Food from A Place by Damao, Taipei Cafe, and Xiao Mei Xing
A Place by Damao: 1, 2, 7 and 8; Taipei Cafe: 3, 6 and 9; Xiao Mei Xing: 4 and 5 Photos: Jeff Marini

Having moved a few years ago from Atlanta, a city whose international dining pleasures are mostly concentrated along a traffic-choked seven-lane highway, I found the idea of Chicago’s crowded, walkable Chinatown thrilling. As soon as I arrived, I began exploring it. I crushed on Dolo for its dim sum and Qing Xiang Yuan for its wonderland of dumplings. But too many stalwart favorites felt tired and old-school. Cai came off as yesteryear Cantonese. And I don’t get Lao Sze Chuan. Is there even a single Sichuan peppercorn in that kitchen?

So I kept walking. That’s how I discovered that the epicenter of truly excellent Chinese cooking has moved farther south to neighboring Bridgeport, where Chinese-owned businesses now dot the landscape. There, an easy-to-miss strip mall at 26th and Halsted offers a virtual culinary tour of China. Its three restaurants will transport you to the snack culture of Taiwan, to the hot-and-numbing heart of Sichuan, and, finally, to the northern city of Shenyang, where flavors have migrated from Korea to felicitous effect. There is so much hearty, face-stuffingly good food coming from these kitchens that you’ll want to camp out.

Hot pot at Taipei Cafe
Hot pot at Taipei Cafe

Taipei Cafe was the first to plant its flag, in January 2017, and it draws a steady crowd throughout the day for its generous menu of shareable plates, noodles, and desserts. With its shiny wood plank tables, pendant lighting, and student-heavy clientele, it feels more like a coffee shop than a restaurant.

A constantly whirring tea blender by the entrance turns out an impressive array of hot and cold beverages. I love the lightly sweetened, milky oolong, neither green nor black, but with a mildness and smoky perfume all its own. As for the food, I’ve learned that the smallest plates bring the most pleasure. The gua bao—a soft steamed bun cradling pork belly, cilantro, and pickled radish—is, in my estimation, the definitive version of this now-ubiquitous food, a genuine handheld wonder that so many other places phone in. The popcorn chicken—leg meat breaded and deep-fried—delivers greaseless crunch but, fair warning, comes dusted in an astringent sweet plum powder. (You might ask to have it on the side.)

The kitchen specializes in many of the street-stall dishes that Taiwanese immigrants miss most. Spicy beef tendon noodle soup comes in a rich broth made from long-simmered bones. And ba-wan, a giant, glutinous tapioca-flour dumpling that looks for all the world like a silicone implant, holds a tasty filling of pork, shrimp, and mushrooms. It makes for a wonderful snack.

Dumplings at A Place by Damao
Dumplings at A Place by Damao

But if it’s a full meal you’re after, meander farther south in the mall. A Place by Damao, which opened in August, brings the kind of full-throttle Sichuan flavors that other purveyors have hesitated to delve into. Specifically, we’re talking ma la, the classic Sichuan flavor profile that comes from blending fiery dried red chilies and numbing Sichuan peppercorns, which makes your mouth feel like you’ve washed down a box of Sucrets with a bottle of Tabasco. You will want this sensation again and again, even if your digestive tract protests later.

Damao Zhong, all of 24 years old, taught herself to cook the dishes she most missed from Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital, while she was a student at the University of Wisconsin. Working with her partners, she opened this cheerful yet hip slip of a restaurant with a handful of tables and bold wall graphics. The sign out front loudly declares the restaurant as a BYOB establishment, and you should heed the suggestion. You’ll want a drink, because this food makes you giddy.

Go early or prepare for a wait, during which you can peruse the cleverly illustrated menu that shows, in Chinese and English, the composition of the various dishes. The braised items—from duck head to chicken legs to pork ears—spend up to three hours in a soy-and-rock-sugar broth redolent of cinnamon, star anise, and bay leaf before receiving their sacrament of lip-tingling spices. You’ll eat the duck wings to the bone, and you’ll wonder where these spare ribs have been all your life. Like good barbecue, they’ve still got a bit of tug.

Damao’s signature hand-pulled rabbit arrives as a heap of succulent shreds deeply infused with ma la seasoning. People who like lean white-meat chicken will love this dish. And do order the pig’s feet. Braised for hours, then broiled to a fare-thee-well, these chopped-up, two-bite pieces land on the table so hot (in both spice and temperature) that even a nibble hurts. Wait for them to cool—as they approach room temperature, they turn from blubbery to chewy-crisp.

The variety of small plates and boiled dishes are intriguing to the one, though some offer more pleasure than others. Soft crinkle-cut potato strips sport a hefty helping of scallions and pickled kohlrabi, along with pleasingly head-blowing spice. Yet a bowl of squiggly handmade noodles in a sweet-spicy peanut sauce grew tiresome after a couple of bites, as did the pork-filled “bell dumplings,” uninteresting half-moons that flopped about in a watery sauce.

Tofu and fish balls at Xiao Mei Xing
Tofu and fish balls at Xiao Mei Xing

You’ll want to save room for the final restaurant on this tour, Xiao Mei Xing, which had barely been open two weeks when I sat down there to report this piece. Even though it’s in its infancy, I find myself charmed by it.

Owner Alex Deng hails from Shenyang, a city of six million that lies about 150 miles from the North Korean border. He says the vendors at the night market there have begun incorporating Korean flavors into their fare, and a hybrid street food has emerged.

Deng decided to bring this little-known style of cooking to Chicago even though his restaurant experience up to that point was limited to a job as a waiter at the Royal Buffet in Hoffman Estates. Last year he traveled back to Shenyang to buy a recipe for “special sauce,” which he now uses to flavor about half the items on his menu. I suppose this makes him something of a one-trick pony, but, man, what a trick: The sauce contains fresh red chili peppers, sugar, garlic, and a hit of toasted cumin. None of those are unfamiliar flavors, yet the consistency and pitch of this sauce strike the palate like nothing I’ve tasted before.

On my first visit, I tried my luck ordering from the blackboard menu, which reads like Google Translate got drunk. What is “egg pancake warped vegi”? After I ordered it, Deng, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Maggie Gao, approached my table with a folded crêpe filled with egg, Chinese-style sausage, lettuce, a crisp fried rice cracker, and a generous smear of that miracle sauce. I broke into a happy dance at first bite—the breakfast wrap of my dreams. A dish called “barbecue chilled noodles” is nothing of the sort. Instead, a paper basket holds a kind of steaming hot buckwheat pappardelle with egg, fistfuls of cilantro, and more sauce. It’s psychotropic bliss.

The other way to do Xiao Mei Xing is to head to the deli case. Grab a wooden salad bowl and fill it with whichever of the dozen or more skewered items you want the kitchen to grill or fry and anoint with special sauce. There is breaded chicken, layered tofu and enoki mushrooms, and fluttery tofu skin, all of which arrive steaming and savory.

Deng opens each morning for breakfast to a crowd of women who work in the nearby nail salons and massage parlors. They order puffy pork bao and glasses of fresh soy milk—the simple foods this community misses, wants, needs. For them, it’s a taste of home. The rest of us are welcome to join the party.