Chicago’s Chinatown, where both my parents worked, holds a special place in my heart. I remember weekends spent behind the counter at my dad’s store on Cermak, or how my mom would be recognized and thanked — she works as a loan officer and helped many families in the community purchase their homes — when we’d be out shopping for groceries or having a meal. Chinatown is where my love of food began. It’s where I first understood the meaning of umami (via Seven Treasures’ wonton noodle soup) and came to appreciate the perfection that is a mango boba smoothie on a Chicago summer day.
Chinatown moved to the South Side in the early 1900s, and the area has continued to grow with the community spilling into neighboring Bridgeport and Pilsen. Armor Square, the neighborhood that includes Chinatown, continues to grow, while other Chinatowns across the country dwindle.
My dad’s store was called Prospect Merchandise Service, and while he sold a variety of goods, it mainly functioned as a local Western Union hub where people would send money to their families and relatives. Beyond its personal significance to me, Chinatown is a vibrant cultural community that continues to be home to many Chinese immigrants. Walk down any of its streets and you’ll see the numerous restaurants and storefronts that also serve as community hubs. Generations have passed through here, each one finding a different version of Chinatown to call their own. Today’s version is ever-expanding, where you’ll find a plethora of overseas hot pot chains, restaurants serving unique regional cuisines, and boba shops, all sitting adjacent family-run businesses that have been a part of the landscape for as long as anyone can remember.
It is my hope that you’ll find this guide and these photos helpful. This small tour is not meant to be comprehensive, and I am by no means an authority on all things Chinatown. Instead, I offer a collection of favorites, icons, and hidden gems that I’ve loved for years and am delighted to share with you. Thank you for coming to see Chinatown through my lens, and I hope you’ll visit soon to experience it in person.
Jack X. Li is a Chicago photographer whose work has appeared in various publications, including Eater Chicago.
Stop in at one of the many bakeries for some pastries before you go explore the sights. I’ve always loved egg tarts (regular and Portguese-style) at Chiu Quon Bakery & Dim Sum. If you’re with a larger group, there’s always the option to sit down at Phoenix Restaurant (opens at 10 a.m.) for some excellent dim sum.
Chiu Quon Bakery & Dim Sum
2253 S. Wentworth Avenue
St. Anna Bakery
2158 S. Archer Avenue
2131 S. Archer Avenue
Explore Wentworth Avenue and its surrounding streets, taking note of the murals and Chinese-inspired architecture that are scattered through. I’ve always marveled at the beauty of the Pui Tak Center, which hosts community programming and ESL classes. Heading north, you’ll find the Chinatown Gate, its inscription translating into “The World Is For All.”
Grab a boxed lunch at Gourmet, located on 23rd Street just off Wentworth. A local gem where the portions are generous and the menu is expansive, my recommendation is the steamed chicken with green onion sauce or the fried chicken.
Another lunch spot to consider is Moon Palace Express, where I had many a kung pao chicken lunch as a kid. Owned by the Wang family and located on Cermak next to the fire station, the front has been converted into a takeout-only spot and the back of the restaurant has been renovated to become Nine Bar, Chinatown’s first cocktail bar. The bar serves snacks like pork katsu sandwiches and loaded fries that might appeal more to the grown-up children of immigrants.
Take a stroll to nearby Ping Tom Park, which opened in 1999, and enjoy a picnic while you take in great views of the city skyline.
210 W. 23rd Street
Moon Palace Express, Nine Bar open in the evening in the back.
216 W. Cermak Road
Ping Tom Memorial Park
1700 S. Wentworth Avenue
Park to Shop is the biggest grocery store in the main part of Chinatown, part of a national chain. Visitors may want to venture slightly beyond the border to 88 Marketplace. The multi-level complex includes a grocery store and a food court with equally amazing dim sum, barbecue, and even sushi. The ground floor includes sit-down restaurants — a Chinese steakhouse (Holu) and hot pot (Qiao Lin Hotpot).
Park to Shop Supermarket
520 W. 24th Place
2105 S. Jefferson Street
Explore Chinatown Square, an outdoor mall built in the late ‘80s, and be sure to stop by Joy Yee’s Noodle Shop for the a refreshing boba tea smoothie.
If you need a break and a quiet place to relax, be sure to check out the Chinatown branch of the Chicago Public Library, a stunning work of architecture that serves residents of all ages and features art from local artists.
2133 S. China Place
Chicago Public Library, Chinatown Branch
2100 S. Wentworth Avenue
Joy Yee in Chinatown Square
2139 S. China Place
Head to Triple Crown for family-style dinner and enjoy the views from their second story dining room overlooking Wentworth Avenue. The menu includes dim sum, sizzling platters of beef, and great seafood options as well. Second-generation owner Spencer Ng has partnered with numerous local brands (like Marz Community Brewing, the Korean-Polish-American operation; they’ve collaborated on a special Triple Crown beer) to expand the iconic restaurant’s presence in Chicago.
Another great option is the newly-redesigned Ken Kee, with its neon signage reminiscent of a Hong Kong cafe. I’ve been going there for years, but even I couldn’t deny the deliciousness of the newly added custom noodle bowls.
Triple Crown Restaurant
2217 S. Wentworth Avenue
Ken Kee Restaurant
2129 S. China Place
If you should find yourself in Chinatown later in the evening, there are many options for food. One of my favorites is Chi Cafe, a Hong Kong-style diner that is open until 1am. The Portguese chicken and XO noodle rolls are must-haves.
Open until 2, Seven Treasures on Wentworth is a Cantonese-style diner with satisfying late night eats. In college, I would drive 20 minutes to Chinatown just to get the wonton noodle soup and the BBQ pork with fried egg over rice, colloquially known as the 554.