Craig LaBan's favorite restaurants in Philly's Chinatown

Duck congee for breakfast at Ting Wong in Chinatown

Few restaurant neighborhoods are as dynamic as Philadelphia’s historic Chinatown.

What once was exclusively the domain of old-school Cantonese cooking, dating back to the 1870s, has rapidly transformed over the last decade to be more regionally diverse, and even modern and trendy.

Fueled by a growing wave of Fujianese and Shanghainese entrepreneurs who aim to serve a young new clientele of well-to-do international students from the Chinese mainland, the neighborhood’s restaurants today cater to current trends, from bubble teas and soup dumplings to Taiwanese flavors, poké shops, Sichuan spice, hand-pulled noodles, Thai rolled ice cream parlors and ramen bowls being slurped in colorful contemporary dining rooms.

Of course, plenty of the old favorites are still thriving, too. But never has eating in Chinatown been quite as much fun.

Here are 10 great places to start the adventure, excerpted from the Ultimate Dining guide recently sent to print subscribers. (Not a subscriber? See info below.)

DIM SUM GARDEN

1020 Race St., 215-873-0258

This soup dumpling haven is the signature restaurant for Chinatown’s new guard, with Shanghainese dumplings (and other delights) served to perpetual crowds in a sleek modern space. Only a troubled health inspection record kept it from my top 25.


LEE HOW FOOK

219 N. 11th St., 215-925-7266

This longtime favorite remains my go-to for Cantonese classics, from restorative wonton soup and whole fish to excellent hot pots, Buddha rolls, scallop fried rice, and beef with greens and black bean sauce over crispy noodles.


TING WONG

138 N. 10th St., 215-928-1883

After an ownership shuffle, one of our best bargains is better than ever, a Hong Kong-style duck house with pristine shrimp wontons, superbly tender roast duck, BBQ pork and soy sauce chicken (which come as the #35 combo over noodle soup). The crispy pig is also sensational.


NOM WAH TEA PARLOR

(not formally rated)

218 N. 13th St., 267-519-2889

This branch of New York’s original dim sum parlor makes Chinatown’s best Cantonese dim sum. Don’t miss the “original egg roll,” the shrimp and snow pea leaf dumplings, turnip cakes in funky XO, silky rice noodle rolls, or a pot of real Pu-Ehr tea.


TOM’S DIM SUM

(not formally rated)

59 N. 11th St., 215-923-8880

The first Dim Sum Garden — a no-frills dive in the 11th Street tunnel — has been renamed and smartly revamped by original owner Tom Guo. The dumplings are super, but so are the crispy Sichuan shrimp, scallion pancakes stuffed with beef, and Shanghai wonton soup.


XI’AN SIZZLING WOKS

902 Arch St., 215-925-1688

Come for the Silk Road flavors of Xi’an in western China, including the spicy-sour liang pi noodles, cuminy lamb skewers, pita-scattered lamb soup, muffinlike meat pockets, and the spicy-chicken noodles called da pan ji ban mian (“big plate chicken”).


SAKURA-MANDARIN

1038 Race St., 215-873-8338

Sakura-Mandarin is my family’s favorite all-purpose spot to please many tastes, from Shanghai dumplings to Taiwanese Lions Head meatballs, Sichuan diced chicken with chilies, and big spicy stir-fry bowls for sharing.


VIETNAM RESTAURANT

221 N. 11th St., 215-592-1163

The evocative French colonial decor is still Chinatown’s most inviting space, and this survivor has remained one of Philly’s most reliable Vietnamese destinations, with the city’s best spring rolls, vermicelli bowls, and a BBQ platter laden with lemongrass-grilled meats.


BUBBLEFISH

(not formally rated)

909 Arch St., 267-930-7634

Get your salt-froth bubble tea and sushi fix at this sleek modern representative of Chinatown’s trendy new generation, a multi-concept menu split between Japanese flavors (fine sushi rolls; poke bowls) and Taiwanese dishes like salt-baked chicken and minced pork over rice.


TERAKAWA

(not formally rated)

204 N. Ninth St., 267-687-1355

This wood-trimmed Japanese counter serves up soul-warming ramen with cloudy, rich tonkotsu-style broth, tender charshu pork, and multiple variations. Try the spicy miso tan with ground pork, and add a hearty side of chicken katsu with curry.


"Craig LaBan's Ultimate Dining," a glossy, 52-page, magazine-style book that wraps up the food critic's 25 favorite restaurants, as well as lists such as favorite BYOBs, Chinatown, and Philadelphia classics, is available by mail, through this link, or in person at the newspaper's offices, 801 Market St. (entrance on Eighth Street), from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays ($5.95, cash only).

Continue Reading