Navigating Chicago's Chinatown can be as confusing as playing Zelda without a map, which's why you should always navigate Chinatown with... a map. Here's our definitive guide to eating in Chinatown, with nine spots all mapped (!) out at the bottom.
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What you're getting: Dry chili chicken
Lao Sze Chuan is the flagship eatery in restaurateur Tony Hu's empire, having expanded to franchises in Uptown, Downers Grove, and Connecticut (?). Chinatown's many "Lao" restaurants belong to Hu, and each offers up a take on a different region of Chinese food including Lao Sze Chuan, which tackles the tongue-numbing spiciness of Szechwan dishes and provides a good mainstream entry-point for starters like the dry chili chicken, along with boiled beef and Tony's three chili chicken.
What you're getting: Soup dumplings
No matter what entree you're eyeing (sweet and sour spare ribs, tea-smoked duck), be sure to lead off with an order of soup dumplings (xiaolongbao). Filled with pork and hot broth, you can either eat it in a soup spoon (gently letting the contents stream out), OR you can pop it in your mouth like a tasty pork gusher.
What you're getting: BBQ pork buns
This is the go-to den of dim sum in the area. Now, before you go making a shload of impulse buys from the passing dining room carts, put in an order for the sweet and fatty steamed BBQ pork buns, as well as the sui mai rolls (shrimp, pork, and mushrooms in a wonton wrapper). Done? Okay, now back to a shload of impulse buying.
What you're getting: Bao tacos
Blending modernized Cantonese, Hong Kong, and other Asian styles of cooking, the tucked-away spot on 23rd St is worth seeking out. Their pork pot stickers are gigantic, the hot and sour soup is supremely satisfying, and a new special -- the bao tacos, which you fill with stir-fried beef (extra fatty, because it's typically reserved for hot pots), bean sprouts, and veggies -- adds to the eclectic menu.
What you're getting: Salt and pepper chicken wings
One of Tony Hu's "non-Lao" spots, Sweet Station is a Cantonese diner with a good spread of ingredients for hot pot cooking (essentially Chinese fondue, except with boiling water instead of cheese) and's got tables with built-in stoves to boot. The stand-out, though, is in the apps section of the menu; in particular, the salt and pepper chicken wings, which've been marinated in garlic soy, fried, seasoned, and blanketed with jalapeños.
What you're getting: Shrimp wonton soup
Good for breakfast, lunch, or late-night munchies (they're open until 5am on weekends), this cafe can accommodate both your laptop and a flaming mini-wok. The dumplings in the wonton soup are -- like Bubba's pant pockets -- loaded with shrimp and floated in a broth with onions, cabbage, and rice noodles.
What you're getting: Baked buns
For quick, cheap eats, look to grab some buns, hun, at this family-owned, Chinatown staple. They're fluffy on the outside and gooey on the inside with sweet (custard, coconut) or savory (barbecue pork, ham & cheese, curry beef) fillings.
What you're getting: Chairman Mao’s favorite pork belly
Served up by a waitstaff in Chinese military uniforms, Lao Hunan's plentiful pork options -- whether stewed, fried, roasted, or smoked -- are tasty enough to make you reconsider this whole "democracy" thing. The fatty pork belly, a noted favorite of founding father of the People's Republic Mao Zedong, gives a good balance of sweet and spicy, mixed with peppers and scallions. Other specialties include twice-cooked sliced duck, dry chili fish, and Hunan chili in black bean sauce.
What you're getting: Crab dumplings
Up on the second floor by Chinatown square, this dim sum banquet hall specializes in seafood -- if you couldn't tell by the 50-gallon tanks of king crab, crawfish, and red snapper in the entrance. The bamboo steamers provide hefty portions, most notably in the xiaolongbao -- soupy dumplings with crab meat.
Sean Cooley is Thrillist's Chicago Editor and he has caught a Hylian Loach in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Follow him @SeanCooley.
1. Lao Sze Chuan4832 N Broadway Ave, Chicago
2. Phoenix Restaurant2131 S Archer Ave, Chicago
3. Lao Shanghai2163 S China Pl, Chicago
4. Lao Hunan2230 S Wentworth Ave, Chicago
5. Sweet Station2101 S China Pl, Chicago
6. Go 4 Food212 W 23rd St, Chicago
7. Chiu Quon Bakery1127 W Argyle St, Chicago
8. Cai2100 S Archer Ave, Chicago
9. Chi Cafe2160 S Archer Ave, Chicago
Spice lovers and adventurous eaters alike rejoice at Uptown’s Lao Sze Chuan, a Sichuan mecca in Chicago. Begun by Tony Hu, the mastermind behind the Tony Gourmet Group and a graduate of China’s first culinary institution, Lao Sze Chuan promises authentic cuisine founded on high quality materials and ingredients, all prepared by chefs hailing from the restaurant’s regional namesake. With a diverse selection of saucy, hot dishes, you should top your table with Tony’s Chicken with Three Chili and one of the less conventional plates offered, like ginger pork stomach or pork intestine with pork blood cake. Not for the faint of heart (or faint of taste bud), Lao Sze Chuan will provoke you to expand your Chinese culinary horizons well beyond General Tso’s and white rice.
Get the dim sum. No questions, just trek up to the second floor of the Chinatown Square strip mall, take a seat in the dining room and await for your order of dim sum to be pulled up in a delivery cart. Pro top for getting a refill of the tea you're no doubt downing as well: leave the lid up.
This Armour Square Shanghainese resto doles out a wide variety of dishes, but some of their best options include their drunken chicken and succulent xiao long bao soup dumplings.
Loa Hunan is the only authentic Hunan restaurant in the Midwest. It's different from other Chinese restaurants because the foods much spicier (don't worry though, it isn't the numbing kind of spicy).
Sweet Station combines contemporary and traditional Chinese cooking practices for the perfect modern Hong Kong style Chinese. They've got you covered for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even snacks.
Do we really need to convince you to go to a stellar Chinese/Asian-fusion restaurant IN Chinatown... ?
As the oldest bakery in Chinatown, having been started in the 1980s, this eatery has laid back, cafe filtered vibes. In addition to trying out the dim sum, turn your attention to the baked goods like sweet egg custard tarts and BBQ pork buns.
Chinatown’s Cai strays from other dimsum eateries by dodging the cart setup and offering a menu akin to your family photo album, but with portraits of ridiculously good-looking Chinese bites, and therefore the family you always wanted. The giant banquet hall is always packed, so embrace that you’ll be getting to know your neighbor’s elbow pretty well. Cai has some of the best shumai in the city; nibble on the har gow, or shrimp dumplings with paper-thin crystal wrapping.
If the urge to scarf down braised oxtail or jellyfish with a beef hind shank hits you at 1AM, this Chinese spot is there for you every day of the week. Moreover, on those weekend nights where you've been knocking back a few too many shots, you can come to this alcohol free space and substitute them for smoothies all the way up until 5AM.