June 24, 2024


World's finest Food

88 Marketplace is an Asian food wonderland hidden just west of Chinatown

Just west of Chinatown, the historic neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, a strangely shiny building has landed along a row of old brick warehouses.

Jefferson Square takes its name from the building’s street address. Technically it stands in East Pilsen. To the outsider, little reveals that the glass-fronted facade hides an Asian food wonderland, with what’s touted as the largest Chinese supermarket in the city.

88 Marketplace sprawls across the second floor of the cavernous center. When the store celebrated its grand opening last year on the auspicious date of Aug. 28 (eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture), the food court mostly had yet to open. Shoppers indulged instead in the delights of imported Lay’s potato chips, exotic fruit and live seafood.

New Chan, a real estate development company based in McKinley Park, owns the building, market and parking lots across the street. Unlike H Mart, or even Joong Boo or Patel Brothers, there’s only one 88 Marketplace. The supermarket is not affiliated with any other stores with similar names worldwide.

Ten months and three vaccines later, seven restaurants stand open in the building. Two food court stalls in the market have already closed (Crop Culture blended juice drinks and Dama offered Korean food). Three more plan to open in July: Pho Loan 2, a second food court location of the Vietnamese restaurant on Argyle Street; a yet-unnamed Hong Kong-style diner stall; and Holu House, a modern Asian steakhouse on the first floor.

My fellow food critic Nick Kindelsperger and I visited every food court stall, bakery and hot pot restaurant currently open, tasting bao to bubble tea and everything in between. We’ve listed the businesses in alphabetical order below.

2105 S. Jefferson St., 312-929-4926, facebook.com/88MarketplaceChicago

— Louisa Chu

312 Fish Market

Owner Jackson Chiu grew up in Chinatown, but opened a Japanese sushi bar as his first restaurant in the second-floor food court at 88 Marketplace. Business partner and head chef Joe Fung worked at Sushi-San, the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant that hypes hand rolls and hip-hop, as did 80% of 312 Fish Market’s opening staff.

They first focused on party platters, which jives with the surprisingly stylish vibe at the secluded stall, the only stand with its own seating. The specialty rolls, meanwhile, offer both impeccably fresh fish and delightfully creative expression. The Chicago Fire roll ($13) matches searingly spicy shrimp and tuna with beautifully balanced, pearlescent rice, while retaining the delicate snap of shellfish and nuanced brininess of the sea.

312-731-9086, 312fishmarket.com — L.C.

A Place in Northeast

One of the screens above the food court stall reads Dong Bei Ren Jia, which translates to Northeast People. Their name is in fact A Place in Northeast (and no, I’m not missing a word). This second location of the northeastern Chinese cuisine specialist just opened in early June. It quietly debuted in the influential Richland basement food court last year with a smaller space, but garnering a loyal following with a bigger menu.

Luckily the most popular item, beef pie ($10.99), made the trip across the Chicago River. When you order the fat, filled pancakes, they’ll hand-make each order of four, then griddle them golden on the flap top. It’s mesmerizing and tantalizing, but you’ll still be unprepared for the handheld treasure to come. Crisp, yet with a chew almost like mochi, the pie is perfected with bits of the northeast region’s signature salty pickled vegetable punctuating the juicy stuffing.

312-358-8592 — L.C.

B.B.Q. King House

Sam Ma opened his original Chinese barbecue restaurant in 1993. At this new location, you’ll find whole-roasted ducks hanging, just like at Chinatown Square. The menu is slightly smaller at the food court, so no Peking duck, but you’ll find the greatest hits, including Mom Chu’s favorite: white cut princess chicken ($20 whole, $11 half). It comes with the classic ginger-and-scallion condiment — of which I always advise to order extra. I’m partial to the crackling skin on the roasted pork, available by the pound ($11) or on rice ($8.25), served with just enough bok choy to green up your meaty meal. The rice meals include a big cup of daily soup, usually a bone broth (which they’d never call bone broth).

312-539-0966; bbqkingonline.com — L.C.

Chiu Quon Bakery

The oldest bakery in Chinatown opened in 1986, but Joyce and Matthew Chiu have since taken over the business started by their parents on Wentworth Avenue. The food court stand, lit with a bright-pink, Instagrammable neon sign, forgoes the traditional bakery case service for self-serve tongs and trays. Grab the fan favorite pineapple buns (which don’t have pineapple, but are similar to concha) stuffed with pulled barbecue pork ($1.75). The stunning new milk tea tart ($1.25) captures the Hong Kong-style drink as a silky, torched and tannic custard in a flaky pastry shell. Forget about French silk pie — this makes up for every Chinese kid’s lack of chocolate growing up.

312-547-1119; cqbakery.com — L.C.

Fat Tiger

Head chef Jianzhen Gao worked at Szechwan North restaurant in Glenview before cooking at this new food court venture, which opened in early June. It’s a curious but consistent mix of regional Chinese and Chinese-American dishes, from what they called Beijing duck flatbread ($8.99) — roast duck served Peking-style in soft steamed mantou white bread — to crab Rangoon ($4.99). The honey chicken wings ($5.99) are outstanding, with a caramelized crunchy crust that renders the tender flesh superfluous. Do note they’re closed Tuesdays, and the staff seems most comfortable speaking Cantonese, but they have print menus in English.

847-370-0344 — L.C.

Pho Loan 2

Loan Thi Thu Nguyen comes from a family of pho chefs in Vietnam. It’s no wonder then that she and her husband, Quang Minh Le, opened a restaurant dedicated to their national dish on Argyle Street in 2014. They just unveiled their food court location July 1, with a DIY herb-and-condiment bar for noodles, plus banh mi. The house special rice noodle ($10.95) includes rare slices of beef, meatballs and tripe, but I might give them a little more time to work on their soup. Try a broken rice dish, possibly topped with a grilled pork chop, fatty Chinese sausage and a nicely fried egg.

312-918-9412, pholoantogo.com — L.C.

Pure Tea

You can find this bubble tea and waffle shop on the first floor of the Jefferson Square building. It’s one of the few storefronts open, surrounded by spaces still under construction. The menu and staff seem most enthusiastic about their milk drinks — and be forewarned, my lactose-intolerant friends, there are no dairy-free options. If you want bubble tea, do confirm that your drink actually includes boba and tea. I found it challenging to order, as did other confused customers in English, Mandarin and Cantonese. A bubble waffle may be the better way to go. A made-to-order matcha red bean waffle ($7.50) came with every puff carefully stuffed.

312-465-2373, instagram.com/puretea.us — L.C.

Qiao Lin HotPot

Qiao Lin Hotpot, the first U.S. location of the Chinese hot pot chain from Chongqing, is the jewel of 88 Marketplace. It’s sleek but welcoming. Look for the intricately decorated boat sitting stately in the middle of the space, which seems to remind you about the journey you’re about to take.

Ordering is straightforward. Start by deciding which of the four broths you’d like. All are the same price ($9.95), and you can try two or three at the same time. The speciality is definitely the Chongqing spicy broth, which comes out with a handful of red chiles swimming in dark red liquid, tempered by blissfully numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Deciding what to add to the broth requires a tad more effort, if only because there are over 60 options. Fortunately, our waiter was more than happy to guide us through the process, helping us to pick out a couple meats and vegetables, plus some much needed noodles.

Qiao Lin Hotpot isn’t the first hot pot spot in Chicago to carefully arrange the raw ingredients brought to your table, but it’s taken to a whole new level of artistry here. Order the fresh cut short rib, and you’ll get a platter of thinly sliced meat spread out neatly in a circle, with a petite flower set right in the middle. A delicate fog hangs over the meat, thanks to some dry ice placed underneath the middle. All that’s left to do is start throwing things in, and then fish them out when you think they are ready. Sure, you can happily go by yourself, but Qiao Lin Hotpot definitely benefits from going with friends. It’s a communal experience as much as a meal.

312-600-9779, qiaolinhotpot.com — N.K.