My goal is to always live in a city that has a Chinatown. I’m not one to pass up mediocre Chinese-American delivery. Cheap, salty, mysterious. But if I have the time and someone willing to make the journey I’ll hit up the non-English speaking sector of any city with enough immigrants to create one. And that’s what we did on a breezy, Monday afternoon. It seems far living in a densely populated, busy city, but truth be told a 35 minute ride on Chicago’s Red Line is just enough to build that deep anticipation you need to get the most out of an authentic meal. The longer the train ride, the more interesting and memorable it proves to be, in particular if you can stomach riding without headphones and have a cohort to commiserate. So journeying from the Northside of Lakeview past Lincoln Park, the Loop and South Loop to emerge at the Cermak-Chinatown stop did not disappoint. Similar to New York City, except a bit cleaner and with more space, you no longer speak the native language, let alone read it; you’re wandering around like an amnesic idiot, sticking out like a very hungry, sore thumb. Amidst the wandering we stumble into what looks like an enclosed, yet outdoor mall. There are dentists, doctors, lawyers, store-fronts, and restaurants galore. Based on the dim sum sign, we wisely chose Shui Wah.
Upon entering you’re welcomed by 5 or 6 eager Chinese employees, quickly overwhelming you with what should be simple questions. “2? Table for 2? Dine in? To go?” Ahh, yes? Funnily enough we were sat near the only other white people in the dim sum house. It’s a good sign if the majority of diners are actually Chinese. You won’t find the same at Panda Express. So we sat, were greeted by a friendly waitress asking what kind of tea we wanted. Another easy but somehow overwhelming question with so many potential responses. I think I muttered jasmine and we were quickly gifted with a pot full of piping hot tea. We slurped as we grazed the menu we did not understand.
We decided on 5 items all from different categories, 2 of which we were familiar. The first food to be delivered was a scrumptious bowl of Chinese porridge. It was a murky white, thick mixture of short grain white rice, some sort of meat (crossing my fingers no dogs or cats were harmed in the making of my meal), and topped off with this delicious, orange, tangy hot sauce. It sounds like nothing. In fact, it probably sounds disgusting. It’s not particularly inspiring to look at, but I’ve found the best surprises in this life are when you’re blessed with substance over style. So many people, places and things are providing a heavy dose of the opposite.
Soon we were bombarded with a crash-course of incredible dim sum. Sticky rice is already a favorite. Wrapped in bamboo leaves, steamed, served piping hot, sticky rice is served with tender chunks of pork and chop sticks. It’s all you need. Another delightful surprise. We consumed shrimp and vegetable dumplings in about 12 seconds and moved on to a shrimp bread ball, consisting of shrimp, tangy bbq sauce, and surrounded by the softest, whitest, pillow-like squishy dough. It was sweet, the insides were salty. Again, delectable.
If I’m remembering correctly our bill was 18 American dollars. For two, 5 food items, porridge leftovers in a doggie bag, pot of tea, tax, 18 bucks. Can’t. Be. Beat. Loved it.
We walked around, window shopped in some really random stores and left with a bright, refreshing Sprite with cut up kiwi and strawberry. Our conversation on the train ride back consisted of re-living each joy-filled bite. I enjoyed the leftover porridge immensely, that night I believe.
If you can’t travel, at least broaden your mind by exploring foods. The rewards far exceed any potential risks.
Awkwardly use chop sticks. Slurp your tea. Fit a whole dim sum dumpling in your mouth. Enjoy