Chicago’s Chinatown stretches for just a few short blocks. You can see the Sears Tower and it’s a 15 minute walk from McCormick Place. But when I’m there it feels like I’m halfway around the globe and I have an almost uncontrollable urge to act like an unmitigated tourist.
My friend Mike and I did just that last week. We both have been to Chinatown several times. We even have favorite restaurants. He’s introduced me to Double Happiness, at the far end of Wentworth past all the stores. Last week I introduced him to mine: Three Happiness on the south side of Cermak, or as it’s affectionately known in foodie circles, Little Three Happiness. (Big Three Happiness is across the street. There’s even an online forum of almost maniacal culinary zealots named after this little space of dim sum nirvana. LTH Forum formed after a few foodies were frustrated with Chowhounds, and Little Three Happiness , a.k.a. LTH, is one of those little-known spots they cherish.)
Normally we’d take the red line, since it stops right in Chinatown, but Mike was driving that day. As we turned down Wentworth a hearse laden with flowers led a funeral procession that was going the opposite direction and stretched entirely down the street. Amazingly, we found a parking spot half a block south of Cermak. And, amazingly, the meter was a quarter for an hour.
LTH is a tiny storefront restaurant. There are two big round tables in the center, a couple of tables against the wall on the right, and four or five on the left. To open the door to the ladies room you have to close the hallway door first, because there just isn’t enough space. A flat screen TV plays Chinese shows. When we first entered Mike was dismayed because none of the diners were Asian. I told him not to worry. We were seated quickly and given the regular menus, a lunch menu, and a dim sum menu. I think he wanted to put my favorite to the test. He ordered steamed buns with chicken, crabmeat pork dumplings, shrimp toast, fried sticky rice, chicken barbecue pork pancake wrap, and coconut mochi. And those were just the dim sum! I also ordered the hot and sour soup and broccoli with beef for an entree, while he had the chicken satay. Yes, this was for lunch, and yes, there were just two of us. At $1.50 – $1.60 apiece for the dim sum – cheaper than a large coffee at Starbucks – we thought “why not?”
At LTH, they just bring the stuff out when it’s ready. There was a steady stream of food until our table was full. Quick recap: the shrimp toast is AWESOME, the crabmeat pork dumpling is a wonderfully simple concoction of meat wrapped in a thin pastry, the fried sticky rice has a surprise filling of pork, the steamed buns with chicken have too much bun, and the chicken barbecue pork pancake wrap’s wrap has a texture that’s too much like raw squid. (I didn’t try the mochi because I don’t like coconut but he said it was OK.) The hot and sour soup is, appropriately, hot and sour. My mom and I think hot and sour soup is a good indication of the quality of a Chinese restaurant. Since LTH is our favorite, you can guess what I think of the soup. Each entree, at $3.95, was enough for two people. Both were tender and flavorfull and delicious and just thinking of them is making me hungry. Total bill, for all of the above plus tea, soda, and one beer: $25.97 As we left, Mike said he’d found a new favorite. Score one for The Local Tourist.
We headed south on Wentworth fat and happy and ready to be complete tourists in our hometown. I stopped to take a picture of ornate painted stones surrounding a picture window papered with Bruce Lee and anime posters. My artful study of architectural detail modeled after buildings graced by emperors contrasted with modern day global representations of Asian culture was interrupted by Mike’s need to mimic Bruce Lee’s stance. It was funny, so I took that picture instead.
Across the street is Hoy Poloi. This art gallery is an anomaly. It has Art created by Artists. (I can say that because my father is an Artist and I grew up going to Art fairs.) I’m being facetious, but it’s only because I wish I could buy 90% of what they carry. I was especially taken by the Todd White paintings in the back of the store. Angular people hold martini and wine glasses while gathered around a bar or a piano. You can imagine my surprise when we were told Todd White’s the creator of Sponge Bob!
A quick stop into Fat Lee’s grocery store had me breathing through my mouth. First of all, when we walked in I saw a fish tank full of live frogs on the butcher counter (only $4.99 each) as a man raised a cleaver and dropped it with a THWACK. Fortunately, since I was still full from lunch, there were traditional steaks and chops on the block. Unfortunately, there were boxes of frozen fish sitting on the floor. There were also boxes of dried fish, which smell a lot like a mixture of manure and dog food. The coolers are full of odd beverages, like Bird’s Nest, Almond Juice, Chrysanthemum Tea, Sour Plum, and Salted Lemon. Mike makes it a habit to try a different one each time he’s in Chinatown. This visit he chose Aloe. We were both shocked when it was light and refreshing and the little bits of aloe were as expected and unoffending as orange pulp. My mistake was to try the Grass Jelly Drink. There was Grass Jelly plain, with coconut, and with banana. I wanted to be a purist, so I got the plain version. Oh sure, it was fine at first. Tasted like ice tea with just a hint of prune juice but not enough to make me dislike this odd new beverage. Until I got about two thirds into it. A piece of jelly slithered into my mouth like an eel and I spit it out with more projection than a watermelon seed spitting contestant. I dumped the rest of the can out and shivered as tiny cube after tiny cube of Grass Jelly splatted to the ground. I think he’s still laughing that HE got the good drink.
We made stops at the various tourist-trap stores. Many of them had similar items, but we found it worthwhile to stop in each one because they all have different characters. One had a confused Buddha in the window who apparently had way too much fun on St. Patrick’s Day. Another had teas that could help you with PMS and spinal and back pain, and the mysterious “man & king power tea.”
At another of our stops we read the descriptions on the bags of candy: “Carefully pressed from the reddest apples, shining in colors of the cheeks of a snow-country child.” “Enjoy the softness of gentle breeze that sweeps through the vineyard.” “The gorgeous taste of fully ripened pineapple imposing as a southern island king crowned in glory.” As we snickered over these flowery descriptions, I swore I heard a brass band. I looked out at Wentworth, and there were five older white guys in short sleeved shirts and black ties underneath the gateway to Chinatown playing trumpet, trombone, tuba. By the time I got outside they were finishing up. I heard them say “OK, see you later,” and watched one head off towards Cermak and the others walked south on Wentworth.
If you’re a local and ever start to get a little jaded about Chicago, take a quick trip to Chinatown. If you’re a tourist and want to experience the Windy City, take a quick trip to Chinatown. If nothing else, you’ll get a great meal cheaper than you’d spend on an entrée at a downtown steakhouse. Just stay away from the Grass Jelly.