"80% of the menu in a Chinese restaurant in the United States isn't authentic Chinese food that you'll find in China," says our Chicago Food Planet Guide Hannah. "Today, we are going to try the other 20%."
And, boy, do we eat on Chicago Food Planet's Chinatown Food Tour. We started off by edging our way past the crowds to a reserved table with dim sum at Triple Crown, one of the most popular restaurants at the edge of Chinatown.
Dim sum is brought to our table in little carts and soon a huge pile of dishes is placed on the rotating lazy susan. We learn that the person to the right of us should pour our tea and that dim sum originated in teahouses, where the owners would place steaming baskets of dumplings on top of the steaming teapots. Soon, dim sum became one of China's most delicious traditions.
We then visited Chiu Quon bakery to try moon cakes, a dense cake traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival. This was a bit unusual for the American palate and seems to be the least favored dish on the tour.
As we walked, Hannah told us about the difference between "old" and "new" Chinatown, in that Chinatown has expanded beyond its traditional borders, spreading now across almost a half mile. Hannah emphasizes that Chicago's Chinatown is one of the oldest in the country because Chinese immigrants started off on the West Coast and moved further East, making Chicago's Chinatown older than New York's Chinatown.
We also visited a small Buddhist temple tucked away in an inconspicuous storefront. The neighborhood is full of beautiful architecture, including the giant gate entering into Chinatown and a large group of Chinese Zodiac statues.
Our next two stops were two restaurants associated with Tony Hu's Lao group of Chinese restaurants.
Tony Hu is known unofficially as the "Mayor of Chinatown" because of his huge number of restaurants in the area. Each of the restaurants is named "Lao" meaning "old", followed by a region of China. For example, we visited Lao Sze Chuan where we tried authentic Szechuan fare, including spicy, mouth-numbing eggplant. At Lao Beijing, we tried the city's most famous food, Peking Duck served within tender rice wrappers and plum sauce. We finished off the tour at Saint Anna Bakery with some Portuguese custard tarts.
This is the third Chicago Food Planet tour I've taken and, in my opinion, their best one. The tour gives an excellent in-depth look at an intriguing neighborhood and the food is absolutely delicious, without being too unusual for those who are picky eaters.
What You Need To Know:
Tickets can be purchased here
Pricing: $55 for adults and $35 for adolescents and children
Tour duration: 3.5 to 4 hours (ours ran closer to 4 hours so plan to spend a bit longer than 3.5)
Amount of food: A LOT of food but no alcoholic beverages. On this tour, nobody will go hungry and you may want only a light dinner.
Distance: 1.3 miles