Tag Archives: Chinatown

Chinese New Year 2010

The Ox is out — make way for the Year of the Tiger! If it’s your year (if your birthday was in 1902, 1914, 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998… or 2010), you are supposed to wear an article of red clothing every day for good luck. Apparently, a red scarf or even earrings will suffice, so that could be doable! Tigers are unselfish, independent, daring, impulsive and noble.

We’re both big fans of Chinese New Year celebrations. Tara went to the parade this year in Chicago’s Chinatown, and growing up, Karina has celebrated the holiday with her family.

The present: Chicago does it right

This year, like many, Wentworth Avenue was packed with Chicagoans wandering the streets and hanging out in every dim sum joint and bakery in Chinatown hours before the parade. Unlike in China, when not a single person works during the New Year, all the Chicago restaurants, shops and bakeries face the biggest business days of the year. Here’s a look at this year’s parade and celebration, from behind throngs of onlookers.

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Tara for TKGO

The past: A family tradition

In early elementary school, Chinese New Year was about gold coins, red envelopes and re-reading Lion Dancer: Ernie Wan’s Chinese New Year (great book, by the way). Once my family adopted my little sister from China when I was nine, celebrating the holiday became much more involved. My family joined the local chapter of Families with Children from China, and my mom became one of the group’s organizers. In fact, one of her major annual undertakings was planning and executing the organization’s Chinese New Year celebration. The events were cultural blowouts of food, (hello, unlimited Chinese buffet) music, activities and performances. We took over a restaurant for it every year, and the event sold out every year. We had lion dances, yo-yo artists, ribbon dancing, martial arts and one year, a famous Chinese paper cutter.

 

I always looked forward to the event, and now that I’m away from home for the holiday, each year when the day comes around, I feel as though I am missing something.

Karina for TKGO

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Chicago Dishes a Shanghai Favorite

Xiao Long Bao is a special kind of steamed dumpling you’ll only find on dim sum menus in Shanghai. It’s made of a thinner, chewier dough shell and filled with soup and a ball of pork (like what you’d find in a wonton), and is served with vinegar and hot sauce. Traditionally, it’s eaten all in one bite, but if you’re having trouble you can bite off the top of the dumpling, suck out the soup, and then put the rest in your mouth.

 

Xiao Long Bao at Lao Shanghai in Chicago

 

So where can you find these delicious Shanghai-style soup dumplings in Chicago’s (frozen) Chinatown?

I grabbed my friend Chenault, who spent over two months eating Xiao Long Bao in Shanghai this summer, and we set off to satisfy the craving.

The Contenders:

Phoenix Restaurant has long been applauded as one of Chicago Chinatown’s best — just ask anyone in the dim sum lines for Saturday and Sunday brunch (…when it’s not frigid outside). You’ll find a solid portion of guests in the large dining room are speaking Mandarin or Cantonese — always a sign of authenticity — but you won’t be lost speaking English to your waiter or describing the dish you want.

Lao Shanghai is a part of a Chicago Chinatown chain — on your way there, you’ll pass sister restaurants Lao Beijing and Lao Sze Chuan. The majority of the clientele are white, and most of the menu seems to try to introduce Shanghai dishes to people who’ve never been to China. But Time Out Chicago is a fan, and the food is good albeit much higher priced than most in Chinatown. The place is small but quiet, and you’ll dine atop white tablecloths.

The Bao:

On paper, Lao Shanghai offers more authentic Xiao Long Bao: The dumpling shell was thinner, and it was accompanied by the traditional vinegar dipping sauce. An order of eight will cost you $4.95.

 

Inside Xiao Long Bao at Lao Shanghai in Chicago

 

At Phoenix, the dumpling shell is a little thicker than it should be, and the accompanying sauces are just soy sauce and hot sauce. But the taste was more authentic: The broth and meat had the right combination of spices to bring Chenault straight back to her days in Shanghai. Lastly, the temperature — burning hot — was also authentic. And we can’t read the dim sum sheet, but grabbing whatever you want off the dim sum carts will leave you satisfied for $15 or less.

The Verdict:

While Lao Shanghai had a lot of the authentic touches, taste is everything — and in that respect, Phoenix had all the spices down. Chenault and I will be returning to weekend dim sum at Phoenix, and we will continue to flag down the first waitress who leaves the kitchen announcing she has Xiao Long Bao.

Tara for TKGO

Chinatown Kitchenware

If you spend a lot of time in the kitchen, you can easily get sucked into buying a $3 soup ladle somewhere along China Place or Wentworth Avenue in Chicago. But if you’re looking for value, selection and great service? The list is slim, and at the top: Woks ‘n’ Things.

The high-quality, low-price knife selection is the reason to make the trip to Chinatown, but you won’t leave without a few other goodies. Find every size of dumpling steamer on one wall (under a paper mache dragon) and a wok of every size and style on another, all on a budget. You’ll find a stone and mortar grinder for $19.99, plastic rice molds to aid in sushi-making, tea pots with four matching cups for under $30 and bulk chopsticks for $2. If you need help choosing the right steamer or wok, the staff is friendly, patient and fluent in English.

For those who aren’t into cooking, Woks ‘n’ Things offers inexpensive but well-made cooking utensils, pots and pans. (You’re going to have to heat the marinara and boil the pasta in something.)

Woks ‘n’ Things, 2234 S. Wentworth Ave., Chinatown, Chicago, IL 60616; (312) 842-0701; CTA: Red Line to Cermak-Chinatown.

Tara for TKGO