. It’s a horrible marketing tool and not something I want to promote, but it is just a fact. It amazes me that we are the 13th largest city in America and there’s nothing here that’s fully focused on Black entertainers. The name also comes from Janelle Monae; she says she’s highly melanated and I said, that works.

Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)

You refer to yourself as a drag creature, as opposed to drag queen or king…

This is actually the first time I’m making this public. I am in this place where I want to separate the alternative creature from who this melanated goddess or whatever is. DaCultyre is definitely the person who runs Melanated and then Robyn is this drag creature that is out of this world and really loves punk and alternative music. And both intertwine to make Robyn DaCultyre.

You also do pageants. Tell me about that.

In 2020 I was appointed by Nina West, who is from Columbus, as the representative from Ohio for National Entertainer of the Year in Louisville, Kentucky. I placed ninth out of 13 contestants and I really fell in love with the system and fell in love with the pageantry and loved the idea of reigning and being different. I want to show that we as alternative performers, as bearded performers, you can come into these systems and shake things up.

Is there a uniquely “Ohio” style of drag?

No, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it so amazing is that everyone has their own unique style, and it’s all pretty much accepted. I started as a performer and a drag creature and there was space that was afforded to me and I transitioned to more glamor and pageantry and that’s afforded to me as well. I’ve been a bearded entertainer for a year now. The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone.

I think I have everything I need. Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to bring up, or‚Ķ

I don’t think so. Are there any generic questions you haven’t asked?

Generic questions‚ĶI think I asked all of them already [laughs]. I like to ask what you’d be doing if you weren’t doing drag?

It’s a great question. I have a day job that is very demanding so I need drag to get away. I’m also very creative and artistic. I used to do web design and all these other things to pull into my creativity. Drag is the longest thing I’ve stuck with in all parts of my life, so I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

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John deBary¬†is a drinks expert and writer. His first cocktail book,¬†Drink What You Want, is available now, and his next book,¬†Saved by the Bellini, is expected in early 2023. He is also the co-founder and president of the¬†Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grant making, and impact investing.

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