Don’t let the name of Sweet Bean fool you—this Taiwanese bakery and cafe offers far more than steaming cups of coffees and an array baked goods. If you’re in a rush, the South Loop spot (located in a corner space that once housed brunch destination the Bongo Room) is a great place to grab a matcha latte and a cream puff for the road. But if you have some time to linger, delicious dumplings and noodles await.
The coffee shop vibes are strong at Sweet Bean, where I encountered commuters grabbing a cup of joe and tables filled with college students. However, the kitchen provides a reason to stick around longer than the time it takes to slurp down a latte, with breakfast sandwiches, omelettes and avocado toast served in the morning, before switching over to the aforementioned dumplings and noodles (plus some fried appetizers) in the afternoon.
The highlight of my mid-afternoon stop at Sweet Bean was an order of the Shanghai-style soup dumplings, which arrived at my table in a bamboo steam basket. With a juicy, chicken filling (pork is also available) wrapped in a tender, doughy shell, these dumplings were as good as any that I’ve sampled just down the Red Line in Chinatown—and just as tricky for me to eat without the aid of a spoon.
Working my way through more of the kitchen’s offerings, I savored the fresh, chewy noodles in the Dan Dan noodles, but the minced pork that covered them didn’t provide the spicy flavor the menu promised. Likewise, an order of steamed chicken dumplings served in chili oil was a bit bland, no matter how much of the bright red grease I attempted to soak up. The spice-averse might not find this to be an issue, but I found myself wishing I’d requested something stronger than the standard amount of heat when I ordered.
With so many options on display in the cases that line Sweet Bean's entrance, you'll face some daunting dessert (and snack) choices as you grab a tray and a pair of tongs. I walked past egg tarts and tiny cakes before deciding on a cream puff filled with chocolate custard and an overly-sweet blueberry preserve, as well as hot dog bun topped with cheese, tiny bits of ham and green onions that I wish I could have re-heated. By the time I began browsing, many of the cases were empty, so it's best to arrive early if you want to shop the full bakery selection.
The last thing I ordered—at the recommendation of the woman behind the register—was a matcha latte, packed with green tea flavor and a pleasant sweetness. Sipping it in the cafe's dining room, I watched baskets of soup dumplings made their way to tables and folks picking at baked goods. Somewhere between a coffee shop and a pan-Asian restaurant, Sweet Bean is a jack-of-all-trades cafe that offers a surprisingly large array of options, whether you're in search of a pick-me-up, a snack or a meal. The huge menu can be difficult to parse and the quality may vary, but it's nice to know that there's a convenient place to grab coffee (and maybe some lunch) waiting in the South Loop—especially when its name doesn't rhyme with "far lucks."
The vibe: Thanks to its location near the Roosevelt CTA station and Columbia College’s South Loop campus, Sweet Bean’s dining room seems to attract plenty of commuters and students in search of sustenance. You’ll find cases stocked with baked goods upon entering and a sparse but cozy dining room where you can sit down to eat.
The food: Definitely grab a hot dog bun or a cream puff to enjoy, but make sure to save room for the Shanghai-style soup dumplings and housemade noodle bowls on the menu. If you arrive early enough, you can also grab a selection of breakfast sandwiches and avocado toasts.
The drink: You can browse an expansive menu of espresso drinks, teas, iced teas and smoothies, but we recommend one of the specialty tea lattes—specifically, the matcha, hōjicha (an earthy green tea) or turmeric lattes.
Time Out tip: Looking for Japanese barbecue sauce, Hi-Chew candies or fancy jams? The front room at Sweet Tea houses a small marketplace stocked with a selection of packaged goods to peruse while you wait for your food.