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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
See more of Monica's stories here.
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