"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

-excerpt from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg (1916)

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Skyline from a Near West Side highrise

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Chinatown/Armour Square

The Breakdown
Downtown is only a couple Red Line stops away.
An overview: In regards to just about everything, Chicago always boasts “one of the nation’s best”.  Its Chinatown is no exception.  It has everything you’d expect from a Chinatown: eccentric shops, ornate gateways, dim sum.  Yet, it has a Midwestern sensibility about it too.  Surrounding the strip on Wentworth, and the charming Chinatown Square pedestrian mall along Archer, are modest households and streets brimming with activity.

Interestingly, Chinatown and Armour Square (representing virtually all of the Chinatown neighborhood and the mile and a half south of it) are about as tucked away as you can get within Chicago.  They are surrounded by expressways, the River, and copious amounts of train tracks.  Thanks to the Red Line though, accessing Chinatown, and one of Chi-town’s two major league baseball clubs, is no difficult feat.

The boundaries: Armour Square is one of Chicago’s 77 defined community areas.  Its boundaries are essentially 18th Street to the north, Federal Street to the east (just east of I-94), and Pershing Road (39th Street) to the south.  To the northwest, Armour Square is bounded by the Chicago River, and to the west is Stewart Avenue and the railroad tracks.

Entry gate to Chinatown as seen from the "L".
Chinatown is the neighborhood making up the northern half of Armour Square.  The dividing line between Chinatown and the rest of Armour Square is 26th Street.  The extension of Ping Tom Memorial Park, immediately to the north of 18th Street, is considered part of Chinatown, but is the only part of the neighborhood located within the Near South Side community area.

Population make-up: A funny thing happened in Armour Square.  While Chicago lost 200,000 residents in the past 10 years, Armour Square was one of seven community areas that grew by over 10%.  At only about one square mile, it is one of the City’s smallest community areas, and yet it added 1,411 residents since 2000, bringing Armour Square to a total population of 13,443.

The demographic breakdown for 2010 isn’t available yet, but as of the 2000 Census, Armour Square was the only predominantly Asian community area in the City at 61% of the population (7,300 residents).  Although Asians make up three-fifths of the area’s population, there are community areas with larger Asian populations (notably West Ridge with over 16,000 residents of Asian heritage).  Among the other ethnicities represented in Armour Square, whites made up the next highest percentage at 19%, then blacks at 17%, and then Hispanics at just under 4%.

Armour Square’s median income in 2000 was $22,750, making it one of the ten poorest community areas in the City.

A brief history: Armour Square initially grew during the Civil War as an influx of western Europeans moved in, establishing a blue-collar culture that exists even today.  Contrary to popular belief, the South Siders don't play ball in Bridgeport.  The original Comiskey Park was built in Armour Square, at 35th and Shields, in 1909.  Although they now occupy a newer stadium right next door to the previous one, the White Sox still play at home in Armour Square, and brought the Windy City a World Series Championship in 2005.  Boo-yeah!

Right around the time the Sox moved into Armour Square, so did the City’s Chinese population.  They moved from a small section of the Loop to the area around present-day Cermak and Wentworth, in search of lower rent.  Their continuous presence and investment has established one of the nation’s largest Chinatowns, a major destination for both residents and tourists in pursuit of great food and unique, affordable shopping.  The south-side Chinese influence continues to spread geographically, with many of the growing population moving into neighboring Bridgeport.

Getting there: By “L”, the Red Line is your best option.  Cermak-Chinatown drops you right off in the heart of Chinatown, while Sox-35th takes you to the southern portion of Armour Square and drops you right off at U.S. Cellular Field and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) campus.  You can also take the Green Line to 35th-Bronzeville-IIT and walk west along 35th to get to Armour Square.

By bus you have a few east-west options: Cermak (21), 35th Street (35), and Pershing (39).  Going north-south, your lone direct option is the Clark/Wentworth bus (24).  Also, the Archer bus (62) is a northeast-southwest option to access Chinatown.
There is also a new Metra station slated to open in Summer 2012.  The 35th Street/”Lou” Jones/Bronzeville stop on the Rock Island line will place you just east of Armour Square at 35th Street and the Dan Ryan expressway (I-90/94).

Three Happiness (The Original) (209 W. Cermak Road)
When two kinds of happiness just won't cut it.
According to WikiTravel there are three juggernauts of dim sum in Chicago’s Chinatown.  This is one of them.  We sampled six different varieties.  Does it live up to the hype?  Oh you better believe it. The damage, including tip, for both of us?  $20.  Clutch.

Laura’s Take: The Dim Sum we ordered were the following: crab + pork, pork, steamed BBQ pork, shrimp, chicken curry, and for dessert, mochi. I think the variety was key.  The chicken curry was a fried masterpiece, while the others were generally soft.  The shrimp dumplings had a really different texture on the outside and were almost transparent, while the inside consisted of amazingly fresh, salty shrimp which tasted more like itself than anything I’ve had in a while. Don’t forget to make use of the sauces because they totally change it up depending on what combinations you make.  Watch out for the mustard, though.  It will really clear out your sinuses.  Overall everything was very fresh and served quickly and efficiently.  I would definitely come back and try another handful of the dim sum.  One more bonus is the fresh black tea you will get with your meal, but I hope you don’t mind tea leaves floating in your cup.

BBQ pork; curry chicken dim sum
Michael’s Take:  Let me just say that I enjoyed all six “flavors”.  To me the big winner was the steamed BBQ pork buns.  The outside was so soft, the meat inside was tender and flavorful, and there was just the slightest hint of sweetness.  After that, the crab and pork was a very successful combination.  Coconut mochi (which I believe is technically Japanese, but who am I to say?) was interesting and worth trying, but I’d probably shoot for a different “dessert” dim sum next time.  Think of it as like a really soft, extra-chewy doughnut ball, covered in a powdery coconut.  We were stuffed after this.  Two orders of dum sum per person would fill anything  short of a voracious appetite.

Anything Else We Missed: Notice we put “the original” in parenthesis above.  That’s because there are two locations, right across Cermak from each other.  We went to the tiny one on the south side of the street just west of Wentworth, NOT the newer, larger one right at the corner (which is also rated much lower on Yelp than the original).

Tea connoisseur? I bet they have your pick at Ten Ren.
Chinatown Shopping
(Wentworth Avenue)
Shopping in Chinatown.  It’s everything you’d dream of and more.  Lots of shops offer comparable things at comparable prices.  Here are two of Chinatown’s more notable stores.  No picture-taking allowed inside though, so you’re just going to have to settle for the exterior view.  So sor-ray.

You will notice a lot of area locals buying their groceries out of the small shops providing live fish, seafood, produce, and teas. These small local shops are a little intimidating to those of us who don’t know what we are looking for, but this would be the place to come to get that odd ingredient you need for your next asian recipe.

Three different varities
of alien.
Ten Ren Tea is an example of a souped-up shop that will cater to your exotic tastes with an unbelievable and attractively displayed selection of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese dried herbs, flowers and roots.  Keep in mind that there are many other places that undoubtedly provide a similar product. Otherwise, you will find a number of tourist-geared kitsch shops that also contain household items at unbelievable prices.

While in Chinatown, Laura procured a beautiful three-level bamboo food steamer for $13 and a heavy duty Chinese cleaver/ kitchen knife for $15. Don’t pay exorbitant prices online or in specialty kitchen stores on Michigan Avenue for your wok or frying utensils – just make a trip to Chinatown. This would be a great place to bring kids for the day just so they could wander around and see the sights, as I remember doing in New York’s Chinatown years ago. It’s a great diversion to see the raw products (live and/or on their way to your table) displayed in that way that only a real Chinatown seems to do.

Lao Sze Chuan (2172 S. Archer Avenue)
Chinese restaurants often have lengthy menus.  Lao Sze Chuan gives you copies of The Iliad with your napkin and silverware.  This is a slight exaggeration.  Any dish you’ve seen at any Chinese restaurant probably has a three-digit number associated with it on their menu.  But they go well beyond this with various specialties that include just about any organ you can imagine.
You can practically see the fire of the chili...

Laura’s Take: It would take months to do justice to the menu at Lao Sze Chuan.  You will be a happy camper if you love to try “different” dishes (the Chinese really aren’t afraid of any part of the hog) and/or you love very spicy food.  The appetizer they bring is a good prelude to what’s to come – I don’t know what it was beyond some sort of julienned root covered with a delicious, garlicky hot chili oil. There is a selection of Chinese beer to compliment your meal as well.  My fish with black bean sauce wasn’t black and didn’t have beans, but it was absolutely deliciously cooked and spiced. This is really addictive food. I would suggest going with a huge group of people so that items can be passed and shared. The family size soups and platters were being ordered a lot among the diners when we were there, and everything looked steaming fresh and delicious.

Michael’s Take:
Lao Sze Chuan has great ambiance and a very attentive staff.  It has a reputation for being crowded, and it lives up to the hype.  It was 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon and we got the last table available BEFORE the dinner crowd showed up.  After flipping through the epic menu several times, I gave into my affection for liver, and order the liver stir-fry.  For all two of you reading this who also like liver, the meat was satisfying.  Thin strips, cooked so they’re soft, tender, and still maintaining that delightfully chalky aftertaste.  The light sauce with the vegetables didn’t exactly wow me, but the portion and price (about $12) was great bang for the buck.

Anything Else We Missed: If you couldn’t get a table at Lao Sze Chuan, don’t fret.  Owner and Chef Tony Hu has three other restaurants also located within Chinatown Square: Lao Beijing, Lao Shanghai, and Lao You Ju (on Wentworth).

Ethyl’s Party (2600 S. Wentworth Avenue)
Yes, this really is the front of the bar.
Ethyl’s is right on the border (26th Street) of Chinatown and the rest of the Armour Square community area.  Despite its proximity to Chinatown, there’s nothing Asian about it.  It’s your non-descript blue-collar neighborhood tavern.  There’s not even a sign above the door calling out the establishment’s name, however there is a large “E” above the bar to remind patrons where they’re hanging out.  So if you’re in Chinatown, or in the area for a Sox game, here’s your chance to hang out with the boys from the neighborhood, have a couple bevs, and watch the thoroughbreds.

Laura’s Take: This area simply does not have bars.  We were hard-pressed to find one, but here it was. If you want wine it’s gonna be out of a box with ice cubes, and don’t forget to wipe the dust off your bar stool before you sit down. Somehow I still enjoyed Ethyl’s as a place to pass some time. South siders are always up for some laughs with their fellow patrons and you will be taken care of to the best of the bartender’s resources based on our experience.

Michael’s Take:  I’d be lying if I said that I fell in love with this place.  That being said, it has an appropriately blue-collar charm to it.  Service was polite and admittedly, the price was hard to beat (a Bud and a glass of pinot grigio for $5.50).  For those attracted to dive bars, this is right up your alley.

Anything Else We Missed:  It’s haunted.  Seriously, dude.

Chinatown/Armour Square: The Final Tally
Chinatown Square
Chinatown is truly a taste of Asia in your backyard (well, as far as we're concerned, having never been to Asia or China...).  Tourists come, but so do locals – in large numbers.  The structure of the neighborhood makes it easy and inviting to spend a half or whole day with time to relax and peruse the sights. Not to mention that it's easy to access from the "L".

The main drag runs down Wentworth, south of Cermak.  But don't just limit yourself to the strip.  Chinatown Square (along Archer Avenue, just northwest of the Red Line station) offers endless more options for dining and shopping as well.  Don’t forget to visit  and find your Chinese zodiac sign - each one is represented by one of the statues positioned on the perimeter of the square and has an engraved description of your personality and compatible signs.

Chinatown rightfully remains an institution in Chicago, retaining its character over nearly a century.  With all the different shops and restaurants, it's actually pretty easy to spend hours there, even if just for the sake of curiosity.

And of course, if nothing in the northern half of Armour Square floats your boat, there's always baseball!

Where we went in Chinatown.

Cold and wet at U.S. Gellular Field.

Chinatown Bazaar

Pork; crab + pork dim sum at Three Happiness

Wentworth Avenue, looking northward.

Armour Square community area outlined in red.  Note that 26th Street is the unofficial boundary
between Chinatown (to the north) and the rest of Armour Square.


  1. You still ordered a Pinot Grigio?

  2. What can I say? Sometimes it's the only solution to daytime drinking.