Exploring Chinatown with Chicago Food Planet

December 9, 2013

Entrance to old Chinatown. Letters read "The world is for all"
A few weekends ago I headed out with my former co-worker Sarah for a professional food tour of Chicago's Chinatown. Growing up in Chicago, I had been to Chinatown quite a few times with family and friends, but I'd never had a full understanding of its traditions, culture, and most of all, its best eateries. Sure, I'd been to several of Tony Hu's restaurants, but when it came to knowing where else to go, I had no idea.

Sarah and I embarked on a Saturday afternoon tour with Chicago Food Planet to tour several Chinese-owned and operated restaurants and stores. We met up with Ploy, our tour guide, as well as the other members of our group, at Triple Crown, a dim sum restaurant located in the old part of Chinatown. Our first stop was a seated dim sum tasting at Triple Crown where we began by pouring jasmine tea for one another.

Dim sum, which means "to touch the heart," includes several smaller dishes that are meant to be shared. At Triple Crown we shared Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce (which is made from oyster mushrooms, not oysters), shrimp and pork shumai, steamed barbecue pork bun, fried taro puff and fried crepe fritters. Everything we had was fantastic and this ended up being my favorite food stop of the tour. The shrimp and pork shumai, which are essentially dumplings, had great flavor and we had some spicy sauces to add a bit of a kick. The pork buns were pillowy soft on the outside and nice and sweet on the inside.

Dim sum at Triple Crown
Our table at Triple Crown
Our tour guide Ploy telling us about the steamed pork buns
My dim sum plate...nom nom nom
I had never had dim sum before so I was happy to finally try it out and experience some of the more authentic items on the menu. The next time I go out for dim sum, I will definitely know what to order!

After dim sum at Triple Crown, we walked down Wentworth Ave., the main street in old Chinatown, and explored some of the architecture, as well as a Buddhist temple.

Pui Tak Community Center
Our next tasting stop was Ten Ren Tea & Ginseng Co. where we learned about tea and ginseng and got to sample some milk tea. The most shocking thing I learned was that Wisconsin grows some of the world's finest ginseng! Who knew?

Tea canisters at Ten Ren 
Ginseng at Ten Ren
After sipping our milk tea, we walked over to the new part of Chinatown which is just down the street. We stopped to examine a mural which depicts the history of Chinese immigrants in the United States.

Chinese immigration mural
Our next tasting spot was at Tony Hu's Lao Sze Chuan. Tony Hu is a chef and restaurateur with several restaurants in Chinatown and beyond. He's kind of the king of Chinatown and a visit isn't complete without a stop at one of his establishments. I'd actually been to Lao Sze Chuan for dinner before and had to wait over an hour for a table, so it was awesome to be let right in. Our tour group was seated upstairs and we were served some hot and spicy Szechuan cuisine. We tried garlic eggplant, dried chili chicken, and mapa tofu. The garlic eggplant was a favorite of the group. It was one of the less spicy options and had plenty garlic-y goodness. The mapa tofu and dried chili chicken were so spicy I had heart palpitations. I love spicy food, but this was crazy hot. There was rumor the restaurant received extra spicy chili peppers from their distributor that day. I don't doubt it! The szechuan style is characterized by a focus on using chilis, garlic and peppers to mask preserved flavors. This is probably the spiciest and most flavorful of Chinese cuisines.

Mapa tofu
Garlic eggplant and dried chili chicken...check out those chili peppers
After warming up with some spicy foods, we took a little walk to the Ping Tom Memorial Park. This beautiful park also includes a water taxi station that can whisk you back to the Loop in no time. We took some time to take in the sights near the river and snap a few photos before heading to our next food stop.

Ping Tom Memorial Park
Next up was Lao Beijing, Tony Hu's mandarin restaurant. Here we enjoyed famous peking duck. We took turns taking a pancake, topping it with scallions and roasted duck meat, and then topping things off with a sweet hoisin sauce. It was like a duck taco!

Peking duck
Peking Duck
Our final food stop was at Saint Anna Bakery, located just a few doors down from Lao Beijing. The bakery sells European-style pastries, as well as Chinese treats. Here, we sampled their famous Chinese egg tart which is apparently the best in Chicago. I was a little hesitant to try it at first because, while I love eggs, I was skeptical of how good they'd taste as dessert. I was proven wrong. The tart crust was buttery and flaky and the custard was eggy and delicately sweet.

Chinese egg tart
Our food tour with Chicago Food Planet was definitely the best food tour I had been on thus far. Our tour guide was super knowledgeable and had a great attitude, and the amount of food we sampled was plenty to keep you feeling satisfied. The amount of food we sampled was probably the most surprising part about the tour. Tickets are well worth their $60 price tag when you factor in all of the treats and knowledge you accumulate throughout the day. I can't recommend Chicago Food Planet tours enough. My only complaint is that our tour ran way over its 3.25 hour quoted time; we ended about 4.5 hours after starting which meant some people had to dip out early. It was a long day, but we were kept well-fed!

Check out Chicago Food Planet for more information about this tour, and other tours offered! Have you ever explored Chicago's Chinatown? What are your favorite stops?

Note: Chicago Food Planet allowed me to take this tour free of charge, however, the opinions expressed herein are my own.

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