In 2011, when Jinxi Liu saw the Richland Center Food Court for the first time, it didn’t look like a welcoming place for new beginnings. Located in the basement of the Richland Center in Chinatown, the hall had been open less than a year and still looked mostly empty, with only a couple food vendors attending to their stalls. But to Liu, who had moved to the United States from the Chinese coastal province of Guangdong three years earlier, it nonetheless seemed like a promising place to start a restaurant of his own. In June of that year, with money he had borrowed from relatives and saved from working in various kitchens, he opened Yummy Yummy Noodles, the food court’s newest stall specializing in noodle dishes.
Unassuming though it may be, Richland’s food court has been described by Reader food critic Mike Sula as Chicago’s “great incubator of Chinese restaurants.” Several full-scale restaurants—including Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings, Yummy Yummy Noodles, and Hello Jasmine—have gotten their start in one of the ten stalls that serve the cafeteria. These days the space is thriving, home to not only a complete lineup of food vendors but also a kitchen supply store, clothing stores, and barber shops.
Although the food court attracts a regular flow of customers, the turnover rate for vendors is high, and opening a stall is not a guarantee of success. But with scarce restaurant financing options for people who lack funds, Richland’s food court remains an important avenue for the average aspiring entrepreneur to enter the Chinatown food scene.
Back in 2016, I Min Lin was planning to open his first milk tea store, Hello Jasmine, in Evanston, but found that the costs were beyond what he could afford with his savings from two years working as customer manager of Chinatown’s Little Lamb Hot Pot. But with the combination of his and his wife Jasmine’s savings and loans from friends, they were able to secure a stall at the food court that spring.
Xingjian Chen, who in August co-founded a new milk tea shop, Elitea, two stalls down from Hello Jasmine, is happy about the food court’s location in the heart of Chinatown and its informal atmosphere. “It’s fast food, and customers have lots of choices,” said Chen, adding that having an internet café and karaoke lounge upstairs means that customers visiting one place can bring business to the others.
He felt the only drawback was that the food court looked “old-fashioned,” not as modern as food courts he’s seen in New York and China. Chen said this was because the food court’s owners association is made up of many individual landlords who own the stalls and rent them out to restaurant owners, making deciding on changes for the food court slow. Though the association charges low maintenance fees, it results in the association not having a lot of money, which can make it difficult to coordinate large renovations such as fixing the air conditioning or leaks.
Compared to a traditional restaurant, opening a stall at the food court is easier and more cost-effective. Chen explained that to open a traditional restaurant, he would have needed to obtain a permit from the city, invest significant money in renovations, and be approved as being up to city code, which could take a lot of back-and-forth. In contrast, because each stall has previously hosted a food vendor, new start-ups at the food court only need to get a license inspection from the Department of Public Health, significantly cutting down on time and costs.
Even so, the capital required to open a new stall at the food court can be significant. Chen estimates that initial investments for Elitea added up to $60,000, which the shop’s three co-owners were able to pay using savings from their full-time jobs in engineering and accounting. They are unusual in that regard—many of Richland food court’s restaurant owners had backgrounds working in restaurants and kitchens prior to opening their own stalls.
The affection that restaurant owners have for their craft is evident in the way they talk about their products and in the dishes themselves. Lin, owner of Hello Jasmine, spends hours every two days chopping chicken into the perfect sizes for his popcorn chicken dish, a popular Taiwanese street food and a customer favorite. They carry a dizzying array of teas, ranging from comfortingly rich and sweet milk teas with tapioca to zany fruit teas. (It’s unclear to me exactly how the Orange Cheese Green Tea’s combination of orange juice with fresh orange chunks and a whipped sour cream topping works together, but it does.) Like their milk tea neighbor Elitea, Hello Jasmine imports all their spices and tea leaves from Taiwan.
Each owner takes pride in bringing to Chicago tastes from a different corner of the world. But according to Ivan Leung, who is the president of the owners association and whose kitchen supply store is the oldest shop in the food court, the dominant cuisine style has shifted over the years as the demographic of Chinatown changed. “It’s changing from Canton to North China…You can tell the Cantonese food is less than Mandarin food,” said Leung. “Spicy, that’s different than before.”
Liu, owner of Yummy Yummy Noodles, agrees. Liu serves a bitter melon dish calibrated to the perfect level of bitterness, but their claim to fame has to be their noodle soup dishes, often served with a couple dumplings in it. They used to make Guangdong-style dumplings, but now only make dumplings with jiu cai stuffing—a wonderfully pungent herb beloved in northern China. “Initially I had a lot of customers from Northern China, they didn’t like eating Guangdong-style dumplings,” said Liu, “so I changed them to jiu cai dumplings.”
Liu and his wife moved Yummy Yummy Noodles to a street-level restaurant on bustling Wentworth Avenue five years after opening at the Richland Food Court. The newer location is decorated with elegant wooden chairs and artwork on the walls, and the flatscreen TV playing Chinese dramas gives it a homey atmosphere. Before the dinner rush one evening, Liu played cards with his wife and daughter at one of the tables. “If we make more money I’d open an even bigger one,” said Liu of his restaurant location.
Other owners who started at Richland are expanding as well. Lin opened a third Hello Jasmine location on Clark Street just outside Chinatown a couple weeks ago, which he envisions as a kind of coffee shop that offers customers a Taiwanese cultural experience. The owners of Elitea are dreaming even bigger. With a franchise at the Fresh International Market in Schaumburg already under their belt, they are looking to open another location in San Francisco, and many more franchises beyond that.
And just about everyone has heard of the success of Qing Xiang Yuan, whose dumplings have people waiting in line just to get a table on Saturdays, and which is opening a new location in the Loop. It seems that the stalls that specialize do particularly well—not every stall in Richland is able to grow so quickly. Snack Planet, which has a less specialized menu and was one of the first stalls to open at the food court, is opening a second location in Naperville just this year.
At Four Season Noodles, opened in January, it’s all about the noodles. Owner Haoran Meng traveled back to his hometown of Shenyang, in northeastern China, to learn how to hand pull noodles. It’s a treat to watch him transform a hunk of dough into long elastic strands, which he boils and serves without fuss with beef and broth, the most popular item on his menu. A single serving contains so many satisfyingly chewy noodles that even a person with considerable chopsticks skills will have to put up a bit of a fight.
When asked what his dreams are for the restaurant, he says for now he’s just concentrating on making it work. “I have lots of work to do,” Meng said.
Tammy Xu is a contributor to the Weekly. She last wrote for the Weekly in February about civic engagement in Chinatown.