As readers of my series on Chinese restaurants across the country know, the general rule is that if a city has an existing 19th or early 20th century Chinatown, that Chinatown is almost certainly not the best place for a great Chinese meal. However, like most general rules there are exceptions, and one prominent exception is Philadelphia.
Philadelphia Chinatown is right in the lap of downtown. In other cities, such prime location has led to Chinatowns being displaced for other uses, as was the fate in Los Angeles (which did establish a nearby replacement), Phoenix, San Diego, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, among many others. However, Philadelphia Chinatown has persevered. Even as the bulk of the Chinese population growth has occurred outside of Chinatown in recent years, Chinatown is still the undisputed focus for dining and community life for the Chinese in and around the area. Even better, after successfully fighting off potential encroachment, including plans for a casino and a baseball stadium to house the Phillies, Philadelphia Chinatown is thriving.
Like every other historic Chinatown I have surveyed, Philadelphia’s Chinatown is Cantonese/Toishanese in origin, since it was this group of Chinese who originally migrated to California in the mid-19th century and moved eastward later in the 19th century. These Cantonese/Toishanese migrants landed in Philadelphia and other eastern cities as a relative safe haven when anti-Chinese enmity and violence enveloped California and the Western United States in the latter 19th century. Unlike the bigger surviving center city Chinatowns like San Francisco and Los Angeles, which while enduring a few cracks in the wall, still remain unabashedly Cantonese, Philadelphia’s Chinatown is diversifying its regional base.
Though the geographic footprint of Philadelphia’s Chinatown hasn’t been significantly altered, today’s Philadelphia Chinatown is full of new activity and new restaurants. Contrast this to Chinatowns in Los Angeles and San Francisco where any opening of a Chinese restaurant is a rare, newsworthy event. Even in Manhattan’s larger Chinatown, where new Chinese restaurants are a bit more common, the openings are still notable. Philadelphia’s Chinatown, on the other hand, opened dozens of new Chinese restaurants in the last several years. And just as significant, the new restaurants in Philadelphia reflect the spectrum of non-Cantonese faces in the Chinese American community that has accelerated in the past decade.The roster of new non-Cantonese restaurants populating Philadelphia’s Chinatown is impressive. For starters, you can get Shaanxi cuisine at Xi’an Sizzling Woks, Northeastern Chinese kabobs at Solo, xiaolongbao (Shanghai soup dumplings) and Taiwanese at Shang Hai 1, Sichuan at Traditional Szechuan and Red Kings II, hot pot at Nine Ting, Red Kings, and Sakura-Mandarin, Fujian fish balls and fish cakes at Ming River Sidewalk Café, and hand-pulled northern Chinese noodles at Spice C. You certainly won’t find this kind of variety in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or even Manhattan Chinatowns, where these types of regional cuisines are most commonly found outside of the core central city Chinatown. And for the younger crowd, Philadelphia Chinatown is peppered with boba and snack shops, tea parlors, dessert shops, and watering holes.
A good exemplar of the change in Philadelphia Chinatown is its most popular restaurant, Dim Sum Garden. Based on the name, you would likely anticipate wonderful versions of barbecue pork buns, ha gow, and shu mai rolled on carts. But you’ll find none of that, because Dim Sum Garden does not serve dim sum as most of us know it. Rather, this modern restaurant is packed with Asian and non-Asian millennials, chowing down on “Shanghai dim sum” which isn’t really dim sum at all, and a menu featuring xiaolongbao, all shades of potstickers, duck gizzards, and pumpkin cakes.
This is not to say that you can’t get a nice Cantonese meal in Philadelphia. There are plenty of Cantonese restaurants left in Philadelphia Chinatown, such as Jade Harbor, Ocean Harbor, David’s Mai Lai Wah, Joy Tsin Lau, and Empress Garden. But where Philadelphia Chinatown’s restaurants were once all of the Cantonese ilk, now they are in the minority.
Perhaps Philadelphia Chinatown’s most striking feature is the vast numbers of young Chinese patrons crowding its streets, reflective of the growing number of Mainland Chinese students attending local universities including Penn, Temple, and Bryn Mawr. Indeed, I can’t think of any central city Chinatown with such a high proportion of young Chinese, as well as other young people, so visibly present. All this new blood, manifested by both the regionally diverse restaurants as well as the millennial generation of Chinese consumers, leads to an especially vibrant Chinatown. This vitality struck me immediately during my recent visit, and starkly contrasted the moribund Chinatown I remembered from a previous visit not that many years ago.
Of course, Philadelphia Chinatown’s dominance is due largely to the lack of any apparent alternate Chinese locus like one finds in the San Gabriel Valley (Los Angeles), Richmond B.C. (Vancouver), or Flushing (New York). While there is no other publicized area of Chinese influence, there is actually a “secret” second Chinatown taking root in Northeast Philadelphia. About a dozen years ago, a fair number of Fujianese Chinese, priced out by New York’s skyrocketing real estate market, cast an eye on Northeast Philadelphia, a historic attraction for new immigrants of various stripes. These Fujianese Philadelphians provide most of the capital and labor supporting the new generation of Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia Chinatown. A number of Chinese businesses have popped up on Castor Avenue, including a Chinese grocery store, jewelry store, hair salon, construction contractor, convenience store, real estate brokerage, and one authentic Chinese restaurant, Wang House. Chinatown’s Jade Harbor has opened a branch in Northeast Philadelphia a few blocks away. As I have noted in other city reports, authentic Chinese restaurants are generally slow to establish themselves in emerging Chinese-American communities, so it will be interesting to see if more Chinese restaurants follow in this neighborhood.
Before wrapping up, I must mention Philadelphia’s own unique regional Chinese American dish, the Philly cheesesteak egg roll, found on Americanized Chinese restaurant menus outside of Chinatown. Imagine my disappointment when, on my recent visit, the only restaurant where I found it on the menu was all out. I’ll have to report back next time.
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.