Chinatown in Chicago was hit first and hard by the coronavirus. Not so much by the virus itself, but fear of the unknown. Masks had sold out and Lunar New Year events were already canceled by the time the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the city was announced on Jan. 24. Data now shows confirmed cases have remained relatively low in the Chinatown area compared with ZIP codes with the highest numbers in Chicago.
Business has still dropped dramatically. Most restaurants have tried to stay open — some never stopped serving bubble tea, bao and dumplings for takeout and delivery. The few bars — all karaoke — went dark until recently. Less than half of the restaurants have reopened for indoor dining and hardly any have room for outdoor dining.
As restaurants and bars across the city reopened indoor service four weeks ago, Chinatown has remained cautious. Owners, employees and customers follow the news on Chinese media, for better or worse. They hear from family and friends in China on WeChat about what might be coming next. It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, from falling case numbers there and rising numbers here, that we’re defining our own destiny in this country.
Pass under Chinatown Gate, the landmark arching over Wentworth Avenue at Cermak Road, an ancient symbol adopted to mark Chinatown entries worldwide, and you’ll find the historic main street to the neighborhood. Streets are free from double-parked cars and sidewalks clear of white-haired pedestrians, who can speak louder in the Taishanese dialect than any honking horn. They’re the secret signs of what’s under threat. Chinatown is more than restaurants and karaoke bars for outsiders. It’s the densely populated home to a growing number of residents. They drive expansion beyond historical borders.
The struggle continues on multiple fronts.
“I’ve gotten so many prank calls,” said Spencer Ng, the second-generation owner of Triple Crown. The family-friendly Cantonese restaurant was founded by his mother in the early ’90s. It has remained open for takeout and delivery only. “Really young kids calling and saying, ‘Hey are you guys serving that bat soup?’ If this is our future, then we’re in bad shape.”
Less than 47% of the food and beverage businesses in the Chinatown area have allowed customers back inside. This Friday, Chicago will again stop bars from serving alcohol indoors. The rollback doesn’t affect any bars in the neighborhood since all serve food too. Yet rising coronavirus numbers, especially with younger residents ages 18 to 29, prompted the prohibition, since some say they just don’t think about it.
Some do think about it, especially in a culture where multigenerational households are the norm.
“I didn’t want to work at the restaurant, risk contracting COVID and bringing that home to my mom,” said John Choi, co-owner of Chi Yatai with co-founder Mier Zhou. Their stall down in the influential Richland basement food court was the last restaurant to open in Chinatown before the coronavirus pandemic, offering Japanese street food and Taiwanese bubble tea. They closed temporarily when Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered restaurants to shut down everything except takeout and delivery in March. Choi is the primary caretaker of his 77-year-old mother who is a three-time cancer survivor.
“So much more than the money we’d make from staying open for delivery or carryout orders, I want to protect my mom’s life and her health,” said Choi.
“My parents are healthy, thank God,” said Zhou. “But living with them as well in the Bridgeport area, I have the same concern. They are around the age of 65, so at risk.”
Out of 111 Asian restaurants and bars in the Chinatown area, only 47 have opened indoor service. That includes establishments in the predominantly Chinese neighborhood itself, as well as adjacent Bridgeport and East Pilsen, where the community has expanded. The highly competitive real estate enclave commands rents as high as $25,000 per month for a restaurant space on Wentworth Avenue and a $100,000 investment for a stall in the Richland food court.
“I’ve been telling customers August,” said Ng at Triple Crown about when he might reopen indoors, though he doesn’t think it’s worth it for health and financial reasons. “I told people earlier maybe the middle of July, but we’re pushing back every two weeks, just seeing how everything is going.
“Some staff has reached out, because unemployment runs out at the end of July, and they need to come back for work,” he said. “If everyone’s in agreement, maybe we open five tables at most. Instead of having 40 people in here we’ll have max 20, so those guys can make a little bit of money.”
The restaurant’s normal occupancy is 190 people, so the city would allow 25% or 47 customers indoors. Triple Crown is on the second floor, so outdoor dining is not an option.
Only 11 restaurants in the Chinatown area have outside tables. The neighborhood was touted by the city in its Make Way for Dining program, which closes streets to allow space for expanded outdoor seating, but that only applied to the Chinatown Square outdoor mall, which is already pedestrian. Joy Yee has the biggest outside space, with bubble tea windows off the central Chinese zodiac square and tables looking into its still-closed indoor dining rooms. MingHin just added outdoor tables last weekend lit with Tiki torches.
Otherwise, outside dining doesn’t work for a number of reasons in Chinatown, but first and foremost because there’s simply not enough space on the narrow sidewalks.
All of the seating has been removed in the Richland basement food court, with tables and chairs stacked up.
“Theoretically we can reopen on Aug. 11,” said Choi of Chi Yatai. He and Zhou will move into small apartments near their families to keep them safe. The partners plan to offer a free food item every Tuesday in August to people in need. “We know there are still so many people struggling and we want to bless them,” said Choi.
Ten restaurants have closed temporarily in the Chinatown area. Cai is the most notable among them. The fancy Cantonese dim sum palace served thousands of customers on a typical weekend day.
One bakery owner said as an older woman that she grew so afraid of people entering without masks despite signs everywhere that she had to shut down for now. Another restaurant owner, when asked when he might reopen, said, “Ask Donald Trump.” He declined to be identified for fear of retribution. The president called the coronavirus “kung flu” at recent campaign rallies to cheering crowds, mostly unmasked.
Construction has stalled at what was once the oldest restaurant in Chinatown. Al Capone was said to hold a regular table at the former Won Kow. The historic building was to be transformed into a multistory hot pot fantasyland. Chef and restaurateur Tony Hu was the local lead on one of the first U.S. locations of the internationally acclaimed Xiaolongkan. “Everything has stopped because of the pandemic,” said Hu.
Well, not everything, and definitely not hot pot. Hot pot popularity simmered down a few years ago in Chicago, but it’s bubbling back up. A few restaurant owners seem to be betting that the siren song of spicy cauldrons and epic spreads will still draw customers.
Qiao Lin Hotpot held its grand opening on Wednesday. It’s the first new restaurant to open in the Chinatown area after the statewide coronavirus closure in March. The spacious spalike setting can be found across the river from Lawrence’s Fish & Shrimp.
Lao Jiu Men Hotpot will follow hot on its heels, opening Aug. 8. It’s an auspicious date, because the number eight is considered the luckiest in Chinese numerology. This sister restaurant to a Toronto import will be on Clark Street near Archer Avenue, between MeetFresh and Hello Jasmine.
Expensive and aggressive developments continue with shiny storefronts at Canal Plaza on Canal Street and Archer Avenue. Hoyt Plaza has plans for a hotel on Cermak Road in the shadow of the expressway overhead, with a supermarket and restaurants too. The massive new 78 neighborhood looms next to the lovely Ping Tom park.
Nearly lost in the shuffle of big restaurant news, the award-winning A Place by Damao is now called Da Mao Jia, after chef and namesake Aishan Zhong left her position, but the Sichuan menu remains the same. Nine Bar, a pop-up by the daughter of Moon Palace owners, Lily Wang, and partner Joe Briglio, has been selling out of Japanese convenience store-inspired sandwiches, snacks and cocktails since mid-June.
Back at Triple Crown, Ng has a new Chinese barbecue side project in the works with the son of the former Wing Chan BBQ family.
“We’re using Berkshire pork belly and higher-end meats,” said Ng. “We’re smoking with apple wood, but doing it Chinese style.” The first taste came with char siu chicken wings at a collaboration beer launch party with Marz Brewing for Lunar New Year. Ng hopes to offer his new style Chinese barbecue within a month. “Knock on wood,” he said.
Chinatown area outdoor dining
You’ll find listed below the 11 elusive spots in the Chinatown area with outdoor dining, which experts say is safer when dining out. Indoor seating and curbside pickup are also noted if available. Four restaurants may still be added to the list. Three have applied for outdoor permits (Emperor’s Choice, Evergreen and Kam Fung), while one (Dolo) has not yet decided if it will open a private patio.
B.B.Q. King: Outdoor and indoor, Chinatown Square, 2148 S. Archer Ave., 312-326-1219, bbqkingonline.com
Daebak Korean Street Food & Chatime: Outdoor and indoor, Chinatown Square, 2017 S. Wells St., 312-225-9088, daebakstreetfood.com
Icy Honey: Outdoor only, 3132 S. Morgan St., 312-868-8855, icyhoneyshop.com
Joy Yee Noodle: Outdoor only, Chinatown Square, 2139 S. China Place, 312-328-0001, joyyee.com
Joy Yee Plus Shabu Shabu: Outdoor only, Chinatown Square, 2159 S. China Place, 312-842-8928, joyyee.com
Lee Wing Wah: Outdoor only, Chinatown Square, 2147 S. China Place, 312-808-1628, (no website)
MingHin Cuisine: Outdoor and indoor, Chinatown Square, 2168 S. Archer Ave., 312-808-1999, minghincuisine.com
Potsticker House: Outdoor, indoor and curbside pickup, 3139 S. Halsted St., 312-326-6898, potstickerhouse.com
Saint’s Alps Teahouse and Gourmet: Outdoor, indoor and curbside pickup, Chinatown Square, 2157 S. China Place, 312-842-8882, saintsalpchicago.com
Shinya Ramen House: Outdoor, indoor and curbside pickup, 3240 S. Halsted St., 312-877-6008, shinyaramenhouse.com
Tang’s Garden: Outdoor, indoor and curbside pickup, 1826 S. Canal St., 312-226-1826, tangsgardenil.com
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