My series has traced the general pattern of historic center city core Chinatowns in the United States. In most of these cities, much of the population, and correspondingly the authentic Chinese food, has fled to the suburbs, such as the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles, or Flushing and Brooklyn in New York. The only real exception to this rule that I’ve discussed so far is Philadelphia, whose Chinatown has gone through an unexpected revival in the past five years, though it has not expanded geographically.
Happily, another exception to this pattern is Chicago Chinatown, which not only is thriving, but also experiencing significant population growth and geographic expansion. Chicago Chinatown’s population increased by 25 percent between 2000 and 2010 and its boundaries are spilling into adjacent neighborhoods. But why is Chicago the great exception as a Chinese culinary center with a growing Chinatown? Especially when contrasted to Los Angeles Chinatown, which has become a hotbed of non-Chinese restaurants, or Manhattan Chinatown, which is gentrifying and losing turf particularly on the Lower East Side, or San Francisco Chinatown, abuzz in rumors of technology industry incursion, or Washington, DC Chinatown, which may be on its last legs?
Chicago’s uniqueness among American Chinatowns has not escaped the local press. Recent articles by the Chicago Tribune and Next City explain Chicago’s exceptionalism with reasons such as “the commitment to Chinese traditions” or the avoidance of zoning policies which can trigger gentrification.
However, they miss the most important factor.
Like so many American cities, Chicago developed a late 19th-century downtown Chinatown, centered around the intersection of Van Buren and Clark Streets. Unlike in San Francisco, Manhattan, Boston, Philadelphia and others, that downtown Chinatown did not endure because the Chinese did not control the real estate where they settled. As downtown real estate became more valuable, the Chinese had to vacate. Consequently, in 1912, Chicago’s Chinatown relocated two miles south to its present spot, centered by Wentworth Avenue and Cermak Road.
This relocation made all the difference in the unique dynamics of Chicago Chinatown. While Chicago Chinatown is indeed over a century old and outside the immediate downtown core, it is the only historic Chinatown with abundant single family housing and residential side streets, making it more akin to the modern Chinatowns of Flushing and Brooklyn. As such, Chicago never developed any secondary suburban Chinese communities like in the San Francisco Bay area and the San Gabriel Valley. Only the small enclave around Westmont and Naperville bears any resemblance to a suburban Chicago Chinese community.
Like other historic Chinatowns, Chicago Chinatown was Cantonese-Toishanese in origin, which naturally resulted in a nearly a century of exclusively Cantonese dining. The expansion of Chinatown with the construction of Chinatown Square in the early 1990s added more than a dozen restaurants, virtually all Cantonese. As recently as a dozen years ago, I could find less than a handful of non-Cantonese restaurants in Chicago.
But where Chinatowns in Los Angeles and San Francisco still only grudgingly add restaurants serving other styles of regional Chinese cuisines, Chicago has more recently welcomed non-Cantonese restaurants with open arms. Pioneering the way is Chef Tony Hu, often referred to as the Mayor of Chicago Chinatown, who opened a string of specialized regional Chinese cuisine restaurants, starting with Lao Sze Chuan, followed by Lao Beijing, Lao Hunan, Lao Yunnan, Lao Shanghai, Lao You Ju, and Lao Ma La. His empire recently expanded to Lao Sze Chuan locations in the Palms Casino in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the era of expansion for the Tony Restaurant Group may have ended with some branches being sold amid the revelation of systematic widespread tax evasion.
With the heavy influx of non-Cantonese immigrants into Chicago Chinatown’s residential areas, the demand for non-Cantonese eateries will grow with or without the Tony Restaurant group. On Wentworth Street, Chicago Chinatown’s main drag where I spotted nary a non-Cantonese restaurant a dozen years ago, one now finds Sze Chuan Cuisine, Ma Gong La Po, and Ding Sheng serving Sichuan style food, Little Lamb Hot Pot for hotpot, Chef Bao for Hunan-style, Slurp Slurp Noodles for Taiwanese noodles, and Qing Xiang Yuan for killer dumplings. Elsewhere in Chinatown one finds other examples of non-Cantonese cuisine, such as Shanghai cuisine at Moon Palace, Shaanxi food at Xi’an Cuisine, hotpot at Mandarin Kitchen, and Sichuan food at Yan Bang Cai. And in line with the rise of dessert shops in Chinese communities throughout the US, Honey Dessert of Chicago has recently opened. Freestanding boba shops are less common in Chicago Chinatown than in other Chinese communities, but many sit-down restaurants here purvey a wide selection of these drinks, obviating the need for dedicated shops.
Of course, with its deep Cantonese roots, Chicago Chinatown is home to a number of excellent Cantonese style restaurants. Perhaps closest in quality to what you would find in California and New York is Cai, on the second floor of Chinatown Square. The lunchtime dim sum menu has several dozen selections, while the dinner menu contains many items not found elsewhere in the city. Also in Chinatown Plaza, MingHin Cuisine serves great dim sum and Cantonese seafood. Another nearby favorite for dim sum and Cantonese food is The Phoenix Restaurant, and for something less casual there’s Lee Wing Wah in Chinatown Square. Other choices for dim sum and more are Original Triple Crown Restaurant on 22nd Place, a pioneer of Hong Kong-style food in Chicago, and Triple Crown Restaurant on Wentworth.
As noted above, there is a small suburban Chinese community west of Chicago, centered around Naperville and Westmont. MinHing, Lao Sze Chuan, and other Chinatown restaurants have branches out here, and the Taiwanese-leaning International Mall on Pasquinelli Drive in Westmont houses a number of restaurants in the food court.
Finally, mention should be made of a second “New Chinatown” in Chicago which was planned by Chinese businessmen in the 1970s along Argyle Street, north of downtown Chicago. As things turned out, the redevelopment of this area coincided with a migration of immigrants from Southeast Asia to Chicago, creating a community with more Vietnamese and Cambodian influence, rather than Chinese. However, given the historic connection of ethnic Chinese peoples in Vietnam, similar to overlapping Vietnamese/Chinese communities I have previously mentioned in surveys of San Diego and Orlando, there is a like Chinese presence in the Argyle Street neighborhood, evidenced by a string of Chinese restaurants such as Sun Wah BBQ, former Chinatown stalwart Furama, and another branch of Lao Sze Chuan.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.