The New Chinatown Square
Chicago’s most famous strip mall has seen a revival of late, so we checked out all the new spots—and found the good, the bad, and the jellyfish.
1. Lao You Ju
The main-level anchor of Richland Center belongs to none other than the unofficial mayor of Chinatown, Tony Hu. The square’s celebrity chef, Hu is also behind Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Shanghai and Lao Beijing, all of which skew more authentic in eats (and straightforward in decor) than this latest unveiling. It takes nothing more than a drink and a little weekend karaoke to take in the drippy-disco look of the place. But if you’re intent on dinner, the trio of warm egg custards and the preserved egg in chile oil are direct hits. For everything else, you’ll do better heading to Hu’s Lao Sze Chuan. 2002 S Wentworth Ave, 312-225-7818.
2. Richland Center
While there are about a dozen stalls in the basement of this corner building, only three are serving food (there’s also an equipment store and a tailor). But with suspicious sushi, gloopy Chinese stir-fries and rubbery teppanyaki, ddd you’re better off stopping in for a rice cooker and a quick pants hem. 2002 S Wentworth Ave, basement level.
3. Lure Izakaya
Kee Chan (the man behind Old Town sushi spot Heat, as well as the now-defunct Mulan) has teamed up with chef-about-town Eric Aubriot for this European twist on an izakaya. A slew of small plates, most of them built for drinking while dining, fills the menu: Sweet peppers, sardines, horse mackerel and smoked sausage take turns on the wood-fired grill, while squid heads, lotus root rounds and avocado get dunked in the fryer. Fruity cocktails, a 2am closing time and theme nights like “Lolita girls” combine with the mod-disco look for tripping the light fantastic. 2017 S Wells St, 312-225-8989.
4. Tasty City
One of a few new Hong Kong–style spots in the Square, Tasty City has every element required of this lot: neon lights in primary colors, an inordinate amount of drinks (from bubble tea to Horlicks malted milk and everything in between) and a massive menu of gloopy oddities. Think ham with hot dog and eggs over rice; a baked casserole of pork and sweet corn with spaghetti; and pork chops slathered in Thousand Island sauce. Ramen is supposedly housemade but is as basic as the broths, which have about as much backbone as a jellyfish (and speaking of jellyfish, if you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll have no shortage of options here). Crispy intestine and duck tongue in XO not your usual draws? Grab a cold drink and move on. 2022 S Archer Ave, 312-225-8282.
5. Sweet Station
Another Hong Kong–style spot with a giant menu and flashy decor, the year-old Sweet Station intrigues not just for design details (a long, illuminated stretch of fake green apples; sliding utensil drawers built into the sides of tables) but for being a solid breakfast option when the thought of another plate of hash browns and eggs is too much to bear. Early mornings, warm egg-custard tarts and shiny-topped ham-and-egg buns fill the pastry case, waiting to be paired with a cup of warm almond milk. For something heartier, go for the plain congee, served with batons of crispy fried dough for dunking and a few pickled vegetables and peanuts for snacking. 2101 S China Pl, 312-842-2228.
6. Hing Kee
Standard-quality sushi and a passable pho kept this bare-bones spot afloat for three years, but the addition of noodle-pulling chef Chang Ming Liu this winter sparked renewed interest in dinner and a show. The menu vaguely refers to Liu’s work as “ramen,” but noodle geeks will appreciate that he’ll make both dao xiao mian (knife-shaved) or la mian (hand-pulled), so specify when ordering from one of a half-dozen options. The spicy beef broth shows strength from Szechuan peppercorns, five-spice and dried red chiles, and it competes for best in show along with the oxtail version. 2140 S Archer Ave, 312-808-9538.
It’s true that this ambitious newcomer from the Chi Cafe and Shui Wah crew sports one of the more luxurious dining rooms in Chinatown, but we’ve been so wooed by the stellar dim sum, fresh seafood and dead-on Cantonese classics that we would eat this stuff in a janitor’s closet. Served from 9am to 4pm and again from 9pm to 2am, the dim-sum menu lays claim to a few all-stars: warm and creamy egg-yolk buns, crispy-edged turnip cakes, silky sheets of rice crêpes folded around shredded beef, cool slices of tripe and sirloin in a slick of crimson chile oil, and the already-legendary Macao-style pork belly, an ode to the eponymous Portuguese colony now belonging to the People’s Republic of China. The parfait of tender meat, nearly liquefied fat and impossibly crispy skin is truly a study in contrasting textures—and a test of your willpower. 2168 S Archer Ave, 312-808-1999.
8. China Place Liquor City
At this new liquor store (which blasts an English-language recording that shouts ““YOU MUST SHOW I.D. TO PURCHASE ALCOHOL”), baijiu is the thing. Like sake, “jiu” is a distilled grain alcohol, but it packs about double the potency, and ranges in flavor from delicate and honey-scented to straight-up burn-your-brain paint thinner. For something mildly boozy with a toasty, whiskey-like appeal, look for labels touting huanjiu, which means it’s been fermented and, typically, aged. Jiu are typically drunk alongside food and at room temperature, so drop in for a bottle before hitting Hing Kee, Sweet Station or Tasty City, all BYOBs.