Zach Watson: Hi! Welcome back to Station By Station.
Avery Adams: I'm Avery.
Zach: I'm Zach.
Avery: And this week we went to Cermak-Chinatown. It seems pretty far because it's past the Loop, but really it took a lot shorter time than I thought.
Zach: It was about an hour, and unlike California station, there was no bus needed. We just got on the train, from Northwestern, at least. So we took the Purple Line to Howard and then transferred to the Red Line, and then took that all the way down. It was pretty easy.
Avery: I took a little nap on the way, and we were just there! It was quite a cold day and we were thinking that we wanted some warm food, so we thought, "Why not Chinatown?" Good food we've heard of. When we first got out, to be completely honest, I thought Chinatown was a lot smaller than I expected. I'm from San Francisco where we have a pretty big Chinatown; it's usually full of tourists too, and this one seemed more like a neighborhood. Which was nice, it was nice.
Zach: Yeah, it definitely seemed a little bit more authentic in that, maybe because it wasn't in downtown per se, that if you were trying to get to it, you'd definitely have to go more out of your way. So I think from a tourist's perspective, not as many people are going to that. So I think that really contributed to the more, I guess authentic feel to it.
Avery: Right. So first, it was a really cold day, and we just wanted some warm tea, some coffee. But all the tea places we found were more of boba tea, which is iced and cold, and we weren't really down for that.
Zach: Yeah, I think a lot of the struggle of it was, if you do a Google search for tea shops or restaurants, it's gonna come up with Kung Fu Tea or boba tea. I think you need to be a local in order to find the actual tea places.
Avery: And that goes back to what you were saying about this is a local neighborhood. There are a lot of families there, which was really cool too.
Zach: A lot of little kids running around, they had a square that was kind of based on a Chinese central square.
Avery: Yeah, with the blue and the red colors.
Zach: Yeah. And the one row of restaurants and buildings we went into, the architecture was based on the Chinese style, so I really liked that a lot. It was cool.
Avery: Yeah for sure. And going back, I like how it wasn't geared towards tourists. A lot of the signs were still in Mandarin. There were definitely some English translations, but they didn't try to gentrify it, I don't think.
Zach: People think, "Oh it's a Chinese restaurant." But here, there were different types of Chinese restaurants. There was Mandarin-based stuff and there was Cantonese restaurants, and so we eventually went into one restaurant, which we'll get into in a sec. That's going to be most of the podcast, I feel like, is just talking about food.
Avery: Because it was so good!
Zach: [Laughs] It was really good. It was real, it was authentic, and I think that's the big draw to that area.
Avery: Can we talk about the food now? Because I'm still drooling over it.
Zach: Yes, yes. We went to a grocery store first.
Avery: It was an herb and tea store right?
Zach: Yeah, got some, I got some green tea, we both got some loose-leaf oolong tea. I probably stood there for 10 minutes looking up, "How do I brew loose-leaf tea?" Cause I didn't want to bring it back to my dorm and look like an idiot.
Avery: Practice makes perfect.
Zach: Yeah, we'll try it out later. I think it's gonna work. Okay, I guess we have to get to Cai, cause that's the big thing.
Avery: We tried a little Yelp search, and this place came up, and it said it was some of the best dim sum in all of Chinatown. So we were like, okay. We have to go. We should have thought about this, but it was Sunday lunchtime. It was pretty crowded.
Zach: It was, all in all, I think we were there for two and a half, three hours.
Avery: I think waiting was about an hour and a half just for two people, so that was fun. We ate some fortune cookies, while waiting. Got some good fortunes – I probably got four or five. But then when we finally sat down, oh man. What did we order? First of all, the dessert came first. We ordered mango mochi.
Zach: I'd never had that before, and honestly I did not like mango until I had that. It was just… I've never had mochi before, that was so weird. First of all, I don't know how you're supposed to eat it. I don't know if you use chopsticks for it or not. I sound like such a tourist right now.
Avery: No, I feel that. I think all the foods we ate were little balls that were too big for one bite, but I wasn't sure how to bring it to my mouth. They were also very sticky, so it's kind of just like licking it off of the paper after a while, but those were good.
Zach: We got that, the other sweet things we got were egg puff pastries. They weren't actual eggs, they were designed to look like eggs. It was a really really soft, spongy pastry on the outside. I couldn't tell what the filling was, but it was something really sweet.
Avery: It was custard!
Zach: Oh was it?
Avery: Yeah, yeah. Those went thunk in my stomach, oh man.
Zach: They were so good though.
Avery: And then we had these little duck dumplings, duck and shrimp, which were good.
Zach: We had pork and peanut dumplings as well.
Avery: And then this vegetable tofu wrap.
Zach: Which honestly didn't taste like tofu, I was surprised.
Avery: Yeah, yeah. And then they brought us hot tea.
Zach: Yes, they brought us hot tea. For free, I'm pretty sure. I was very surprised. They were like, "You want some tea?" Yeah, I want some tea.
Avery: And I think the main takeaway from that was we got five or six items.
Zach: We got tea and we ordered five different items.
Avery: And tofu as well.
Zach: There was a lady walking around with a little push, a little rolly cart.
Avery: It was adorable.
Zach: With a big crock pot – not a crock pot, obviously – with tofu in it. It was weird, it was the consistency of...
Zach: Yeah, like gelatin or oatmeal, almost. But not oatmeal because it was smooth. And then it came with some syrup, I guess.
Avery: Yeah, I'm calling it watered-down syrup. Not to sound uncultured, but I could not figure out what it was. It was such a sweet sauce.
Zach: Yeah, it was so good. We got all of that, and it was less than 30 dollars for the two of us.
Avery: The main takeaway is that it was perfect for the cold weather, which is all hot foods. If you just want somewhere to go for a big meal, inexpensive, you have time to kill, I think Chinatown. Honestly, just get a big lunch.
Zach: I don't want to make this sound like it's some “cheap” as in quality eatery, it was packed! It looked like a banquet hall, and there were 300-400 people in there, I feel like.
Avery: There were these huge lobsters and duck being carried to these tables.
Zach: One of the tables next to us, they just hauled up a crate with the biggest lobster I've ever seen. Probably 20-25 pounds. Another table next to us had an entire roast duck. You probably could spend a lot more money there if you chose, but it was amazing for the value.
Avery: Definitely. And after our bellies were full, we decided to take a little walk and just see what caught our eye. At first we went into this, I think the name was a furniture and gift shop?
Avery: Yeah. They just had a little bit of everything.
Zach: Yeah, you know. It was one of those traditional little gift shops. Lots of Buddha figurines and lots of fake gold and fake jade figurines. That was pretty fun.
Avery: Yeah! And they had some bamboo plants. Kind of everything you'd expect that tourists might be interested in.
Zach: It was fun, you know you have to go to one of those.
Avery: But then we kept walking down the street than ran parallel to the train station.
Zach: Yes, it’s the main street. Once you get off the train station, you will see the arch, the red arch on your left. There's a road and you can keep going down that, and there's tons and tons of stores. We went to the gift shop/furniture slash plant store. We went to a, I guess a weapons store, pretty much?
Avery: I think it was specifically knives, but they had some nunchucks.
Zach: They had some swords, you know. I got a ninja star that I'm sending to a friend of mine just cause I feel like she'd like it; a rainbow-colored three-blade ninja star.
Avery: I got this little key, like a house key, it looks like that. But you can kind of flip it open and it's a little weapon. It's a knife. I can't really take it off of my keychain.
Zach: How useful is that?
Avery: I will be protected if someone reaches for my waist. I can just pull out the knife.
Zach: Sure, just stab them with a two-inch knife.
Avery: Right, exactly. I mean, you never know. Thank you Chinatown! And then we went into a couple more gift shops-type of thing. They had these surprise boxes for one dollar, and they are all wrapped. It reminds me of Christmas presents kind of, birthday presents, what have you. So we got a couple of those, or our friends got a couple of those, and I want to say they were worth more than one dollar. They got some teacups and tea plates, some chopsticks – like some really nice ones – and some trinkets. It's a really fun idea for a dollar. How could you go wrong?
Zach: Both places we've been to so far, we've come across a store that has surprise box.
Avery: That’s true!
Zach: We went to Uncharted Books last time, and they had surprise boxes.
Avery: I mean, these adventures are full of surprises.
Zach: It's great!
Avery: I got some firecrackers, well, they're more just little poppers, three for a dollar – three boxes. So if you hear some popping around campus, those could be my little firecrackers. Legal ones! I think. But yeah, where else did we go? What was that museum?
Zach: The strangest thing we found. We just saw a door, and above the door it said, "Dr. Sun Yat Sen Museum: open on Saturdays and Sundays from 12 to 5." And we said, welp, might as well learn more about the civil war and the Republic of China, so we went in.
Avery: First of all, when you open the door, you can just look up at this narrow, steep staircase. So it was a little adventurous going up there. And then when we get to the door, this man has to let us in.
Zach: Tells us to sign in, write down our hometowns for some reason. And it's just one room. I think it was a meeting place as well, like for a cultural organization. There was a lectern at the front with a Republic of China flag on it, and then all the way around the room were different artifacts and pictures detailing Dr. Sun Yat Sen's life pre and during the revolution. It was cool. It was just one of those weird finds. That's definitely one of those things where if I saw it by myself, I don't think I'd be brave enough to go up just because of how indiscriminate it was and how inconspicuous it was, but since we were with a group, it was fun.
Avery: I’m glad we went up there. I feel like it's a little gem, a little hideout in the middle of Chinatown. This room full of history.
Zach: Alright, so let's summarize Chinatown. Food: primary thing.
Avery: If you just have a few hours, you're hungry: go to Chinatown, get some food.
Zach: And it's cheap, and it's good. And when I say value, I mean value in quality and costs. This is not fast food. I think that any store you go into, you really can't go wrong. In terms of supermarkets and gift shops, they're all really good.
Avery: I guess if you want little gifts for your friends too, or for yourself. Some new teapots. They had everything. I really liked, going back to the surprise gifts. Those were a really good idea. All in all, food – fantastic. It wasn't that big, just a few streets to explore. I feel like it's a really manageable size, very neighborly.
Zach: And there were still places we didn't go. There were still a couple museums. There was a Chinese-American history museum we didn't have time to go to. This is definitely a good place. You could maybe make a day trip around it, maybe do lunch and walk around afterwards, or you could make it just an hour or two, and I feel like you'd get a good glimpse of it both ways.
Avery: Zach, I think we should go back just for the dumplings.
Zach: Yeah. I'll see you there.
Avery: See you at Cermak-Chinatown?
Zach: Of course! See you next time.