If you're like me and missed the Chinese New Year parade last weekend, fret not. Chicago has a slew of fun Chinese restaurants in which to usher in the Year of the Rabbit.
Here are my top 8 (which is a lucky number in China and means you'll have beaucoup de prosperity):
2129-A South China Place
I love Ken Kee because it reminds me of the hole-in-the-wall barbecues I frequented in Hong Kong when I lived there many years ago. Top on my list includes a piping hot bowl of congee (rice porridge) for breakfast or lunch; sliced lotus root with red bean paste; beef with bitter melon; and any of the awesome fruit smoothies or bubble teas. Ken Kee also serves Horlicks, which I downed by the gallon during Hong Kong's two weeks of damp cold winter.
Saint Anna Bakery & Cafe
2158 South Archer Avenue
My number one son stands four inches taller than me and he's not even 13. But back when he was half my size and took Mandarin classes at the Chinese American Service League behind Chinatown Square, we topped off the morning with a leisurely trip to Saint Anna's. The European pastries are pretty much self-explanatory. The Chinese ones are typically made from rice flour and a tasty filling like lotus, red bean, or sesame paste. If you're looking for something savory, try a ham and cheese bun, a bowl of noodle soup with pickled vegetables, or a Hong Kong soup of macaroni and Spam.
Lao Sze Chuan
2172 South Archer Avenue
Back when I worked outside the house, I was once in charge of a delegation from Shanghai and Shenzhen. I suggested Lao Sze Chuan for its fiery Sichuanese dishes. A few days later, as we bid the delegation farewell, they asked to return to Lao Sze Chuan one more time. It turned out they'd eaten there every night after work since their first visit to the restaurant. I love the boiled beef (tasted much better than it sounds) and the dried chili chicken (lip smacking spicy). When in season, my favorite Chinese vegetable is dou miao or pea leaves. They're sauteed in garlic and oil. Scrummy.
2131 South Archer Avenue
When I go out for dim sum in Chicago, 9 times out of 10 I'll go to Phoenix. Other restaurants in Chinatown might serve as good or better dim sum, but the crowded dim sum stadium at Phoenix is an experience in itself. For a moment or two, I sometimes think I'm back in Hong Kong. Women push carts of dumplings, rice rolls, sticky rice, chicken feet, and other delicacies. You simply point to what you want and before you can say "moo goo gai pan", the little plate or bamboo basket is on your table. The servers mark a little piece of paper from which your bill will be tallied at the end of your meal. My favorite Phoenix dim sum dishes include beef balls, fish stuffed eggplant or green pepper, lo han tofu skins filled with braised mixed vegetables, and for dessert the custard roll cake. If you want to sample something other than jasmine tea, ask for oolong or chrysanthemum tea. Or pu erh if you want a strong, smoky tea.
Great Wall Restaurant
2127 South China Place
Like Ken Kee, Great Wall is a bare bones Chinese barbecue shop that focuses on their food, not their decor. I've enjoyed breakfasts of congee with slices of white fish; lunches of white sesame chicken with green onion and ginger sauce; and big bowls of noodle soup (you pick the meat). I like that I can go here with friends and not feel pressured to leave after we finish eating.
Won Kow Restaurant
2237 South Wentworth Avenue
Okay, so I haven't eaten here in years and there's a good reason why. The food isn't very good. You'll be hard pressed to find another Chinese person eating at Won Kow unless they work there. But sometimes food has to come second when the ambiance is just too cool to pass up. Won Kow has been in Chinatown forever. The building looks like an old school Chinese structure before the Soviet Union dominated China's architecture. Walk upstairs to the main dining area and you'll swear you're walking back in time. Did I mention this place is old school? If you can't bring yourself to eat bad Chinese food, then stroll by this beauty during the day, or better yet at night. The large round sign lights up like the Vegas strip. Or if you're in the mood for a fruity girl drink, Won Kow is just as good as any place to order that. Bottoms up.
614 South Wabash
Leaving Chinatown and heading a bit north, you'll find Tamarind in the South Loop near the Chicago Hilton. Slated as an eclectic Asian restaurant, Tamarind serves up a mean dish of mapo tofu, delicious vegetarian hot and sour soup, and yummy Taiwan shining noodles (vermicelli with chicken and vegetables). Tamarind's decor is a step above most Chinatown restaurants. It's close to the Auditorium Theater, the Art Institute, and Millennium Park.
The Peninsula Hotel
108 East Superior Street
Talking about a notch above Chinatown in decor, Shanghai Terrace takes that to another level. The poshest Chinese restaurant around, Shanghai Terrace is not for those with light wallets. Especially during the winter months when they only serve dinner (come summer, you can enjoy a dim sum lunch, but you'll still have to pay dearly). And watch what kind of tea you order. Some pots can put you back a couple hundred dollars. I've only eaten at Shanghai Terrace a couple of times, and while it's not an everyday dining venue, for special occasions it's worth the price.
Wherever you go to enjoy Chinese food in Chicago (or Chinatown's old school ambiance), have a very happy and prosperous Year of the Rabbit. Hoppy New Year!