By Brian Min
Feature photo by missmeng
Phoenix Restaurant, 2131 S Archer Ave, Chicago, 312-328-0848, www.chinatownphoenix.com
Hours (for dim sum) Mon-Fri 9:00am- 3:00am; Sat-Sun 8:00am-3:00pm
Triple Crown Restaurant, 2217 S Wentworth Ave, Chicago, 312-842-0088, www.triplecrownchicago.com
Hours Mon-Fri 9:00am-2:00am, Sat-Sun 9:00am-4:00am
Shui Wah, 2162 S Archer Ave, Chicago, 312-225-8811
Hours Daily 8am-2am
The Chinese New Year may have long passed us back in February, but that doesn’t mean the lure of Chicago’s Chinatown magically disappears afterward. Chinatown consistently remains a favorite for intrepid foodies in need of delicious and affordable food without all the fuss of more publicized establishments in the city. Yet, for most diners, Chinatown continues to carry an exotic and cartoonish stigma not unlike Jack Burton’s adventures in Big Trouble in Little China. But just as tapas led to the recent-ish Spanish cuisine revival, dim sum is the most accessible launching pad in understanding what exactly traditional Chinese cuisine has to offer.
Dim sum is the Chinese equivalent to brunch, only without the likes of an unlimited mimosa bar and buffet of waffles, hash browns and bacon. It’s as much a boisterous communal experience as it is about the food, where friends and family gather to dine on various small plates and down pots of oolong or chrysanthemum tea accompanied with rock sugar. But where does one start a dim sum journey in Chinatown? You can certainly try your hand at the charmingly retro Three Happiness (not “The Original”) or the superbly inexpensive Happy Chef, where the tables are adorned with white garbage bag tablecloths, for easy pick-up. But if you’re looking for the cream of the crop, here are three notable recommendations.
Phoenix Restaurant is a Chinatown staple whose reputation precedes itself even beyond Chicago and remains the go-to destination for many dim sum newbies. While Phoenix does offer dim sum daily until 3:00pm, it’s only during the weekend that one can truly experience the full breadth of Phoenix’s offerings when the menu expands threefold (no other restaurant in Chinatown comes close to the sheer variety of Phoenix’s weekend options). Arrive before 11:00am and you’ll experience traditional cart service running out the freshest dishes from the kitchen without a hitch. Arrive any later and you’ll end up waiting for a table for at least an hour in the restaurant’s stairwell. It’s a tough predicament for the diner. While you may lose the crowds during the weekdays, you sacrifice the opportunity to try dishes outside of the usual siu mai (steamed pork and shrimp dumpling) and char siu bao (BBQ pork bun). On the other hand, while you may experience the full menu during the weekend, you’re forced to deal with the droves of people that inevitably turn Phoenix’s dining room into a veritable madhouse, creating further strain on Chinatown’s already notorious service standards (language barrier, indifferent attitude, etc). In essence, what you gain in aesthetics, quality dim sum and the benefit of a full bar (if you really need that mimosa), you lose with the crowds and comparatively expensive dim sum prices.
A better choice for dim sum rookies is Triple Crown on Wentworth Avenue, just south of the Chinatown gate. Like Phoenix, Triple Crown is also a second-story restaurant but takes full advantage of Wentworth Avenue’s commercial density, offering a dining room view reminiscent of Manhattan’s Chinatown along with uncharacteristically polite and amiable service. And what Triple Crown may lack in an extensive dim sum menu, it makes up by offering 20% off their weekday morning (9AM-3PM) menu and serving a late-night (albeit limited) dim sum menu available from 10PM-2AM (4AM on weekends), perfect for night owls, bar patrons and industry folk. Be sure to try their steamed ginger and scallion beef tripe and lo bak gao (fried turnip cake).
But the pinnacle of dim sum in Chinatown is truly evident when one notices Jackie Shen’s (Red Light, Chicago Cut Steakhouse) stamp of approval in the window (slightly more reassuring than Steve “The Hungry Hound” Dolinsky‘s ubiquitous photo). Shui Wah continues to be the best dim sum house in Chinatown. It’s the antithesis of Phoenix and Triple Crown, sacrificing a grandiose dining room for cramped tables (occupied by a predominantly Chinese clientele) and a no-frills approach to food and service. There may not be enough room to push carts around, but there are plenty of servers constantly walking around with plates of freshly-prepared dishes like Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce, jian dui (sesame doughnuts with sweet red bean paste), dou fu fa (silken tofu with ginger syrup), and the best har gow (shrimp dumplings) in the city.
Truth be told, where you go for dim sum depends entirely on what you’re looking for with the experience. But remember, if this is your first time in Chinatown for dim sum, you have to order the fung zao (chicken feet).