Is Chinatown the most overlooked neighborhood in Center City? Ask Chinatown native Albert Lee, and he’ll argue that it is.
Perhaps best known as unofficial ambassador for Philadelphia via his ultra-popular @urphillypal Instagram account (37.9k followers, yo), Lee is waging his own personal marketing campaign for the area where he grew up as a first-generation Chinese-American. He wants his city-compatriots to recognize that the area from 8th and Race to 12th and Vine is more than just a place to stop for a dim sum brunch or a post-bar snack.
“People in Philly have a hard-on for Fishtown right now, or East Passyunk,” he said during a recent tour of his stomping grounds. “But nobody thinks anyone lives in Chinatown. They don’t think of it as a neighborhood in the same way.
“It’s not just an arch with characters on it,” he continued. “There’s a lot more businesses here than people realize.”
Lee recognizes some of the reasons many non-Chinese people might feel intimidated by the densely packed blocks of shops and sidewalk stands. Most signs are posted in Chinese characters, from want ads to produce callouts, and conversations on the sidewalk are more likely to be in Cantonese or Mandarin than English.
“I’m all about preserving culture,” he said, describing the disappointment he felt when visiting the Chinatown in Washington, DC. “They have lots of chain restaurants where people don’t even speak Chinese. It’s like, ok, you have Chinese characters out front, but inside, it’s all English. What’s the point of that?”
In Philadelphia, the fact that most restaurant and other business owners live nearby makes for a much richer, more vibrant community, he suggested. However, that community shouldn’t be insular.
He credited cocktail lounge Hop Sing Laundromat — and to some extent before that, karaoke spot Yakitori Boy — with bringing in a new influx of customers who might never before have wandered down Race Street on a random Thursday evening. But he wants more, and he thinks it would be a win-win.
“Chinatown survives on non-Chinese people,” he said, adding that even if it doesn’t seem like it, most Chinatown shopkeepers would welcome additional non-Asian customers. “Just walk in and don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
To get Philadelphians delving a little deeper into his native ‘hood, Lee offered a list of some of his favorite places to find Chinatown culinary classics. Some you might already know, but a few will likely be new. And don’t stop with just one place, Lee might implore. When you pop in for a bite, take a quick stroll and see what’s next door.
Albert Lee’s favorites for….
Skewers on the cheap: Solo
You’d never guess the dingy facade of this tiny shop leads to a relatively slick-looking robatayaki bar. Pull up a stool and order from the selection of tasty skewers, all $1-$2 each and all grilled slowly to order over smoking hot coals. “Great for college students,” says Lee.
50 N. 10th St., 215-238-8828
Congee: Ting Wong
Recently revamped and better known for its roast duck and pork noodles, Lee says this is also the place to get the best congee in town. If you’ve never tried it, it’s a hearty rice porridge with various toppings that’s just as restorative as chicken soup — perfect for a winter lunch.
138 N. 10th St., 215-928-1883
Peking duck: Siu Kee Duck House
There are no sit-down tables in this small shop, but the duck is good enough to find a nearby picnic spot or just load up and take it back home. Other dishes are also sold, as well as lunch specials with rice.
111 N. 10th St., 215-922-3075
Traditional dim sum: Ocean City
Around the corner from Chinatown’s more famous dim sum parlors is this slightly less flashy outpost, where Lee lauds the selection, cleanliness and service. Carts roll through every day, not just on the weekends.
234 N. 9th St., 215-829-0688
Seafood: Tai Lake
There are several seafood houses in Chinatown where you can pick your dinner right out of an aquarium (though you don’t have to, if that skeeves you out), but Lee says this is far and away his favorite. “I don’t want to be cliché, but if you see all the customers are Chinese, you’re probably in the right place.”
134 N. 10th St., 215-922-0698
Pork buns: Asia Bakery
There are two kinds of pork buns at many Asian bakeries: The fluffy white steamed version with a sweet pork stuffing and the golden-brown baked version, with various, more savory meat fillings — like hot dogs. According to Lee, this is the only spot where you can choose from both.
115 N. 10th St., 215-238-9295
Bubble tea: Mr. Wish
The bubble tea craze hit Philly late, Lee points out, but now it’s here and the shops are multiplying like tribbles. Step slightly out of the way to hit this newcomer, because the flavors are all made with freshly-juiced fruit, instead of the much more common extracts or syrups.
216 N. 10th St., 267-457-2650
Egg custard tarts: St. Honore
For various flavors of silky custard in a flaky pastry shell, Lee recommends this corner shop, which is almost always populated by older Chinese men reading newspapers (“It’s their Starbucks,” Lee says). The tarts here were Lee’s mom’s favorite, so he grew up on them.
935 Race St., 215-925-5298
Hot pot: Nine Ting
“Hot pot restaurants are weird,” Lee says, “because traditionally hot pot is the kind of meal you would do at home.” That said, if you are looking for a place to bring you slices of various raw meats, fish and veggies that you then dunk into a communal pot of boiling broth (it’s better than it sounds), this is the one he recommends.
926 Race St., 215-238-9996
Hand drawn noodles: Nan Zhou
After Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese state, Philadelphia saw a huge influx of Mandarin-speaking people from Northern China, Lee says, and they brought along with them their hand-drawn noodles. Of the several noodle houses that dot the neighborhood, this is his favorite. If you’re looking to try something new, he says the best dish on the menu is actually the pig ears and beef intestines appetizer.
1022 Race St., 215-923-1550
Pho: Pho Xe Lua
The best of this Vietnamese noodle soup is found on Washington Ave., Lee thinks, but if you’re in the area and in the mood, hit up the place all Chinatown residents refer to as “Choo Choo” because of the neon train engine on the window.
907 Race St., 215-627-8883
Fortune cookies: Lucky Chinese Cookie Factory
Pick up a bag of freshly-wrapped fortunes at this miniature factory. New ownership recently added a whole lineup of flavors, so bags of cookies are available in everything from mango to coconut to chocolate. Party or gift idea: For a minium order of 100 pieces ($16), you can get your own custom message baked inside.
155 N. 9th St., 215-922-7288