With architecture like this, it's hard to miss Chinatown.
When compared to similar districts in other cities, Chicago's Chinatown area is rather small. So small, in fact, that when I first stepped off the train at the Cermak/Chinatown Red Line stop (about a 30-minute ride from the Lawrence stop in Uptown, my current 'hood), I couldn't see it. Or at least, I didn't think I could. After standing near the station like a lost child for a few minutes, I asked a stranger the whereabouts of Wentworth Avenue (Chinatown's main drag); turns out, I was staring right at it.
My destination finally located, I made my way onto the strip packed end-to-end with restaurants, bakeries, markets and specialty boutiques. It didn't take long to realize I was in foodie paradise. Although it was just past noon and the restaurants were crammed with lunch-breaking professionals, I decided to seek out the sweet stuff. My first stop was a little pastry joint called Maxim's Bakery.
Immediately drawn to the bright pink sign and storefront window lined with exotic treats, I stepped inside and grabbed a peanut cookie, a sesame bun filled with bean paste and a bottle of water, all totaling just under $3. Goodies in tow, I curled up in one of the bakery's dingy old metal-studded booths and tore into the oversize cookie.
It was like biting into day-old disappointment. I was hoping for the crumbly texture and nutty flavor of the rounds that I often get from Chiu Quon in Little Saigon, but this one couldn't measure up. Moving on to the sesame bun, I was let down once again and blamed my excitement on settling for the first bakery in sight. Damn that alluring pink sign. No matter, I still had the rest of the day to make up for my less-than-impressive find.
Maxim's offerings look good, but you may want to be more selective than Stacy.
Minutes later, I stumbled into a tea shop that made the whole trip to Chinatown worthwhile. The place is called Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Co. of Chicago (try saying that 10 times fast) and could easily be compared to the likes of the posh Teavana or The Republic of Tea. Ten Ren Tea had all my favorite herbs and leaves including Gen Mai Chai, a popular green tea made with toasted rice kernels (it smells like popcorn). The shop also houses a small tea bar near the door, where they dole out hot and cold concoctions with or without "bubbles." In addition to its wonderful leafy blends and beverages, Ten Ren Tea stocks a wide range of accessories from tea sets and single-serving cups to animal-themed teabag holders (think little pink porcelain pigs).
My next stop was one of the more eclectic storefronts on the block, called Chinatown Bazaar [2221 S. Wentworth; (312) 225-1088]. And a bazaar it was, with its unique mix of baubles, clothing and artwork. Whether it's a sushi set, a shiny kimono or a miniature Buddha you're after, this is the ideal shop for anyone looking to pick up a souvenir in Chinatown. After spending enough (read: too much) money on tea, I settled for a cheap pair of plastic chopsticks and bolted. Two boutiques of retail therapy later and my sweet tooth was back with a vengeance. Much to my delight (and dismay) Wentworth Avenue had more bakeries in a single stretch than I ever dreamed possible. This time, I would have to be selective. After scoping out a few, I chose the one with a line backed to the door.
This busy place was called Feida Bakery and the pastry selections here, much like the line of customers, seemed endless. Feida's peanut cookies and sesame buns looked divine, but I decided to stray from my usual Chinese pastry pickings and went instead for a walnut-paste cake and a fluffy cloud of brioche. These items were a little more costly than Maxim's, but still cheaper than most bakeries in the city, and worth every penny.
Hours later, with a full belly and a bag full of tea, I boarded the Red Line back to my Uptown locale. As I was playing over the day's highlights, I realized I hadn't scoped out much of Chinatown's architecture or any of its attractions that didn't involve food. Looks like I'll be taking a trip back soon to explore the more cultural side of things.