I'd walked by Chinese Restaurant a hundred times and never knew it existed.
It could have been the generic English name. Or the fact that this storefront is so small it looks like an annex wedged behind Empress Garden next door. But sure enough, a rocket-fired wok and steamer inside were busy serving its own packed house - a dozen Fujianese customers still in winter coats (for good reason), huddled over the heat of their dumplings and soups.
And there wasn't a word of English in the air. Until customer Ivy Lin took pity on me.
"I'll order for you," she said, looking up from her oxtail noodles to offer the stool on the other side of her tiny table. She called out and moments later a handful of dishes came my way. Crispy triangles of deep-fried taro cakes studded with pork. Sheer noodle ribbons with tangy peanut sauce. A basket of savory Fujianese soup dumplings (meatier and less juicy than the Shanghai version). And a bowl of tiny wontons so delicate they looked like pinches of meat floating inside billows of transparent silk.
"So much better than American wontons, don't you think?" said Lin, who would know, since her family owns an Americanized Chinese restaurant in Berlin called Happy Family.
She comes to Tai Jiang (the restaurant's Chinese name) whenever she visits Chinatown, because it reminds her of Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province.
"Better than American wontons," I agreed.
With just one serendipitous encounter, a veil of mystery had been pulled back from yet another delectable corner of Chinatown. But after 15-plus years of munching from one end of this neighborhood to the other, I've come to think its undiscovered treasures are in endless supply and variation. And so are the kind people who proudly took it upon themselves to educate me on their favorite morsels for this Ultimate Eating Guide to Chinatown.
There was Richard Li, the talkative real estate broker who shared the early-morning counter at humble Heung Fa Chun Sweet Shop. While I ate a soulful, peppery congee and crisp crullers, he elaborated on the shop's fresh warm soy milk and sticky rice zongzi bundles stuffed with Hong Kong-style sweet mung beans or Taiwanese mushroom, pork, and peanuts.
There was Jayson Choi, the ebullient Chinatown undertaker I met underground at Simon Sei's Tasty Place, who taught me the "right way" to eat beef ho fun noodles - with a splash of red vinegar and sriracha spice.
He also explained "wok hay," the poetic "breath of the wok" that is a telltale taste of blazing hot steel, which lends a properly cooked stir-fry a vaguely smoky, singed depth.
There was the computer programmer who sent me to Vietnam House for a funky bowl of crab meatball bún riêu soup. And the many chefs who raved about the late-night dumplings with ginger sauce at David's Mai Lai Wah.
And last but not least, there is Jeff Towne, the tireless Chinatown savant and Philadining blogger who introduced me to "the Kult" of Ken's Seafood. At our memorable Hong Kong-style meal, a writhing eel went from a tank to our table within minutes, tenderly tossed in XO sauce and sugar snap peas. Live shrimp were simply boiled and sweet as sea candy. The scallop sashimi was pristine.
As Chinatown's offerings continue to grow with exciting new regional variations, I take comfort in knowing I'll never exhaust all its secrets. But the least I can do is pass along the many morsels of wisdom that have generously been shared with me to date. May they help guide you on your own rewarding adventures to double happiness and beyond.
Craig LaBan's Capsule Reviews of Restaurants and Markets/Bakeries/Tea Houses
1009 Arch St., 215-592-8288; bananaleafphilly.com
This Penang spin-off has overtaken the original as my favorite Chinatown Malaysian due to consistency and vivid flavors. Don't miss the delicate roti canai pancakes with chicken curry, spot-on satay, steamed poh piah jicama spring rolls, crispy whole fish in tangy Thai sauce, fried squid with funky "special sauce," or the richly curried beef rendang.
101 N. 11th St., 215-922-2688; bar-ly.com
Come here to drink and watch a game more than to eat. But Chinatown's first craft-beer bar has 60 taps with a generally high-quality lineup (Great Lakes, Unibroue, Staropramen) to wash down decent-enough pan-Asian bar food, from Shanghai wings and a Korean bulgogi sandwich to duck dumplings.
(also known as Tai Jiang)
104 N. 10th St., 215-928-0261
One of Chinatown's tiniest restaurants - a no-frills 15-seat nook of stools and counters - is one of the few spots dedicated to Fujianese specialties: mini-wontons with translucent skins, crispy taro cakes, meaty xiao long bao (steamed #1 or fried #2), addictive peanut-sauced noodles (#9), and expertly wok-cooked chow mei fun (#10).
David's Mai Lai Wah
1001 Race St., 215-627-2610; 215-238-0818
You'll have a '70s flashback at this classic Cantonese mainstay. But there's a reason it remains a late-night favorite for post-shift chefs and clubbers: It's open until 4 a.m. weekends, and the dumplings with ginger sauce are addictive. The chow fun, sweet barbecued spare ribs, and house Peking duck are also solid.
Dim Sum Garden
1020 Race St., 215-627-0218; dimsumgardenphilly.com
My favorite Shanghainese dumpling dive on 11th Street has moved into one of Chinatown's most stylish spaces, with curvy lines and an open kitchen where chefs make some of the area's most authentic xiao long bao "soup dumplings" (try the crab-flavored ones). Other hit dishes: Shanghai shao mai; shrimp dumplings; shredded turnip cakes; chicken on a stick; Shanghai mock duck.
108 N. 10th St., 215-592-0739
A go-to spot for authentic Taiwanese fare, including excellent bone-in Three Cup chicken (nutty, sweet, winey), a Taiwanese meatball wrapped in glutinous rice (better than it looks), and awesomely flavorful salt-and-pepper fried pork chops. There are also Indonesian favorites, including a punchy spiced fried rice.
936 Race St., 215-629-8385; fourriverschinese.com
Owned by a Sichuan family from Taiwan, Four Rivers was one of Philly's original purveyors of "mala" numbing heat. They're known for crystal wontons, whole fish in hot bean sauce, a house special "sweet ham," and authentic cuts (pork blood, intestines, etc.) simmering in spicy oil. But chef-owner Chung Chu also makes a killer Taiwanese Three Cup chicken fragrant with basil, and maybe the best General Tso's chicken I've tasted in Philly.
Heung Fa Chun Sweet House
112 N. 10th St., 215-238-8968
This bare-bones Hong Kong-style take-out has been a 10th Street fixture for 22 years specializing in housemade soy milk, soft tofu dessert cups (douhua) with ginger syrup, as well as homey congee porridge with crullers for a devoted morning crowd, and zongzi, the tamale-like sticky rice bundles twined inside bamboo leaf wrappers, stuffed with Taiwanese (pork, peanut, and mushrooms) or Hong Kong (mung bean) fillings.
Hop Sing Laundromat
1029 Race St. (No phone)
One of Philly's best cocktail bars has a list of rules ("no pictures, no phone calls, no sneakers") and a provocative owner, Lê, who can be polarizing. But Hop Sing's spacious and moodily lit room is ideal for a private night of sophisticated drinks and conversation, with a wall of spirits almost unparalleled in town, and a genius behind the bar who has created several unique cocktails - the Nevermore, Fuggetaboutit, Railroad Judas, and Saigon Flip - that I covet.
146 N. 10th St., 215-627-5588
One of Chinatown's longtime Cantonese palaces, and one of the first to do dim sum, can feel a little dated. It does, however, have one of the best party rooms in town, where we hosted an epic bat mitzvah party (at a shockingly fair price), with spot-on fried dumplings, excellent beef with scallions, and crispy fish with black bean sauce.
1004 Race St., 215-925-3837
Aching for abalone and late-night karaoke? There are bigger Hong Kong-style seafood venues (like Tai Lake), but members of the "Kult of Ken" swear by the cooks who know what to do with the creatures swimming in owner Ken Zeng's front-window tanks. I've not had sweeter shrimp in Philly than these live ones simply boiled, or more tender eel, just minutes out of the water and wok-fried in a darkly sweet XO sauce with sugar snap peas. Get the live scallop sashimi if available.
Lee How Fook
219 N. 11th St., 215-925-7266; www.leehowfook.com
This intimate Cantonese classic now under second-generation family management remains a favorite all-purpose gathering place for an American crowd (especially in the recently redone back room). Don't miss the vegetarian Buddha rolls, beef with Chinese broccoli and black bean sauce over crispy noodles, the scallop-pea fried rice, restorative soups, whole steamed fish, and excellent hot pots (the chicken-black pepper and fish are faves).
1002 Race St., 215-238-8883
This Ting Wong spin-off has a slightly more pleasant decor and a carbon-copy duck house menu. In general, I don't prefer it - with the exception of the morning congee (try it with mixed seafood) and a crispy pig that has the snappiest, toastiest skin in town.
Nan Zhou Hand-Drawn Noodle House
1022 Race St., 215-923-1550
Delicate noodles are hand-spun to order almost magically from a single lump of dough for the superb soups and stir-fries at this first-rate Chinatown bargain, which moved to a more spacious, polished address after a decade in a no-frills nook. Noodles - both the pulled strands and the irregularly shaved ribbons - are the primary draw, especially with the Bolognese-like "soy sauce pork" or meatball soup. But the coconut curried chicken dumplings, shredded kelp, and crispy turnip salads are also worthy.
Q T Vietnamese Sandwich Co.
48 N. 10th St., 267-639-4520
This tiny orange Vietnamese sandwich take-out counter makes the best banh mi "hoagies" in Chinatown. There are veggie options, but I go for the "special" with various (and sometimes crunchy) pork pates and meats, herbs, raw chiles, pickled jicama sticks, and a consistent feeling that someone's mother made it carefully to order just for you.
112 N. Ninth St., 215-829-8939; rangoonrestaurant.com
This pleasant neighborhood survivor remains Philly's only destination for Burmese food's vividly flavored hybrid of Thai, Indian, and Chinese cuisines. Don't miss the spicy lentil patties, thousand-layer bread, or wonderful cold young ginger or tea leaf salads.
Ray's Cafe & Tea House
141 N. Ninth St., 215-922-5122; rayscafe.com
They serve some surprisingly delicate dumpling lunches here. But the real reason to visit is the Bunsen-fired drama of Philly's original siphon coffee shop, where I tend to go for the unique charcoal-roasted Japanese brew ($7.50 a cup) over the pricier Jamaican Blue Mountain. Ray's also has some excellent Taiwanese teas.
933 Race St., 215-351-5388
A solid midday option for Sichuan cooking, including the now-trendy DIY hot pots. Not the spiciest renditions I've had, but the dandan noodles and crispy flounder in Sichuan chile sauce are worth returning for.
Red Kings 2
1006 Race St., 215-238-1392
This relatively new night-only sibling to the first Red Kings a block away brings some extra heat to its Sichuan menu, plus karaoke into the early morning. The crawfish in Sichuan sauce - spicy, sweet, lip-numbing, addictive - is a signature dish worth the visit on its own.
1038 Race St., 215-873-8338; sakuramandarin.com
Recently remodeled and doubled in size, Sakura-Mandarin is my Lee How Fook for Chinatown's new generation - a reliable all-purpose spot to please many tastes, from Shanghai soup dumplings to Taiwanese Lions Head meatballs, Sichuan diced chicken with chiles, and big spicy stir-fry bowls inspired by a Flushing food court. Even the colorful sushi rolls - try the "Sakura" spicy tuna mango roll topped with Chinese dried pork - are worthwhile.
Sang Kee Peking Duck House
238 N. Ninth St., 215-925-7532; sangkeechinatown.com
The newer suburban outposts are better and more carefully run. But the original Chinatown classic still makes some of the neighborhood's best Peking duck, and also has great pork and shrimp dumplings, ginger-scallion noodles, and anything in XO sauce.
Shiao Lan Kung
930 Race St., 215-928-0282
One of my longtime Cantonese favorites, this timeworn little room has slipped a notch in recent years. Still, it remains a good late-night bet for excellent salt-baked seafood, orange beef, and what may still be my go-to bowl of punchy hot-and-sour soup.
Siu Kee Duck House
111 N. 10th St., 215-922-3075; siukeeduckhouse.com
This Hong Kong-style take-out roasts Chinatown's best ducks, but also sweet little quails, spicy shredded pig-ear salad, and boiled peanuts with herbs that locals love to snack on.
143 N. 11th St., downstairs, 215-592-8990
Treasure-seekers head underground to find Simon Sei's gem, a bright nook at the back corner of a basement supermarket, where the Kowloon-born master chef cooks some of the freshest, most affordable good food in Chinatown. Expect classic Cantonese wokery, plus salt-and-pepper chicken wings and beef ho fun ("dry") that rank among the city's best. Cash only.
204 N. Ninth St., 267-687-1355; terakawaramenphilly.com
This stylish, wood-trimmed Japanese counter serves up some of the city's best ramen, with cloudy rich tonkatsu-style broth, tender charshu pork, and multiple variations. Try the spicy miso tan tan with ground pork, and add a hearty side of chicken katsu with curry.
138 N. 10th St., 215-928-1883 or 215-928-1880
This bustling, cash-only Chinatown duck house dishes up bargain meals in a bowl, from the peerless noodle soups topped with tender soy sauce chicken (#30), wontons, crisp roast duck, or honeyed pork, to the soulful and gingery congee rice porridge. There are many other favorites here (great beef chow fun, anchovy-chicken fried rice, ginger-scallion noodles) to compensate for the brusque service and non-decor.
901 Race St., 215-413-2828
A bare-bones corner for homestyle Vietnamese cooking, but especially late-night soup. The cloudy beef bone broth pho hits the spot with swirling background spice (cinnamon, clove and star anise). The bún riêu, a tangy tomato-tamarind broth with funky crab-shrimp meatballs, also satisfies an acquired taste.
222 N. 11th St., 215-592-9596; vietnampalace.net
Often overshadowed by its stylish cross-street rival (Vietnam Restaurant), this pleasantly appointed Palace has its partisans and charms, too. The overall menu is basically on par. But I love the raw beef lime juice salad, gingery char-grilled short ribs, and heat-blistered spring rolls with chicken-noodle stuffings.
221 N. 11th St., 215-592-1163; eatatvietnam.com
The evocative French-Colonial decor remains one of Chinatown's most inviting spaces, and this longtime favorite has maintained admirable consistency with a wide-ranging menu of Vietnamese classics - especially the city's best spring rolls, vermicelli bowls, and a BBQ platter laden with lemongrass-grilled meats worth sharing over a flaming Scorpion bowl.
52 N. 10th St., 267-324-5785
This snack shop is full of authentic bargain nibbles (great buns). But the main reason to visit are the made-to-order Chinese waffles, which come off the hot iron looking like pastry bubble wrap. One of the few Chinatown sweets Western palates can relate to. Addictive.
Xi'an Sizzling Woks
902 Arch St.; 215-925-1688
Come for the Silk Road flavors of Xi'an in western China, from spicy-sour liang pi noodles to cuminy lamb skewers, pita-scattered lamb soup, brimming fish hot pots, and muffinlike meat pockets. The spicy-chicken noodles called da pan ji ban mian (or "big plate chicken") are a rustic showstopper. The scallion pancakes and Song Sao fish soup are other pleasant surprises.
MARKETS, BAKERIES, AND TEA HOUSES
143 N. 11th St., 215-928-9888
Need a black chicken or fresh frog? Head underground to Chinatown's biggest market where you'll find everything you need, from hot bean paste to noodles.
Chinese Cookie Factory
155 N. Ninth St., 215-922-7288
Custom-made fortune cookie messages for a party ("Mazel tov, Alice!") are always a clever hit. Affordable, too, at $18 for 100 cookies.
Chinese Noodle Factory
133 N. 11th St., 215-922-1688
Freshly made and cut-to-order rice noodles in all shapes are the specialty at this spiffy new location for this longtime Chinatown artisan. Try the bean-shaped "needle noodles" or a steamy meat-filled bao bun for an affordable snack.
1012 Cherry St. (at N. 10th St.), 215-928-8989
A traditional Chinese greengrocer that is my go-to spot for baby bok choy, other greens, rambutan fruit, long beans, and other specialty produce.
1008 Race St., 215-629-5668
My favorite of Chinatown's many bakeries, with particularly excellent little coconut-custard tarts and almond cookies.
132 N. 10th St., 215-925-8889; tea-do.com
The sleekest of the recent wave of new bubble tea (also known as "boba") houses, and a popular WiFi hangout for Asian teens. I go traditional and slurp milky black tea with my tapioca balls.