“There’s one place in Chinatown I’d go back to so often because it has the deepest connection for me: Chi Cafe, the late-night Cantonese spot in Chinatown Square. . That restaurant lives in lore for me and my friends.
“Ideally, we’d finish a few rounds of karaoke at Sakura on Wentworth, singing our hearts out. We may have had a few drinks. Then we’d make the five-minute walk to Chi Cafe. There’s four of us, so we’d fit nice and tight in a booth. Then we’d order five to six dishes knowing that we’re going to have enough leftovers for breakfast the next morning. I’d always get the Hong Kong-style fried squid; it’s this beautiful mix of sweet, savory, spicy, crispy, with lots of peppers. They also do great string beans cooked in soy sauce and garlic, too. Every dish is to die for, and the community there is great. I mean, how many places in Chicago can you show up at 3 a.m. and have such great food?” //2160 S. Archer Ave., chicafeonline.com.
Chicago-based visual artist
“My first immersive experience with Chicago’s Chinatown happened during the year-and-a-half I attended the University of Illinois at Chicago. I gravitated towards the rec center on most of my short class days and befriended a group of Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean folks via open court basketball. Sometimes we would play until the rec center closed, well past dining hall hours, and we would drive into Chinatown to grab dinner together. We would hit up a few different spots — Joy Yee, Moon Palace, Three Happiness, Triple Crown, BBQ King House. But as our after-gym dinners turned into just-hanging-out-all-the-time meals, we’d always gravitate to Ken Kee.
“Depending on class schedules, there were upward of 8-10 college kids crammed into one of the large round tables in the corner. Our Cantonese friends would order for the entire table — sometimes they’d ask for items that weren’t on the menu but had specific memories attached to their families, their upbringing, or — for some — their life back home. I can’t specifically remember most of the dishes (there were preserved duck egg congee, tofu and whitefish in gravy over rice, extra crispy char siu chow mien), but the overall feelings and memories are tied into deeply sentimental smells and sounds. The wall-mounted TV of muffled Chinese variety shows, the wall of mirrors with menu specials taped all over, the taste of hot bitter tea and the noisy chatter of a few kids still in their teens packed around a table, holding onto our chopsticks, and holding onto each other.” // 2129 S. China Pl., kenkee.com.
“Richland Center is a food court with zero ambiance. It’s a shame; you look around and think, “Why aren’t there more people here?” If this was in Taiwan it would be super busy. There’s a lot of turnover of food stalls here, but the one constant is Snack Planet. I like the food, there’s a good array of dishes, and the guy behind the counter is friendly. The main thing I like is the cold Sichuan chicken with chili oil. It’s Chinese-style poached chicken: He chops it up with the bones intact, and there’s a lot of fat under the skin and slippery cartilage to chew on. The chicken is incredibly silky, and it’s served with a Sichuan pepper-accented chili oil, peanuts, bamboo shoots and scallions. It’s an amazing dish and it’s something like $6. It ticks every single box in my checklist of deliciousness: Spicy, crunchy, soft, silky, lots of sauce leftover. I remember driving back after tasting this and thinking to myself: ‘Why the hell for $6 didn’t I order two more containers to take home?’
“The guy manning Snack Planet — he’s attentive, and he’s got pride in his products. He’ll look at you while you’re eating to make sure you’re enjoying it. If you’re running low on rice, he might bring out some more rice. I love that. It’s the attention to detail you don’t expect in a dreary basement of an office building in Chinatown. “ // 2002 S. Wentworth Ave. (Basement of Richland Center food court), qmenu.us/#/snack-planet-chicago.