For many Chicagoans, the notion of dining in Chinatown conjures up burnished ducks and dim sum feasts. Far less likely to spring to mind are bakeries, yet this compact neighborhood boasts around a dozen of them, most which turn out a mixture of sweet and savory Chinese goodies and Western desserts adapted to the more mildly sweet-toothed Chinese palate. Chinatown's bakeries make a great option for a grab-and-go lunch or a coffee break treat that's cheap as chips; what's more, many of them ooze an old-school ambiance that's been scrubbed from some of the area's newer restaurants. Here are seven of our favorite Chinatown bakeries, along with suggestions for what to try at each.
RECOMMENDED: Our complete guide to Chinatown
Best Chinatown bakeries
Chinatown’s oldest existing bakery (established in 1986) is arguably also its most well-loved. Many of Chiu Quon’s fans peg the bakery’s popularity to its barbecue pork buns, or cha siu bao—and given the buns’ golden-glazed, beautifully soft exteriors and the salty-sweet balance of their chopped pork filling, we won’t disagree.
A diminutive, cluttered shop front and no-nonsense employees give Feida a rough-around-the-edges charm. Skip the ho-hum Western-inflected cakes and tarts and sample the shop’s traditional Chinese treats. The intricately embossed baby moon cakes, available in red bean paste and lotus seed varieties, are every bit as adorable as they sound. Another good bet is Feida’s winter melon cake, a Cantonese specialty consisting of a disc-shaped, super flaky pastry shell wrapped around a faintly gummy mixture of glutinous rice and candied winter melon, a mellow, gourd-like Asian vegetable.
While this tidy shop, situated in the open-air Chinatown Square complex, offers a tempting selection of Eastern and Western desserts (like mango pudding alongside slices of New York cheesecake), we say the real magic happens in the savory department. Try the curry beef turnover, a supremely flaky triangle of puff pastry surrounding beef purée with a hit of curry heat that sneaks up and lingers. Another favorite is the curry chicken bun, essentially a substantial savory donut stuffed with a spicy chicken and vegetable mixture that calls to mind Indian samosas.
The snug Tasty Place (which has a second location just down the block) won us over with its rendition of the barbeque pork pineapple bun. There’s no pineapple here; rather, the soft bun hides chunks of pork bathed in a deep red sauce that savors of hoisin and ginger. (The term refers to the bun’s streusel-like topping, thought to resemble a pineapple’s rough exterior.) With each bite, this sticky, savory filling mingles with crumbly shards of the bun’s sugary topping, creating a pleasing mix of textures and tastes.
This bright, modern spot is justly celebrated for its egg tarts, which comprise a pale, mildly-sweet custard encased in a rich, crumbly shortbread crust. By all means, pick up a few, but don’t stop there. Saint Anna also cranks out dynamite jin deu, or sesame balls, hollow, deep-fried orbs of sesame-coated glutinous rice with dollops of red bean paste at their centers. Perhaps our favorite, though, is the bakery’s pineapple custard bun, which again, doesn’t actually contain its namesake fruit. Instead, this tender, eggy bun hugs a custard filling that’s indulgently thick and sweet.