Iron Man wants your attention: Chinatown is changing fast!
In case you haven't yet noticed the wok-fired pace of new and suddenly stylish restaurants opening in the old neighborhood, the huge red "Hulkbuster" suit set behind glass at the entrance to Yamitsuki, Chinatown's sleek new ramen hall, should do the trick.
"That's an actual costume we displayed because it attracts our client base, which is in their mid-20s," said partner and chef Alan Su. "Competition is driving the market now in Chinatown. And while the older mom-and-pop places are still there, the new restaurants have become more trendy."
Plenty of old favorites are still thriving, and the streetscape can appear as chaotic and colorful as ever. But the recent arrivals continue to bring sleek looks and modern concepts. From the bubble teas being machine-shaken at the front counter to the steamed buns and spicy ramen being eaten in the colorful dining room clad in contemporary wood accents, Yamitsuki is a case in point.
Chinatown is becoming younger and more fashionable and diverse of menu, from poké bowls to hot pots and Korean BBQ, mix-and-match seafood boils, soup dumplings galore, and a sudden taste for sweets evidenced by the arrival of several new Thai rolled-ice-cream parlors.
At equally trendy Bubblefish, another of the new businesses suddenly giving life to Arch Street, talented chef-partner Edison Wang (formerly of Sakura-Mandarin) is turning out the neighborhood's best sushi alongside Taiwanese fried chicken and oolong tea mugs topped with sweet and savory clouds of salted whipped cream. Outgoing service - not a traditional Chinatown virtue - is also a focus.
"Our main audience is young women foodies who have a high standard," says co-owner Xu Lin. "And I think people are now expecting more than just good food . . . When older owners tell me business is slow, I tell them: You need to change."
The seeds of this transformation were apparent when I did my first comprehensive guide to Chinatown a couple of years ago. But the major change factors - an influx of Fujianese entrepreneurs moving to Philly from the saturated New York market, plus the growth in international students seeking a taste of home - have accelerated the transformation, with at least a dozen new businesses since my last update. A big food court called Chinatown Square along the lines of popular food malls in Flushing, N.Y., is under construction on Race Street for a planned opening later this year.
Not all of the newcomers are included on this list of recommendations, which adds to our existing online guide some notes on older places that didn't make my first roundup, like Tai Lake and Ming River, plus an update to another (Ting Wong) that changed hands.
Tom's Dim Sum, meanwhile, may be the best example of what can happen when the old guard smartly heeds the new. Chinatown veteran Tom Guo, the talented Shanghainese chef who in 2007 opened the first Dim Sum Garden (since moved under new ownership to Race Street), has reclaimed his original space inside the dark 11th Street tunnel and transformed that once dingy little room into a larger, modern, pleasant hideaway of dumpling delight. The food is better than ever.
"We remodeled," says Guo, "and it feels really good now. Like home."
Craig LaBan's list of Chinatown favorites is here.