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.
This guide has been updated recently, adding a dozen newcomers (noted with an asterisk).
Old-School American Style
Lee How Fook
219 N. 11th St., 215-925-7266; leehowfookphilly.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).
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.
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.
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.
Hong Kong-Style Duck, Noodles and Congee
Ting Wong *
138 N. 10th St., 215-928-1883
One of Philly's Hall of Fame bargain meals is now better than ever. My favorite Hong Kong-style noodle and duck house has been through a tumultuous period since my last update two years ago, changing hands to new owners who upgraded the dining room but let the food slip, then changing hands once again - back to its first owners. Amazingly, Olde Original Ting Wong is even better than its first incarnation, with a deeply restorative and complex broth, pristine shrimp wontons, and superbly tender (not too sweet) roast duck, BBQ pork, and moist soy sauce chicken (the latter two are my favorite combo over noodle soup, #35). Also not to miss, a side of crispy pig that crackles, then melts in your mouth. The beef chow fun, ginger-scallion noodles, and congee are also worthwhile.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor *
218 N. 13th St., 267-519-2889; nomwah.com
This satellite branch of New York's original dim sum parlor, obscurely located just beyond Chinatown's main grid, got off to a shaky start when it opened in early 2015. But the arrival of a veteran chef from New York has settled the kitchen, and it is now turning out the best classic Cantonese dim sum in the neighborhood. Don't miss the "original egg roll," whose shatteringly crisp shell is made from actual egg. Also, the shrimp and snow pea leaf beggar's purse dumplings, turnip cakes in funky XO sauce, and velvety made-to-order rice noodle pancakes rolled in herbs remind why a dim sum lunch was so fun to begin with. Aside from the pleasant oasis of the dining room, a full liquor license with real wine, and the best loose-tea service in Chinatown (try the 20-year-old Pu-Ehr) are additional draws.
Tom's Dim Sum *
59 N. 11th St., 215-923-8880; tomsdimsum.com
The first location of Dim Sum Garden - at its start a no-frills dive for soup dumplings beside a bus stop in the dark 11th Street tunnel - has been reclaimed by original owner Tom Guo, renamed, and revamped into an impressively pleasant space with double the seating. More important, Guo's expert Shanghainese cooking is back, with juicy xiao long bao (soup dumplings) as good as any in town, plus other less-common delights, including steamed yu jiao dumplings stuffed with delicate minced flounder, Sichuan-spiced crispy shrimp with edible fried peppers, crispy scallion pancakes stuffed with sweet sliced beef (jie bing), as well as Shanghai-style wonton soup (with seaweed and pickled vegetables), sticky rice sui mei, and my favorite shrimp har gao dumplings, perked with the soft crunch of minced baby bamboo.
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.
Tai Lake *
134 N. 10th St., 215-922-0698; tailakeseafoodrest.com
This longtime standby is still one of the neighborhood's most reliable destinations for authentic Cantonese "tank-to-table" seafood, whether you want wok-fired eels, big oysters in ginger-scallion sauce, frogs with yellow chives, snails or abalone multiple ways (as well as controversial shark fin soup). Highlights of a recent revisit were perhaps my favorite shrimp in town - scooped live from a tank near the entrance and quick-steamed to a sweet tenderness that more common frozen shrimp cannot replicate. The live Dungeness crabs in garlicky pork sauce were also fantastic.
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.
Hand-Drawn Noodles & Central China
Spice C *
131 N. 10th St., 215-923-2222; SpiceCnoodle.com
I can never get enough of watching the magic of a Chinese chef whirling a lump of dough in the air until it transforms into a fistful of spaghetti-thin noodles, so the arrival of Spice C, which replaced another hand-drawn noodle house (Yummy Lan Zhou) is a very good thing. Partisans will argue that Spice C is better than its Race Street competitor Nan Zhou - though I still prefer Nan Zhou's soy sauce pork noodles. But I've been very impressed with other dishes here, like Spice C's Sichuan fish soup with hand-drawn noodles, chili-dark ma pao tofu, sweet-sauced Asian eggplant, and also the squiggly shaved noodles paired with the "Double Love" of tender brisket and beef.
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.
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.
Ming River Sidewalk Café *
148 N. 10th St., 215-625-9555
Many Chinatown restaurants are now owned by entrepreneurs from Fujian province, but Ming River is one of just a couple that actually cook Fujianese specialties. The "cattle viscera" and lamb tripe soups are acquired tastes. But other "Foo Chow" specialties, like the soup with tiny wontons and meaty steamed dumplings, are worth a visit. In particular, the freshly fried savory pancakes flecked with herbs or stuffed with minced baby oysters are among my favorite snacks in the city for $1 or less.
Chinese Restaurant (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).
ShangHai 1 *
123 N. 10th St., 267-457-5363
I'm typically wary of places that attempt multiple regional specialties on one menu, but all-purpose ShangHai 1, a sleekly tiled conversion of a former bubble tea shop, deftly carries it off. The soup dumplings are delicate. The Taiwanese items are worthy, too, including beef scallion pancakes and basil chicken (the bone-in option is labor-intensive, but more flavorful). There are also worthy tastes of Shanghai (tasty mock duck) and irresistible mini-woks bubbling with a spicy brew of Sichuan dry-panned chicken.
1038 Race St., 215-873-8338; sakuramandarin.com
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
909 Arch St., 267-930-7634; bubblefishphilly.com
Get your salt-froth and sushi on at this sleek modern Arch Street space, which represents Chinatown's new guard well with a multi-concept menu targeted at trendy Asian Americans in their 20s. The menu is split between Japanese flavors - the neighborhood's best sushi (try the colorful Angry Dragon or Marilyn Monroll), poké bowls, onigiri and don rice bowls, as well as Taiwanese dishes like salt-baked chicken and minced pork over rice. The extensive bubble tea menu is notable for its lighter hand on sweetness and the option for a sweet and savory pouf of cream whipped with sea salt layered on top. Open on weekends until 1 a.m.
Yamitsuki Ramen *
1028 Arch St., 215-629-3888; on Facebook
This modern Japanese-theme collaboration between Jack Chen (Sakura-Mandarin), chef Alan Su (Nom Nom Ramen), and Chinatown entrepreneur Kenny Poon is an eye-catching addition to Arch Street, from the moody lighting and woven wood walls to the oversize Iron Man suit in the window. But it's the casual street food that is the reason to come, from fluffy steamed buns stuffed with tender chashu pork or tempura-crisped soft-shell crabs to crispy shrimp wound inside noodle nests to bowls of ramen that are distinctive for their focus on chicken- and vegetarian-based broths. The chicken broth, slow-steeped with fresh-killed birds each morning, is excellent, though its lighter texture (compared to traditional pork broths elsewhere) benefits from variations with extra spice, like the karai. A new addition flavored with aromatic Japanese curry is my current favorite.
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.
Nan Yang *
932 Race St., 215-238-1288
Chinatown already has two good Malaysian standbys in Penang and Banana Leaf, but this smaller, low-key addition is worth visiting for at least one specialty in particular - a giant fish head stewed in aromatic "dry curry." Whether you're deft at finding the considerable meat that hides behind the cheeks and collar, this dish was memorable for the bounty of eggplants and beans and fried bean curd cubes that bobbed inside the tureen-size platter of curried coconut milk that, contrary to its "dry" descriptor, was memorably saucy. The karaoke parlors upstairs are busy until 3 a.m.
Nine Ting *
926-928 Race St., first floor, 215-238-9996; nineting.com
Tabletop cooking comes as an all-you-can-eat doubleheader at this surprisingly stylish venue, where shabu shabu Chinese hot pots bubble alongside glowing inset grills sizzling with Korean-spiced BBQ meats. It's not the best BBQ in town (head to North Philly for that), and hot pots are not a genre I've yet grown to love (it would also be nice if the meats were defrosted before service). But the space is great for big groups and the all-you-can-eat value ($22.99 for hot pots, $27.99 for BBQ) is hard to beat, even if diners are rigidly obliged to pick one and not allowed to share. Open until 1 a.m. weekdays and 2 a.m. weekends.
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.
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.
DRINKS, COFFEE, COCKTAILS
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.
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.
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.
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.
See Samantha Melamed's field guide to the Chinatown dessert scene here.
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.