The 1000 block of Cherry Street — a side street in Chinatown brimming with produce vendors, a day-care center, nail salon, a massage parlor or two, and a Buddhist temple — has become one of the sweetest blocks in Philadelphia in just the last month. This adds another layer to dessert concepts that have recently launched there, making Chinatown even more of a dessert destination.
At the corner of 10th and Cherry Streets is the five-year-old Tea Do, one of the earliest entries in the city's bubble-tea scene. In midblock is Fruit Life, a Hong Kong-style dessert house that opened a year ago. Two more desserteries have arrived since Labor Day: Kuriimii, a soft-serve ice cream shop, in midblock, and N2 Sweet Cafe, at the 11th Street corner, whose workers make desserts by blasting cream with liquid nitrogen at 320 degrees below zero. (One could also argue that A La Mousse, a refined shop around the corner at 145 N. 11th St., helped prime this Chinatown dessert pump.)
All boast a broad clientele, with an emphasis on high school and college students. Young people descend on the street particularly after school and in the evenings, and lines even form outside some of them. (Most of the newfangled dessert concepts, including rolled ice cream, were developed in East Asia and exported here.)
The dessert row is across the street from Bonchon, the energetic bar specializing in Korean fried chicken. Which actually makes sense. After ingesting all that salt, the sweet side of Cherry is where you'd want to be.
Here's a field guide, intended as a supplement to one created last year by staff writer Samantha Melamed:
The bustling Tea Do (132 N. 10th St.), which Kenny Poon opened on a corner in 2012 (years before he became a partner in both Chinatown Square, the mod food hall on nearby Race Street, and Bonchon), sells all kinds of bubble tea, a few snacks including the rice balls known as onigri, and a few desserts amid a synth-heavy soundtrack blaring from the TVs.
The high-top tables often are hard to come by, especially in late afternoon.
It's open till midnight weekdays, and till 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Fruit Life (1013 Cherry St.), a branch of a longtime Hong Kong dessert chain, Lili Zheng's mod, bilevel spot has a phone-book-size menu of fruit-based desserts, such as snowdaes (fruit-topped snow ice), ginkgo papaya bowls, matcha ice cream, and lotus papaya bowl.
It's also a destination for those seeking durian, a tropical fruit that food writer Richard Sterling described as having the aroma of "turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock." (Not to oversell it.)
The menu, listed behind the counter on bright boards and presented as a lavishly illustrated booklet, is fairly easy to navigate, and Zheng or one of her workers will offer advice.
I, a non-Asian, noted a few raised eyebrows over my order of mango durian pudding, but no one actively steered me away from it. Sterling was pretty much spot-on with his description — the sweet chunks of mango were balanced by a pudding that was oddly sweet with notes of petroleum. I also had a bowl of black sesame soup — a.k.a. tong sui — delicately sweet, warming, filling, and more to my taste.
It's open till 1 a.m. weekdays, and till 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
There's lots of fun going on at Kuriimii (1023 Cherry St.), starting with the name (slowly sound out the word creamy).
The new, soft ice cream "jawn" — their word — is run by entrepreneurs Michael Ho and Christopher Nguyen, who offer all kinds of premium toppings, including marshmallows toasted with mini-torches and chocolate-enrobed pretzels, for one price: $6 a cup, $7 a cone.
They're constantly playing with flavors, and early hits include black sesame, avocado, charcoal vanilla, and taro.
Hours are noon to 11 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, till midnight Fridays and Saturdays.
Peek through the windows at the bright N2 Sweet Cafe (125 N. 11th St.), at the corner of 11th and Cherry Streets. Wait. Is that steam coming out of people's mouths?
N2 owners Candace Williams and Stanley Zhao bill this as the coolest dessert shop in town, and that's justifiably so.
Workers make ice cream to order by zapping cream and mix-ins with liquid nitrogen at 320 degrees below zero. The result is creamy, attributable to the smaller ice crystals created. A cone is $7.
The steam-out-of-the-mouth trick comes from the dessert called Eskimo kisses ($5.99), made by workers' zapping cotton candy with the nitrogen. The sweet nuggets are served in a metal mug with skewers. Stab one and pop it into your mouth. It's instantly cold but not tongue-stuck-to-a-flagpole cold. Now breathe out through your mouth and nose. Puff!
Seating options include a comfy sofa in the rear, four-top tables, and a communal table. The menu is being refined, Williams says, and waffles are on the way.
Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.