There's nothing like Chicago's Chinatown. Every time I go there I'm reminded of why it's such a vibrant, lively neighborhood. No matter where you go, you're overtaken by amazing sights, sounds, and smells. And, these days, it seems like there's always a newly opened store, market or restaurant (mostly by restauranteur Tony Hu) beckoning me in with open arms (and doors!). But, while the neighborhood and its commercial heart continue to tempt me with new offerings and opportunities, it's sometimes nice, refreshing and comfortable to go to an old favorite. And, for me, nothing fits the bill in Chicago's Chinatown like dim sum at Phoenix Restaurant.
When I was a child, Chinatown stores and restaurants seemed to all be concentrated right along the intersection of Wentworth and Cermak Avenues. In 1993, the downtown area expanded a bit more to the north with the opening of Chinatown Square, a two-story, outdoor strip mall with tons of stores, food markets and restaurants. No matter how the neighborhood has grown and changed in recent years, Phoenix has kept its watchful eye over the area with its second floor location at 2131 S. Archer Avenue, right across from Chinatown Square. And, since it opened in 1986, its metal dim sum delivery carts have continued to roll up and down the aisles of its expansive dining room, bringing wonderful dishes (often unveiled table side) to happy, expectant and hungry customers.
I remember my parents taking me and my siblings to Phoenix when we were young. And, I'm sorry to say, that my husband and I waited until just last weekend to take our two sons there for the very first time. While it was a long time in the making, it was well worth the wait. And, I'm sure we'll be back again soon - especially if our sons have their way.
A Little Background on Dim Sum
Our sons love potstickers. We often joke that our older son could live on potstickers alone. He even visibly drooled when he spotted a potsticker sandwich at an Asian bakery we stopped into during our last trip to Paris. So, when we tried to explain what dim sum is to our sons, we went with the easiest, most relevant description for us - small containers of potstickers delivered to your table on wheels. While it successfully enticed our sons into wanting to give it a try, that explanation is not exactly right. But, it was close enough and it did the trick.
The term, dim sum, refers to a style of Chinese food prepared as small, bite-sized or individual portions of food. Dim sum is usually served in small steamer baskets or on little plates, with the perfectly selected accompanying sauce ready to be poured over or served along side it. Of course, dim sum often stands out for the way its delivered to diners on small metal carts with wheels, offering you the opportunity to beckon over the carts with the most enticing options.
In Cantonese, eating dim sum in a restaurant is often referred to as "going to tea" since tea is typically served with dim sum. And, at Phoenix, the supply of tea is seemingly endless. To signal the need for more tea, all you need to do is leave the lid up and it will be refilled in record time, allowing you to focus your attention (and your hunger) on the dim sum.
Our Favorite Dim Sum Selections at Phoenix
At Phoenix, chances are you will be offered dim sum from the roving carts before you've even had a chance to take your first sip of tea. For us, we had to remember to pace ourselves and not ask that every passing dish be placed in the center of our table. For our first time to Phoenix, we found it helpful to ask to see what was in each covered pot and then pick out three dishes to start, adding one, two or three more based on what looked good and how much room we had left in our bellies.
After we had enjoyed our first selections, and probably asked passing servers about 10 other ones, a helpful waiter gave us a paper menu with photos and brief descriptions (in Cantonese and English) of 56 dim sum. It was a great way to keep track of what we enjoyed and also plan out what we wanted to save room for - before indulging in dessert of course. And, it also was helpful to know that we could request any one of the 56 dishes on the printed menu - even if we didn't see it on any of the passing carts.
Here are some of our favorite dim sum we enjoyed during our recent trip to Phoenix:
- Deep Fried Minced Chicken Dumpling (#46) - Our younger son's favorite one. It's like a fried, slightly crunchy potsticker. I definitely recommend dipping it in the sweet soy sauce that's served in a small dish on the table.
- Pork Siu Mai (#2) - With four to a basket, you may want to get two orders. They're that good.
- Cha Sin Bao/BBQ Pork Bun (#18) - To me, this is the quintessential dim sum - and delicious too.
- Shrimp Crepe (#27) - It really is like a crepe - with a large, flat noodle.
- Deep Fried Taro (#40) - Our older son's favorite one. It has thin, fried pieces on the top, proving yet again that kids will try anything - as long as it's fried.
- Yeung Al Goh/Stuffed Eggplant (#45) - This was the first one that caught my eye - eggplant stuffed with shrimp. I loved it. Our kids just ate the shrimp in the middle...
For dessert, we tried the coconut pudding (#54) and the mango pudding (#56). The Coconut Pudding was okay, but it had a strong egg flavor. The Mango Pudding was our favorite of the two puddings. It was light, sweet and refreshing - plus it came in the sweetest shape ever. Next time, I need to try the Deep Fried Red Bean Paste Dumpling (#49). I have a weakness for any dessert with red beans in the middle...
Of course, with 56 dim sum available, we still have a lot more savory and sweet ones to sample. So, I would expect our list of favorites to grow as we joyfully eat our way up and down the Phoenix dim sum menu.
A Great Family Experience - And a Delicious Meal Too
We visited Phoenix on a late Saturday afternoon - and the timing couldn't have been any better. There were plenty of open tables and tons of roving, steaming dim sum carts. But, I know waits can tend to be long during prime weekend meal times. The good thing is that dim sum can always make for a great family meal since there is no waiting time for the food. Once you're seated, the feast can begin. And, you can always pass the time waiting for a table by browsing in the stores across the street at Chinatown Square.
Phoenix also made for a great family dining experience since our sons were constantly on the look out for our next dish. They had fun peeking inside each covered dish to see what looked the best. Once we had our paper dim sum menus, they also had fun circling each dish we ate and putting a star by the ones they enjoyed the most.
Of course, the highlight of it all had to be the lobster and crab tanks that lined one of the restaurant walls. Our sons loved watching one of the crabs desparately try to escape, while some of its lobster neighbors got scooped up with a wooden rake-like tool and presumedly sent to the kitchen.
For us, dim sum at Phoenix was a great, interactive dining experience for our family. It made for a great meal, and a wonderful way to expose our sons to new foods. The back of the Phoenix paper menu calls out that dim sum literally translated from Cantonese into English is "dot hearts" or small treats that touch the heart. And, that is the absolute truth!
Here's to world citizens!