Chinatown ostensibly retooled itself for tourism in the early nineties, with the opening of the two-story outdoor Chinatown Square over what used to be the Santa Fe rail. And with fresh blacktop being steamrolled onto Archer and Cermak and those shiny, new Red Line renovations optimistically nearing completion, the rush of visitors doesn’t seem likely to ebb anytime soon. Yet don’t let this fool you: the tourist is tangential. Respect the gift shops, the grocery stores, the former laundries, now the hip bubble tea joints. Historically, these ventures catalyzed an era of transnational migration. They even saved lives, keeping Chicago’s Chinese community off the meatpacking “killing floors.” They kept management within families and regulation between workers. Once shelter from overt discrimination, today they represent jobs amidst lingering economic insecurity.
Strong residential ties continue to preserve this century-old enclave. Behind the sponsored events are community celebrations; above the storefronts gather youth programs, ESL classes, and professional educators. From the first traditional banquet honoring volunteer Baptist catechists, to the annual Dragon Boat Race for Literacy, Chinatown has welcomed its neighbors with unflagging assertions of its own cultural autonomy. Turn onto Wentworth from any business or eatery, and you’ll get a good sense of Chinatown’s niche. The twin Pui Tak pagodas stand solidly against a gauzy Sears Tower—happily complementary, but unmistakably in the foreground, comfortably apart.
BEST “BUILDING EVER ERECTED IN AMERICA BY THE CHINESE”: Pui Tak Center
Or at least, these were the ostensibly kind words written by the Chicago Tribune when plans for the former On Leong Merchants Association Building were revealed in the summer of 1926. Curiously commissioned to the Swedish firm Michaelson and Rognstad, the design wedded the verticality of Taishanese fortress-houses to fond memories of the Columbian Exposition’s famed Joss House. The building’s twin towers, roofed in custom-made terracotta, stand as proud contributions to the distant downtown skyline. Confucian motifs and intricate vine-like ceramics hem the windows and columns, while a delicate three-story loggia opens the building onto Wentworth’s west side. Historically the home and headquarters for its titular community organization, the 30,000-square-foot building also provided low-rent storefronts for family friends and favored entrepreneurs. An FBI racketeering raid in 1988 briefly shuttered the complex before its acquisition and restoration by the Chinese Christian Union Church. Now the Pui Tak Center, the structure continues in its role as a community nexus, conducting youth programs, ESL courses, religious services, and even the occasional tour. Pui Tak Center, 2216 S. Wentworth Ave. Monday-Friday, 8am-7pm; Saturday, 8am-12:30pm. (312)328-1188. puitak.org (Stephen Urchick)
BEST DIM SUM DIVE: China Café Seafood Restaurant
Chrome carts and spotless bow ties be damned! If you’re looking to dodge the swankier Cai, or escape the snares of other ostensible tourist traps, China Café will shroud you in a cloud of loud Chinese conversation and humid kitchen vapors. Your fellow patrons will most likely be Chinatown residents grabbing a quick breakfast or luxuriating in good food and matching company. Don’t expect too much help with your decisions, or even a table on busier Sunday mornings. Be patient, and then choose boldly. Intuit your way to springy shrimp and delightfully greasy dumplings. Arrive before ten for the hottest and freshest morning spread. There’s an impressive carry-out counter up front if you haven’t the time to sit down. China Café Seafood Restaurant, 2300 S. Wentworth Ave. Monday-Sunday, 8am-midnight. (312)808-0202. (Stephen Urchick)
BEST FUN YOU’LL EVER HAVE WATCHING FOOD BOIL: Mandarin Kitchen
Chinatown offers opportunities for even the shoddiest cooks to shine. Mandarin Kitchen, otherwise known as “Little Fat Lamb” (a rough translation of its Chinese name), is perhaps the most hands-on. As a hot pot restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen allows patrons to craft a menu of raw ingredients from an extensive list of offerings, then boils them to perfection in the steamy soup broth on their tabletop stoves. If you don’t mind a little heat, opt for the Kitchen’s spicy broth over the regular chicken variety—it bathes each bite in just enough tongue-tingling flavor, and complements nearly anything you can order. Ease the pain with the beverage of your choice; Mandarin Kitchen is BYOB. But vegetarians and pescetarians beware! Both broths are based on chicken stock and the cuttlefish balls conceal a ground pork filling. Despite this and a wealth of other meaty entrees, Mandarin Kitchen still offers a broad range of creative vegetable options. The menu features numerous offbeat favorites, including winter melon, frozen tofu, and the peculiarly textured wood ear. It may not be your cheapest dinner option, but $19.95 a head gets you all you can eat within two hours’ time. An interactive menu and large, communal tables ensure you’ll leave engorged and entertained. Mandarin Kitchen, 2143 S. Archer Ave. Monday-Thursday, 11am-10:30pm; Friday-Sunday, 11am-11:30pm. (312)328-0228. (Emily Hatch)
BEST BET: Saint’s Alp Teahouse
Whether you’re stuck appeasing some conservative eaters, or just completely drained of all culinary ambition, the menu is huge enough to both meet the bold and tempt the timid. There’s no shame here in ordering the orange chicken amongst more adventurous companions—brilliantly breaded, thickly sauced, stewed with zest, and even thoughtfully plated with actual citrus slices. Their hot drinks are as seemingly thick and substantial as their cool milk ones, served in classy ceramic ware and unapologetically flavored. Something as even apparently plain as the green apple variety will have you asking for a second pot. You won’t drain your first teacup before lunch is ready, and service remains impressively swift even on busy Saturday nights. And you won’t feel bad at all about sacrificing savings on some refreshing, tapioca goodness. Saint’s Alp Teahouse, 2131 S. Archer Ave. Sunday, 11am-midnight; Monday-Saturday, 11am-1am. (312)842-1886. (Stephen Urchick)
BEST CHANCE AT EMPTYING YOUR SINUSES: Lao Ma La
Step into the sleek interior of Lao Ma La on a Friday night and you’ll find an eclectic crowd of diners who share one ordinarily unnoticeable quality: a passion for mouth-numbingly, tear-wrenchingly spicy Asian cuisine. At this outpost of Tony Hu’s restaurant empire, the mala sauce and ice water flow freely. The oily, fiery red sauce—popular in soups, stews, and stir-frys—is a sadistic blend of the most punishing peppercorns, chili peppers, and spices found in China’s Szechuan province. Their hot and spicy pots, perfect for communal dining, come in three grades of heat but are still recommended for only the most intrepid palettes. For the more cautious, the cauliflower Hot Mini Wok, YuShiang Chicken, and Ma Po Tofu dishes—each garnished lightly with peppercorns and cilantro—are potent yet manageable adventures. A postprandial trip to nearby Saint’s Alp Teahouse for a boba tea or soothing smoothie ought to be considered mandatory. Lao Ma La, 2017 S. Wells St. Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10:30pm. (312)225-8989. tonygourmetgroup.com (Lauren Gurley)
BEST RELIGIOUS ART: St. Therese Chinese Catholic Mission
Most people come to Chinatown seeking smoothies or boba tea. Few come as pilgrims. Yet take a turn off Wentworth’s drag and you’ll learn that Chinatown Catholics keep up with the long-standing papal preference for architectural shock and awe. The St. Therese mission has retained much of its Romanesque flair in the hundred-plus years since its construction under a fledgling Italian parish. Two colonnades—hewn from a polished marble struck with creamy, coppery colors—enclose the pews. A vaulted ceiling arcs upwards, melting into pale blue frescos; the intricate chandeliers suspended from every arch seemingly refract divinity’s light. Stained glass saints on high smile with sunny benignity. Recent renovations have gilded the space with glowing Chinese script. Our Lady of China hobnobs with the Madonna, and the ancestors share God’s house. Avoid the knot of craning tourists out on the street. Try to call ahead and check before visiting, or perhaps even consider attending a service yourself. St. Therese Chinese Catholic Mission, 218 W. Alexander St. (312)842-6777. sttheresechinatown.org (Stephen Urchick)
BEST RED BEAN PASTE BUN: Tasty Place Bakery and Café
Wentworth’s bakeries typically incarnate the red bean paste bun as a fist-sized pillow of chewy, egg-washed dough. Its center ambushes you with an inner mass of satisfyingly sweet mash, made from azuki beans, sugar, and the occasional touch of lard. Too often, however, the surprise is lost: the paste shifts in the baking and the bagging and the consumer is left with sad, empty, bready bites. At Tasty Place, however, the croissant meets its Chinese second cousin. By braiding the dough and working thin layers of paste between the folds, Tasty Place reimagines this prolific treat so as to satisfy at every mouthful. Although the paste itself leans on the crumbly side—arguably standard, losing some moisture to the oven—it remains neither overly sweet nor headily fruity, artfully smoothed of chunky bean solids. It might be slightly messier to eat than the Chinatown standard, but you won’t have to worry about the center getting squished out in your backpack, making it an ideal desert to cart back home. Tasty Place Bakery and Café, 2306 S. Wentworth Ave. Monday-Sunday, 7:30am-10pm. (312)842-8802. (Stephen Urchick)