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This Chicago Chinatown food tour surprised us in many ways. For starters, we’ve never taken a food tour in Chicago, a city we’ve called home for almost two decades.
Secondly, even though we’ve occasionally visited Chicago Chinatown, we didn’t know much about Chinese culinary traditions and their contributions to Chicago.
The Chicago Chinatown food tour was a reminder that you don’t have to travel far to dive into the local food culture.
Sometimes the most interesting culinary experiences are amongst our hometowns’ diverse communities.
Find out how to explore the best of Chinatown on your Chicago visit.
Gain valuable insights into the local restaurants, rich culture, fascinating history, and what to expect on this Chicago Chinatown food tour.
Chicago Chinatown – A Unique Enclave in Chicago
Welcoming you into Chinatown is a beautiful ornate gate, designed by Chinese-born architect, Peter Fung. The gate, built in 1975 is designed to look like a famous gate in Beijing.
Introducing us to Chinatown’s history, was Philip, our cheerful and entertaining guide.
We learned that inscribed on the gate in Chinese characters is a powerful motto from Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, known as the Father of the Chinese Revolution. It translates to something similar to “the world belongs to all”, “everyone has a voice” or “the world belongs to the commonwealth.”
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen visited Chicago in 1910 and 1911 while attempting to spread democracy in China. And his words have had a big impact on Chinese Americans and particularly those in Chicago. You’ll find a street and museum in Chicago Chinatown named after him.
This tour as Philip described was “a celebration of the culture, food, and neighborhood.”
And, with a keen focus on “authentic Chinese food from long-standing Chicago Chinatown restaurants.”
AUTHENTIC FOOD QUEST TIP: The Chicago Chinatown food tour is one of the most unique tours with an authentic Chinatown focus. The tour starts at 11:00 am and runs for about three hours. Wear comfortable shoes and we recommend not eating breakfast as the portions are copious.
Chicago Chinatown Tour Favorite Food Highlights
Chinese Tea Etiquette
One of our most anticipated stops on this Chinatown culinary adventures was at Triple Crown Restaurant for dim sum.
We learned that when the Chinese go out for dim sum, they refer to it as Yum Cha, which literally means “to drink tea.” All the food is centered around the tea.
The Chinese meaning of dim sum is commonly translated to “touch the heart”. So, the food is meant to touch your heart while drinking your tea.
Hong Kong Style Dim Sum for Brunch
While enjoying the tea, we sampled three different kinds of dim sum. We learned that the dim sum dishes were prepared in the Hong Kong style, heavily influenced by Cantonese cuisine.
We had steamed barbecue pork buns, deep fried taro puff and siu mai or pork and shrimp dumplings.
Accompanying these were three different sauces. Sriracha sauce (spicy), hoisin sauce ( sweet bbq sauce) and dried chili oil.
The portions were generous and all the food was quite flavorful. As we savored the diverse flavors, our local guide Philip regaled us with stories about the origins of dim sum and Chinese culture.
The food combined with learning about Chinese tea etiquette was a great start to the Chinatown food walking tour. We knew this was going to be a rich cultural tour, in addition to a food tour.
Authentic Pastries at Chinatown Bakery Chiu Quon
Our next stop on our Chinatown adventure was to Chiu Quon Bakery, a longtime favorite Chinatown bakery.
Opened in 1986, Chiu Quon Bakery is the oldest bakery in Chicago Chinatown. This bakery is known to make some of the finest traditional Chinese pastries in Chinatown.
Traditional Chinese Cakes and Legends
Not familiar with traditional Chinese pastries, we sampled two iconic cakes each with their unique history.
The first was a winter melon cake, also referred to as white cake, traditionally served at Chinese weddings.
We were surprised to learn that winter melon, the fruit, is a gourd that can grow up to 4 to 5 feet long.
At Chiu Quon Bakery, they make the cake using a young winter melon which is sweet and bright green in color. This was hands down Claire’s favorite.
The second pastry, the Lotus seed baby moon cake, made from lotus flower seeds, holds significance in Chinese history.
Legends tell of its role during the Mongol conquest of China in the 14th century when moon cakes were used to smuggle messages and weapons against the Mongols.
Rich in taste and dense in texture. I loved the strong flavors which reminded me of caramel. Unlike Claire, the Lotus seed baby moon cake was my favorite.
Famous Lao Sze Chuan Restaurant
Located at the edge of the new Chinatown is Lao Sze Chuan, our stop for Sichuan (also spelled Szechuan) cuisine.
This restaurant is the original location of the famous Chicago chef, Tony Hu. Chef Hu gained notoriety for offering food from one specific region in China.
Before that, Chinese food in America was generic and not place-specific.
The name “Lao” we learned, is Chinese for authentic or genuine.
Szechuan Cuisine And Dishes
We enjoyed authentic Sichuan food with dishes incorporating Sichuan peppercorns native to Sichuan province and prized in the cuisine.
Already satisfied from our previous Chinese restaurants stops, Philip warned us to make room. This was our biggest food stop on the tour and we were not disappointed.
Seated around a large round table with a rotating center, several dishes started appearing on the table.
There was spicy Chinese cabbage, rice, Chinese eggplants, spinach and broccoli, 3-times cooked chicken, and a less spicy version known as Tony’s chicken.
All the dishes were for sharing and there were plenty around. While we did not find the food excessively spicy, some in our group loaded up on the rice to counteract the spiciness.
The chicken dishes and Chinese eggplant were some of our favorites enhanced by the Sichuan peppercorns flavors.
All in all, the food was incredible and full of flavor. If you love Chinese food and want to explore Sichuan cooking, make room for this Chinatown food walking tour.
Favorite Pastries at Chinatown Saint Anna Bakery
One of our favorite stop was at Saint Anna’s Bakery. A family-owned bakery that opened in 1993, it is the oldest shop in the new Chinatown mall.
The Chinese pastries at Sant Anna’s bakery all have a European influence. When the French, British, and Portuguese left China at different periods, they also left behind their cooking styles.
Saint Anna’s bakery makes one particular dessert influenced by the Portuguese called an Egg Custard Tart.
It reminded us of Pasteis de Nata our beloved Portuguese dessert, though the texture and taste were not quite the same.
With the tart, we enjoyed Hong Kong-style milk tea. This time, we owe this tea to the British who ruled Hong Kong for 156 years.
The milk tea with a unique Chinese twist was not too sweet, and a great complement to the tart. This was a delicious end to a fascinating Chicago Chinatown food tour.
Chinatown Chicago Cultural Highlights
Chicago Chinatown Mosaic
One of the most interesting stops we made on the Chinatown walking tour was at a large mosaic wall. The mosaic, we learned is made of over 100,000 hand-painted glass tiles brought to Chicago from China.
It recalls the story of Chinese immigration to the United States as well as Chinese Philosophies. Listening to the stories about Chinese immigration, we were struck by the hardships they had to overcome.
From the first Cantonese Chinese migrants who went to California to try their luck in the gold rush. All the way to the eventual passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
A truly insightful discussion with our extremely knowledgeable tour guide.
Chinese Zodiac Signs
As we continued our Chinatown walking tour we stopped at Chinatown Square Zodiacs one of the most iconic landmarks in Chicago Chinatown.
Around the plaza are twelve statues one for each animal of the Chinese Zodiac calendar.
Chinese Zodiac goes by the year one is born and not the month like in Western astrology.
It is said in Chinese astrology that the rabbit, Claire’s animal, and the pig, mine, are made to be together.
We took time to get acquainted with our Chinese Zodiac animals before our stomachs called us to the next stop.
Chinese Local Products on the Chicago Chinatown Food Tour
Beyond the traditional Chinese restaurants and bakeries, Chinatown in Chicago offers intriguing stores worth exploring.
Stepping into Yin Wall City, a Chinese bulk-food store was a cultural experience.
We’re glad to have had Philip, our tour guide help us navigate a variety of fascinating dry foods, tea, and herbal remedies.
The store’s name means Bird’s Nest, and unsurprisingly they specialize in Birds Nest. It is a specific nest from swiftlet birds and is one of the most expensive things you can consume.
Ginseng, considered the “King of Herbs” in Chinese medicine was also prominently displayed.
Known to cure a whole host of ailments from arthritis to memory improvement, several kinds of Ginseng were available for sale. The older the ginseng, the more valuable it is.
This experience reminded us of our visit to Chinatown Bangkok , the world’s largest and oldest Chinatown outside of China.
Overall Impressions of Chinatown Chicago Food Tour
What We Loved
- Generous Portions of iconic Chinatown Chicago foods – The Chinese food specialties on this tour were absolutely amazing and plentiful. From dim sum, Szechuan dishes, and traditional Chinese pastries, we enjoyed the vast array of flavors. This is one of the most copious and filling food tour we’ve partaken in.
- Insights into Chinatown and the Chicago Chinese community – Although we have called Chicago home for many years, we were not aware of the Chinese contributions to Chicago culture. This Chinatown walking tour is as culturally insightful as it is delicious.
- Great stops overall – All the stops we made on this Chinatown Chicago food tour were well-designed to build upon the other. There was a story on each stop and it all came together on the final stop. We left feeling much more knowledgeable and the food and Chinese community in our “own backyard.”
What Could Be Improved on this Chicago Chinatown Tour
Overall, there was not much that can be improved about this Chicago’s Chinatown food tour. The food tour promised to be a celebration of Chinese food and culture and it delivered.
That said, we offer a few recommendations.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes – This Chinatown food tour is a walking tour. While the distances you cover are manageable, it is best to wear comfortable shoes as you stand on your feet.
- Come with an angry stomach – This food tour include a copious brunch, lunch and sweets in between. Believe us when we say it, you will need to pace yourself with the food and come angry.
- Explore Chinatown as the tour is not available year-round – This Chicago Chinatown food tour does not operate continuously throughout the year. If you love Chinese food and culture, you want to book the tour when it is available.
For an all-year-round food tour, this Chicago’s Favorite Ultimate food and walking tour is a great alternative.
You get to sample all the iconic foods Chicago has to offer.
How to Book Your Chinatown Food Tour
The Chicago Chinatown food tour is one of the most unique tours with an authentic Chinatown focus.
The tour is about three hours in length and you will explore several distinct regions of China within Chicago’s Chinatown.
Along the way, you’ll taste a variety of traditional foods. And, any confusion you may have about Chinese food will be cleared away by your knowledgeable guide.
Wear comfortable shoes, plan for copious portions, and most of all, have fun.
FAQs – Chicago Chinatown
What to Eat In Chinatown Chicago
You’ll find a wide array of delicious Chinese food in Chinatown. Don’t miss dim sum brunch, Peking duck and Chinese pastries like egg custard tart, moon cakes, and more.
Is It Safe to Go to Chinatown in Chicago
Chinatown and the area around is safe to visit. The neighborhood is accessible via the Red line on the “L” train and there is also a parking lot near Archer Ave.
Have you ever taken a Chinatown food tour? In the comments below, please let us know which one of these Chicago Chinatown food tour stops interests you the most.
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Rosemary is the editor-in-chief and strategist at Authentic Food Quest.
Traveling slow since 2015 with her partner, Claire, she has explored the cuisine in 45 countries and more than 240+ culinary cities.
Her writing about local food specialties has been featured in Lonely Planet, Business Insider, Honest Cooking, Food Insider, and Huffington Post.
As a food and travel writer, Rosemary has co-authored three books, including one in collaboration with Costa Brava Tourism.
Rosemary is an avid runner when she’s not eating and exploring new destinations. She has run ten marathons and counting.
Before Authentic Food Quest, Rosemary held senior-level strategy positions in advertising.
Find out more about Authentic Food Quest