New energy surges into the sleepy Center City enclave
Photography by Andrea Monzo
Just a few years ago, Chinatown seemed to be on life support. Old favorites like Vietnam, Penang and Rangoon still held much appeal, but South Philly, University City and Koreatown beckoned when I wanted something different. Now Chinatown appears to be a neighborhood in transition. Established spots have shuttered (RIP, Charles Plaza), moved to larger, shinier digs (Dim Sum Garden) or been sold to younger proprietors (Empress Garden). Meanwhile, stylish new places like Terakawa (Japanese ramen), Simply Shabu (Taiwanese hot pot cooking) and the soon-to-open outpost of Bonchon, the Korean-style fried chicken chain, are enhancing—and expanding— the idea of Chinatown. Beyond simply having additional restaurant choices, Chinatown is dishing out something even more delicious for its bottom line: all-important buzz.
The first signs of this revival came during Chinatown’s debut Night Market in 2010. The Food Trust–sponsored food truck fest drew thousands of diners—many of them under 30—reintroducing them to the neighborhood and offering a glimpse of what was to come. Today 20- and 30-somethings flock to Chinatown, crowding its trendy bubble tea shops, posting Instagram pics of their favorite dishes, clamoring noisily for the karaoke mic at various night spots, and queuing up at Hop Sing Laundromat, a speakeasy-style cocktail bar that is a citywide draw.
“The Night Market has been a game-changer—it reestablished Chinatown as a destination,” says John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. “We told the restaurateurs, this is a way you can maintain your significance.” But the problems typical of many of Philly’s evolving neighborhoods continue to plague Chinatown in the form of dirty streets, underutilized storefronts and the sense on some weeknights that the sidewalks have been rolled up. Despite being so close to the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the rest of Center City, Chinatown can still feel cut off. Younger, social media–savvy restaurant owners are trying to bridge the gap virtually, while hoping their authentic flavors will bring in the real-world business. But Chinatown, like much of resurgent Philadelphia, remains a work in progress, albeit a tasty one.
CHINATOWN’S NEW LOOK
The new generation of Chinatown restaurants definitely has looks in its favor. Popular cafés like Tea-Do, with its digital menu, high-top tables and upbeat music, set the tone for its youthful clientele in the way of trendy coffee bars in other parts of town, while Hop Sing Laundromat, with its dim lighting, widely spaced tables and rules prohibiting cell phone use and photos, takes a completely different, though no less deliberate, tack in establishing a certain mood.
Places like hot pot restaurant Simply Shabu and Japanese ramen house Terakawa recognize the importance of having design-forward dining rooms to pair with their cuisine. The former features lots of reclaimed wood and industrial-style effects that contrast neatly with each table’s sleek, built-in burners for tabletop cooking. Dennis Tuan, the 26-year-old co-owner of Simply Shabu with his wife, Katherine, says they wanted something wholly different from neighborhood rivals.
“It’s either utilitarian or a hole-in-the-wall or traditional-looking,” Tuan says. Terakawa, which shares ownership with the similarly stylish Yakitori Boy karaoke bar–restaurant, offers a contemporary take on a traditional cozy ramen restaurant. “We wanted to bring a culture with the restaurant,” says Terakawa co-owner Nelson Tam. Some established restaurants have similarly upped their game, with Dim Sum Garden trading its easily overlooked location on 11th Street, near where budget-minded travelers gather to wait for the Chinatown bus, for a prime storefront on the 1000 block of Race that’s three times the size. The move to its sleek new environment, with contemporary tile and wood trimmings, was engineered by Shanghai native Dajuan “Sally” Song, who runs the front of the house. (Her mother, Shizhou Da, is the master behind the restaurant’s signature soup dumplings.) “The neighborhood is becoming more hip,” Song says. “We wanted the restaurant to be more modern.”
The idea of trading up or offering amenities similar to other Center City spots isn’t completely foreign to Chinatown. Benny Lai, 47, whose family has owned Vietnam restaurant for 30 years, helped engineer a similar change in decor—and mindset—when his parents bought its building on North 11th Street in the late ’90s. Over the course of a painstaking, yearlong renovation, Vietnam went from being a compact, diner-like spot to a neo–French Colonial–inspired multi-floor restaurant and bar.
The revamp, and a decision to become one of Chinatown’s first restaurants to prohibit smoking before the citywide ban, reflected Lai’s desire to put his generational stamp on the business and the neighborhood. “When I go out to eat, I like to have a nice atmosphere, because I work hard for it,” says Lai, who is the owner and partner with his sister in Vietnam’s Chinatown and West Philly locations.
Simply Shabu, Terakawa and another newcomer—the French-macaron- focused Audabon Bakeshop—have more in common than their eye for design. Each also aims to offer an authentic take on their specialties that’s not dumbed down for American tastes. Tuan, a Rutgers graduate and New Jersey native who worked in finance before opening his restaurant, brought the concept to Philadelphia after spending six months in Taiwan helping his brother with a delivery start-up. Chinatown seemed like a good fit for shabu shabu, which involves cooking your own food in broth at the table. “In Chinatown, people would know what it is—it has a built-in audience,” Tuan says. For that audience, Simply Shabu has added offal and other specialties to the more accessible array of beef, chicken and seafood. For foodies, Simply Shabu strives to source locally as many ingredients as possible. “The primary thing is to buy local vegetables,” Tuan says. “We go to the farmers’ markets for specialty and in-season items, and work with a food distributor who works with a bunch of farms in the tristate area.” Perhaps most important is the broth, whose recipe he’s tweaked from 100% chicken leg quarters to a 75-25 chicken-pork ratio, making it more in line with his family’s style of cooking. “As we went on, we wanted it to taste more Chinese,” he says.
A few blocks away at the two-year-old Terakawa, the ramen is similarly rooted in Japanese tradition, according to co-owner Nelson Tam. The handsome, wood-lined room is a partner to New York– based Terakawa, whose owners come from Kuramoto, Japan. Terakawa succeeds in getting right the details big and small, from the special soy sauce imported directly from Japan to the all-important broth, which takes 20 hours to prepare and is made daily. The restaurant is trying to please those who think of ramen as a packaged instant noodle and more savvy diners who have slurped it down in Japan. But the recipes, including its most popular flavor of roasted pork and mushroom, are less salty than they would be in Japan to cater to American tastes. “We ask if they want traditional—salty—or our standard way,” Tam says.
The need to balance authenticity, while catering to her own and local tastes, also drives Audrey Chang, the 26-year-old co-owner of Audabon Bakeshop. The café and bakery specializes in French-style macarons in tantalizing flavors like salted caramel, Hong Kong milk tea and Boston crème pie; puddings with flavors like carrot cake crème brulée; and recent addition “brick toast,” a Taiwanese favorite that layers buttery toast from K.C.’s Pastries with custard and ice cream. Chang, a Penn graduate who has always baked to reduce stress, made it her business after working initially in private equity. A few years ago, she began experimenting with macarons and started selling her pastries at train stations, then for catering jobs and wholesale, before opening the storefront in March of 2014. Although the Dallas native scouted locations in different parts of the city, she settled on Chinatown, in part because it made sense financially and also because of her Asian-American background. “I want to change other people’s impression of Chinatown,” Chang says. “People consider it a place where you go to get a bargain, kind of like a cultural Disneyland. We’re trying to revitalize it and make it hip.”
At the same time, Chang’s low-key storefront is meant to be a welcoming hangout, especially for the brick toast, which is priced at $12 and is intended to be shared—and savored—by multiple people. “I realized there was a void in Chinatown,” she says. “I wanted a place for people like me, who were born in the U.S., to hang out.” As befits her generation, Chang credits her social media posts on Facebook and Instagram for helping spread the word about Audabon among Asian-Americans at area universities. Among non-Asians, she has gotten a lot of wedding orders, but is still building word of mouth. “The people who naturally flock toward us identify with me and my generation,” she says.
Although I’m well past Chang’s target demographic, I believe good sweets cross generational lines and am happy to partake. I’ll be stopping by Audabon again, as part of my regular return visits to Chinatown.
145 N. 11th St.
1020 Cherry St.
DIM SUM GARDEN
1020 Race St.
HOP SING LAUNDROMAT
1029 Race St.
1023 Cherry St.
132 N. 10th St.
204 N. 9th st.
211 N. 11th St.