Philadelphia's Chinatown has long been a destination for certain things: implausibly cheap fruits and vegetables, an endless supply of beckoning-cat statues, and banquets of spicy delicacies spinning on tabletop lazy susans. But, fortune cookies aside, it was not really where you'd go for dessert.
In the last year or so, that's changed. At least eight new dessert spots have opened (or will soon) within the few blocks framed by Ninth and 11th Streets, Filbert to Vine, bringing whole genres of sweets you didn't know you were craving. They include Thai-style rolled ice cream, Taiwanese shaved ice, Hong Kong egg waffle sundaes, Japanese crepes, and endless variations on bubble tea.
Overwhelmed? Don't be. Here's your field guide to Chinatown desserts, including novelties and old favorites.
Rolled ice cream
Shaved ice cream
It's ice cream, made light and fluffy by being shaved off a block in thin layers, and it comes in flavors like roasted black sesame and Thai iced tea. This Taiwanese-style treat is a highlight at Ice Land (it's confusingly called "snow ice" there); the strawberry ice-based "Pink Cosmos" is a solid choice. It's also on the dessert menu at the restaurant Bubblefish.
This is no sno-cone. This Japanese-style variation, available at the new Yamitsuki restaurant, is a little different. The ice cream goes into a machine as a liquid and gets turned into powdery snow, served garnished with cubes of jelly, fried mochi balls, red beans, and berries.
Yes, crepes are French. But they're also a modern Japanese street food. At T-Swirl Crepe, they're made with rice flour and are gluten-free but are still an indulgence. We like the "matcha chocolate truffles" variation, loaded with matcha custard, chocolate truffles, strawberries, chocolate sauce, and whipped yogurt.
A variation on a Hong Kong street food, these waffles are honeycombs of eggy batter and air. They're on the menu as "QQ" waffles at Yummy Yummy, in flavors like green tea with white chocolate (our favorite) and coconut with sesame. At the new Teassert Bar, they are served as a sundae, wrapped around rolled ice cream, with toppings like condensed milk, chocolate syrup, chopped mango, and Oreos.
Fancy bubble-tea spots started heating up four or five years ago in Chinatown and have been brewing at an impressive pace since. Most offer tea with milk or fruit, and toppings like tapioca pearls and grass jelly, which is made from herbs and cornstarch. The newest is Chatime, where our favorites were the iced matcha latte with sweetened milk and the grapefruit juice with coconut jelly and tapioca pearls. There's also Bubblefish, known for sea salt tea, topped with salty foam; Mr. Wish, which offers smoothies and teas made with fruit pulp; Tea Do, where specialties include the "Fire Dragon," with red bean, milk, tapioca, and grass jelly; and Kung Fu Tea, where favorites range from purportedly healthy (grapefruit juice with probiotic Yakult yogurt) to indulgent (Oreo milk tea).
Matcha mousse cake
There's also lychee panna cotta, tofu cheesecake, and much more on the menu at A La Mousse, the year-old dessert shop in Chinatown that serves fusion pastries alongside straightforward offerings such as chocolate mousse cake and salted caramel pudding. The rich but not-too-sweet matcha cake is worthy of the calories.
Like other fads, French-style macarons were all over Chinatown for a brief while. They're no longer ubiquitous, but you can still find them at Kung Fu Tea.
The soft tofu with red beans and ginger syrup is one of the decidedly unfaddish offerings at Heung Fa Chun Sweet House. It's something of an acquired taste. There are also dessert soups made with taro, nuts, and coconut.
Chinese pastry chefs and English and Portuguese colonial influences converge to bring us this golden hand pie with a flaky crust and rich egg-yolk filling. Get it at any Chinatown bakery, but Mayflower is a favorite.
Filled with lotus seeds or red beans, moon cakes are traditional in the fall as part of the Chinese mid-autumn festival. For some reason, Breadtop House and Greenland Tea House both carry them year-round.
Deep-fried, chewy, coated in seeds, and filled with red bean paste. Get them wherever they're fresh from the fryer.
These sweet bread rolls - filled with sugary taro or red bean paste, cream sprinkled with dried coconut, or shreds of roasted pork - might be more snack than dessert. The self-service K.C.'s Pastries is a go-to.
It's a thing in Chinatown, often seen as a "Swiss roll," wrapped around creamy frosting and sold whole or in slices. At St. Honore, a slice of rainbow cake coated in sprinkles is a budget-accommodating $1.
We mention them only because at Lucky Chinese Cookie Factory, they're available in flavors like mango or coffee, and a bag of 100 with a custom message can be obtained for only $18. It's the kind of value you expect in Chinatown.
Bread Top House: 1041 Race St., 215-925-3802, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. daily
Bubblefish: 909 Arch St., 267-930-7634, Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-midnight, Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
Chatime: 1025 Arch St., (no phone), Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri., 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Sat., 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
Frozen: 938 Arch St., (no phone), 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily
Greenland Tea House: 210 N. Ninth St., 215-238-1688, 6:30 a.m.-8 p.m. daily
Heung Fa Chun Sweet House: 112 N. 10th St., 215-238-8968, Thu.-Tue., 7 a.m.-6 p.m.
Ice Land: 224 N. 10th St., 215-644-8758, Sun.-Thu., noon-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., noon-midnight
I CE NY: 1016 Race St. (opening later in 2016)
K.C.'s Pastries: 109 N. 10th St., 215-238-8808, 7:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily
Kung Fu Tea: 1006 Arch St., 267-758-2871, Sun.-Thu., 10:30 a.m.-midnight; Fri.-Sat., 10:30 a.m.-1 a.m.
Lucky Chinese Cookie Factory: 155 N. Ninth St., 215-922-7288, 7 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
Mayflower Cafe & Bakery: 1008 Race St., 215-629-5668, 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m. daily
Mr. Wish: 216 N. 10th St., 267-457-2650, Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight
St. Honore Pastries: 935 Race St., 215-925-5298, 7:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
Tea-Do: 132 N. 10th St., 215-925-8889, Mon.-Thu., 10:30 a.m.-midnight; Fri.-Sat., 10:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 10:30 a.m.-midnight
Teassert Bar: 227 N. 10th St., in soft-opening phase, 3-10 p.m. daily.
T-Swirl Crepe: 150 N. 10th St., 215-238-0111, Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight
Yamitsuki: 1028 Arch St., 215-629-3888, Sun.-Thu., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.- Sat, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Yummy Yummy: 52 N. 10th St., 215-625-9188, Wed.-Mon., 8 a.m.-7 p.m.