Chicago Food Planet Chinatown food tour: from bao buns to astral signs, and a splash of bubble tea!

What is your favorite Chinese dish? Is it bao buns or sweet & sour pork? Spring rolls or Szechuan chicken? As for me, I love them all, without exception – and there’s a reason for it πŸ™‚

Growing up, I never got the chance to experience Chinese food. There was one Chinese restaurant in our city, but my family and I never visited it, for various reasons. Having lived with zero Chinese food for the better part of my life, nowadays I feel spoiled for choice living in Chicago – a big diverse city, where restaurants and cuisines are as varied as they are flavor-packed. It is this variety which sometimes confuses or overwhelms me. How to make sense of a myriad of regions, styles and interpretations? How does one begin their exploration of Chinese cuisine in Chicago – and, equally important, where?

Luckily, Chicago-based food tour companies have taken on the task of making Chinese cuisine accessible and easy to understand by tourists and local residents alike. Take, for example, Chicago Food Planet, whose “food ambassadors” have worked hard for the past 13 years to connect their clients “to the greatest food city in the world and the gourmet artisans who call Chicago home.” I was very excited when Chicago Food Planet (CFP) contacted me and asked me to review one of their food tours. I needed all the expertise I could get to gain an in-depth understanding of Chinese food in Chicago – so I said yes to their Chinatown Adventure Food Tour 😉

CFP’s Chinatown Adventure Food Tour focuses on an exploration of the Old and New Chinatown as well as five sit-down delicious meals and tastings of authentic dishes from the Canton, Mandarin and Szechuan regions. These tastings are complemented by demonstrations of ancient Chinese dining customs, which provide context and meaning to the food, and make the experiences complete.

According to Chicago Chinatown’s Chamber of Commerce, although smaller in size compared to New York’s Chinatown, Chicago holds the title of the second largest Chinatown in the U.S. due to fact that the number of people actually living and working in Chinatown is higher than that of New York. Being home to a variety of stores, banks and restaurants, Chicago’s Chinatown is “a community hub for Chinese people in Chicagoland, a business center for Chinese in the Midwest, as well as a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.”

As I approached Chinatown the day of the tour, I passed by The Nine Dragon Wall. In Chinese culture dragons – and the number nine! – are believed to have magical powers. Modeled after the most sophisticated wall in BeiHai (North Sea) Park in Beijing, this Chinatown iconic mural features hundreds of dragons painted in vibrant red, gold and blue. A visual treat for sure!

As I entered Chinatown I marveled at the majestic beauty of the Chinatown Gate, which was completed in 1993. The lively colors mirrored my excitement and trepidation at the thought of the food I was about to enjoy πŸ™‚

My first exploration of Chinese food occurred at Triple Crown, where I met my tour companions as well as CFP Food Ambassador and tour guide Philip.

One of Chinatown’s most famous restaurants, Triple Crown was opened by Ling Ling Tin in 1996. Since then, Triple Crown “has served traditional Cantonese cuisine to a diverse clientele, specializing in eclectic seafood made from ingredients and spices native to southern China.” According to the Triple Crown website, the restaurant showcases dishes which use minimal salt, oil, and other additives, in an effort to provide “authentic Hong Kong cuisine that preserves the integrity of regional flavor.”

True to its mission to foster a family-style dining experience, the restaurant was buzzing with guests of all ages and felt very welcoming. We were served three dishes, which were accompanied by a variety of sauces: Pork & Shrimp Dumplings; Steamed BBQ Pork Buns; Deep Fried Taro Puff. The presentation was lovely and well thought out, and the dishes were complemented by hot tea offered repeatedly throughout the experience, in line with Chinese customs. The steamed pork buns were my favorite – as a fan of steamed buns, I rejoiced upon trying out Triple Crown’s offerings, which were pillowy, melt-in-your-mouth fresh, and stuffed with delicious meat.

What a feast!

After this meal we went outside and the tour guide told us a little bit about the historic Pui Tak Center building, which was erected in the 1920s, and whose architecture showcases traditional Chinese design. As per Chinatown’s Chamber of Commerce, the Center’s “green and red pagoda towers topped with walls of terra cotta flowers and mother lions truly represent the majestic traditions of China.” Originally going under the name of On Leong Merchant Association Building, this building became known as the Pui Tak Center since being acquired by the Chinese Christian Union Church, back in 1993.

We then stopped at Chiu Quon, a traditional Chinese bakery and the oldest existing bakery in Chinatown (1986). I tried winter melon cake, which had an ethereal flaky crust due to the use of pork lard, and moon cake, which featured a delicious bean filling. Both pastries impressed me by not being overly sweet. The last thing I need these days is to be hit by a pound of sugar while eating out and about; thankfully, these delicate traditional Chinese treats surpassed my expectations in this respect.

After stopping at Chinatown’s Square Zodiacs and the mural which depicts the history of Chinese immigrants in the US, it was time for another fully fledged meal, this time at Lao Sze Chuan, one of Chinatown’s most famous restaurants, which serves traditional Sichuan cuisine. In 1999, Lao Sze Chuan was recognized by the Chicago Tribune as β€œOne of the Best,” receiving a β€œthree fork” rating. The restaurant then went on to acquire numerous national accolades including β€œNo.1 Chinese Restaurant in the US”; β€œThe Most Authentic Chinese Food”; β€œBest Chinese Restaurant for Celebrating Chinese New Year” and β€œNo.1 Must To Go Restaurant in Chicago.”

If I were to single out one dish that impressed me during this encounter with super spicy traditional Sichuan cuisine, I would say the Chinese eggplant was the one that stole my heart. Deep fried with garlic and ginger and served in a sweet garlic sauce, the Chinese eggplant was marvelously prepared and exhibited all the traits of food I usually steer clear from: heat, heat, and more heat. I was so taken by this unusual (to me, anyway) spicy preparation of eggplant that I have tried to replicate it at home ever since πŸ™‚

After a relaxed bubble tea break at Ice Point…

… our final stop was at Saint Anna Bakery & Cafe, which serves Shanghai-French inspired pastries, amongst others. We tried their egg tarts, which packed a big flavor punch despite their tiny, delicate sizes. Here it was also time to say goodbye to my fellow tour companions and to Phil, the CFP tour guide. After all, all good things must come to an end, right?

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience of Chicago Food Planet’s Chinatown Adventure Food Tour. I appreciated the beautiful settings we visited, I loved the food we tried, and I appreciated the wealth of information provided by CFP’s tour guide. This tour stroke the perfect balance between information, flavor assortment, and entertainment – and that’s no easy feast at all. There are only a few weeks to go before the Chinatown Adventure Food Tour is shut down for good for the year, so book now to avoid disappointment. As for me, I say goodbye to Chinatown – and see you soon, weather permitting! πŸ™‚

*Disclaimer: While I received a complimentary tasting to facilitate this review, all opinions expressed here are my own.

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