Taking You Down to Chinatown

Michael Nagrant / 06.16.06

This article first appeared in the Chicago Journal

kung pao chicken
The Kung Pao chicken at Spring World

I will be watching you and if I find that you are trying to corrupt my first born child, I will bring you down, baby. I will bring you down to Chinatown!

Robert Deniro – Meet the Parents

What if a wrathful Robert DeNiro dropped you off in Chinatown? Wandering among fiery-tongued dragons, slithery eels, and under dark awnings written in strange Mandarin hanzi, would you become disoriented, collapse in a dusty back alley, and fall prey to a band of opium den operators?

Or just hop on the red line Chinatown “L” stop and go home? That would be a shame. Stick around, follow providence, and seek out your fortune. Chinatown has a rich culinary experience that celebrates the diversity and culture of the Chinese mainland provinces.

As the fortune cookie says, every journey begins with a first step. Here’s a guide to move your feet:

Spring World

Spring World is one of the better fiery Szechuan style joints in Chinatown. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but for $3.95, you can get one of the best lunch deals in the city. You’ll have to employ cunning and ask for the specials, as they don’t volunteer the deal to newbies. Choose from a dozen entrees on Menu A: (meat/fish), and from another dozen on Menu B (vegetables/tofu), and they’ll throw in a cup of soup and a side of rice big enough to feed the Red Guard.

While crunching on Ma Po Tofu in a zingy red chili sauce dotted with fermented black beans, you’ll be protected by a statue of a fierce golden armored Mongol warrior reinforced by a pair of glittery googly eyed toy cats, their left arms raised, in allegiance to Mao.

The garlicky Kung Pao chicken studded with red chilis, bright scallions, and wafer thin slices of ginger may be the best in the city, and ranks along side the fare at the more popular Lao Szechuan restaurant.

Spring World also features Yunnan-style cuisine. Yunnan province, with frigid Himalayan peaks in the north and tropical river basins in the southwest, is one of most climatically diverse provinces in China. As a result, it is home to 600 of the world’s 2,000 known edible mushrooms including familiar fungi like Shitake, Porcini, and Oyster, and more obscure versions like Black Diamond and Wooden Ear. The Beef and Special Mushrooms dish is a good way to sample the earthy cuisine.

Three Happiness

three happiness
If you aren’t confused by the three La Pasadita restaurants on the corner of Ashland and Division streets, head down to West Cermak and the heart of Chinatown, and you’ll find two “Three Happiness” restaurants. Unlike La Pasadita, they are owned by separate people, and just happen to capitalize on the Chinese penchant for magic trinities and positive states of mind. The one you want is the smaller version on the south side of Cermak. Also known as “Little Three Happiness”, the restaurant specializes in Cantonese food, the style most familiar to westerners. Think sweet and sour chicken. Save the standard dishes for PF Chang’s. You come to Three Happiness for two things: The crispy skin chicken and the salt and pepper shrimps.

The crispy skin chicken, served with a side of lemon and a five spice salt mixture (cinnamon, peppercorns, cloves, star anise, and fennel), recalls crispy Peking duck, with a lustrous golden crust and juicy interior meat. If you like a little spicy sauce for your chicken, ask for Gary’s chili oil, which they keep in the back.

Once you finish your chicken, dig into a plate of salt and pepper shrimps slathered in scallions and jalapeno. If you’re squeamish, you can order them with the peels and heads off, but the peels, which fuse with the meat during the wok sear are entirely edible. You’ll be rewarded by a contrast of plump succulent briny meat and toothsome crunch.

Joy Yee’s Noodles and Chiu Quon Bakery

After the spicy barrage of Chinese savory delicacies, you’ll want to satisfy your sweet tooth. Head over to Joy Yee’s for a bubble tea-smoothies infused with black glutinous rice tapiocas that you can suck up through a double wide straw. All of the teas are made with ripe mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and melons plucked from wooden cubbies that look like Carmen Miranda’s clothes closet.

Then head on down the Wentworth strip to the Chiu Quon Bakery for traditional sweet fare like almond cookies or French style pastry like tortes and éclairs. At this point you’ll be stuffed, but there’s always the late night snack. Take out a couple of the steamed buns, with a golden egg wash crust and chewy white interior. The BBQ pork which has a sweet hint of almond, and curry beef are exceptional.

chiquon buns
Richwell Market and Mayflower Foods

Looking to cook some fresh amphibian? At Chinese markets, freshness isn’t even a question. Aquariums abound, holding live croaking bullfrogs, frenzied clacking blue crabs, and wary eyed carp swishing in every direction. Even the whole Peking ducks, with their glistening orange roasted skins, look like they were quacking a few minutes before.

If frog legs aren’t in your future, try some of the assorted gummy snacks. Chinese gummy treats tend to be softer and fruitier than the bulk food versions American’s love.

Chinese markets are a great place to load up on carbs. You can buy an assortment of frozen buns stuffed with custard, pork, and veggies, or cheap udon, buckwheat soba, and rice flour noodles in a variety of shapes. If you want to make your own Crab Rangoon and egg rolls, try the wonton skins and egg roll wrappers.

The Chinese have soda or tea for whatever ails you, including Eucommia blend to target back muscle problems, or, if your internal organs are wincing from your earlier Chinese food binge, there’s always the “Liver and More” herbal tea.

chinese soda
Finally, the produce is a fresh steal. You’ll pay 49 cents for a bunch of scallions, and save money over the big box chains by picking up fresh greens like parsley, cilantro, and assorted lettuces.

Woks and Things

If you ever need to stir fry for the Chicago Bears offensive line, this is your place. For about forty bucks you can get a two foot diameter wok. Once you’re done cooking, you can wax the bottom, hop in the cast iron saucer, and test the sledding hill behind Soldier Field.

Or try rolling your own – sushi that is. Woks and things has all the necessary accoutrements, including bamboo rolling mats, sushi molds, lacquered decorative chopsticks, porcelain dishware, soy sauce holders, and…

Knives. Woks and Things has more gleaming blades than a Northwestern Memorial surgical suite. The selection includes heavy iron cleavers that’ll saw through bone, and delicate sushi fillet knives made of chrome molybdenum and vanadium that’ll hold their edge longer than popular carbon stainless steel German knives.

You won’t want to ruin your pristine blade on a countertop, so pick up a bamboo cutting board. Unlike traditional wood boards, bamboo repels water, so you can run it under the faucet, and it’ll never warp.

Finally, pick up a Benriner mandoline to slice wafer thin spuds for homemade potato chips, or to quick julienne carrots. At woks and things they sell for about a third of the models you’ll find at the gleaming culinary superstores, and they work just as well.

If you go:

Spring World, 2109 S. China Place, 312/326-9966

Three Happiness, 209 W. Cermak, 312/842-1964.

Joy Yee’s Noodles, 2159 S. China Place, 312/328-0001.

Chi Quon Bakery, 2242 S. Wentworth Ave., 773/927-2288.

Mayflower Foods, 2014 S. Archer Ave., 312/326-7440.

Richwell Market, 1835 S. Canal St., 312/226-9611.