The jumble of old and new, bold and subdued, treasure and trinkets that is Chicago's Chinatown has fascinated me since my parents started toting me there for Sunday lunches when I was little. Decades later with my own kids in tow, there's still the same untamed, what'll-I-find-today, street-bazaar feel that ensures no two trips will be alike. Mostly crammed along a six-block stretch of Wentworth Avenue north and south of Cermak, Chinatown is a hodgepodge of gift shops, restaurants, grocery stores and candy shops.
Navigating with small children takes a little extra planning. Strollers, for example, are difficult. And you may want to limit your jaunt to a few blocks, rather than the full stretch. Here are some helpful how-tos:
Parking in the big Chinatown lots just north of the corner of Wentworth and Cermak puts you smack in the middle of the district's two main shopping areas. For a more kid-size trip, choose one side or the other. Either way, if you have a stroller-age child, this is one outing where you'll do better with a backpack-style kid carrier-much easier to navigate the cramped quarters and ins-and-outs of the many small shops.
But if stroller you must, you'll be better off heading north where you can walk Chinatown Square and head along the tree-lined pedestrian-only, two-level mall of shops.
Each family will have its own Chinatown rhythm and priorities, but with kids along, it's helpful to let everybody know the basic game plan before you set out.
For us, it's worked well to let our kids know they'll each have the opportunity to buy one inexpensive gift store item before we leave. To keep them from clamoring for that purchase throughout the entire trip, we say we won't buy any trinkets until after lunch. This way, the kids have more fun window shopping during our walk and are more likely to look at a wider array of items before making their final decision.
Then we have our snack or lunch break at one of the restaurants or bakery/tea shops. We retrace our steps to buy each child's chosen trinkets on the way back to the car. Be forewarned: There are a lot of gift stores full of inexpensive, brightly colored swords, dolls, tea sets and other toys.
Much of what you'll view in Chinatown may be unfamiliar and exotic. Think tea-smoked ducks, hanging by their necks on hooks in windows with other barbecued items, such as powerfully odiferous dried fish and oddly twisting ginseng, herbs and musty medicinals.
This is a great place for your kids to experience something new and different with you to guide the way. Be adventurous! If you are willing to taste or smell something you haven't tried before, your kids will follow your example.
Walking north and one block west of the Chinatown parking lot along Archer Street puts you at Chinatown Square with its mall of shops and restaurants. There are lots of shade-producing ginkgo trees and seating areas along the pedestrian-only avenue right through the middle.
Things to see here: Look to the trees around the square for decorative red lanterns hanging among the branches. Check out the stone and metal sculptures of the 12 animals of myth and legend from the Chinese Zodiac.
In the middle, there's AJ Housewares & Gifts (2125 S. China Place), crammed floor to ceiling with trinkets (very narrow aisles, so step carefully). On the eastern end, the pristinely clean, uncluttered and welcoming Aji Ichiban candy and snack shop (2117A S. China Place) is a favorite with hundreds of individually wrapped Asian candies, dried items and snacks. Across from it, the brightly lit Hong Kong Seafood City Ltd. (2120A S. Archer Ave.) has more varieties of ginseng on display than most of the shops.
Walking one block south of the Chinatown parking lot on Wentworth and crossing Cermak will put you through the towering "Welcome to Chinatown" gateway, with its gold inscription in Chinese characters reading, "The world is for all," and the hustle, bustle and grit of Chinatown proper. (Before you cross over from the parking lot, pop off a few shots of the kids under the glazed-green-tile-topped red pagoda at the corner or next to the historic "Nine Dragons" wall.)
There are no trees along Wentworth but perhaps a few more gift shops and bakeries to explore than at Chinatown Square. Look for small grocery stores with tanks full of live fish. Taiwah (2226 S.Wentworth Ave.), for example, has them, along with a counter full of stacked dried seafood of all sorts, and smoked ducks hanging in the window.
Gift R Us (2220 S. Wentworth) is among the roomier-aisled gift stores where fine porcelain urns share shelf space with stacks of traditional, "surprise," wrapped gift boxes, plastic numchucks and every imaginable toy sword. Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Co. of Chicago (2247 S. Wentworth Ave.) is perhaps the best place in the city to buy fine Chinese tea leaves, displayed in huge gold urns on the shelves.
And we like Woks 'n' Things (2234 S. Wentworth Ave.) for Chinese kitchen implements and cooking tools.
Chinese food will be the highlight of your visit. Choice-wise, there are lots of Hong-Kong-style barbecue and diner venues, such as Wing Chan BBQ, 2157A S. China Place and Happy Cafe, 2351 S. Wentworth. Don't miss Joy Yee Noodles (2139 and-most recently-2159 S. China Place) for American-palate-accessible Pan-Asian and Chinese food in a contemporary setting, and/or fresh-fruit-laden bubble teas and freezes. (Kids will get a kick out of the plated, artificial models of food offerings in the windows).
There are also old-fashioned, full-meal "Family Dinner for Four" Cantonese restaurants, Beijing & Shanghai cuisine at Lao Beijing (2038 S. Archer) and Lao Shanghai (2163 S. China Place).
And of course our kids' favorites: Tea and sweet shops where the proprietors will plunk down plenty of hot black tea to accompany your choice of traditional Chinese bean-paste buns, Chinese "hamburgers" (sweet, BBQ-pork-filled bao buns) or more Americanized cookies and Shanghai-French-influenced cream-filled cakes Try Chiu Quon bakery, 2242 S. Wentworth.
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