Chinatowns are cities within cities: adventurous, bustling, full of distinctive signage, street vendors selling unusual items, specialty shops, a noted lack of big chains, a variety of dialects being spoken, and multitudes of unique and exciting food choices. From the country's oldest Chinatown in hilly San Francisco to the smaller but just-as-bustling Chinatown in Philadelphia, visitors have the opportunity for instant cultural immersion, and we've identified the ten best Chinatowns in America.
The Chinese have been established in the United States since the mid-19th century, when laborers were needed for gold mining and railroad work, but the immigrant population also grew during the 1990s and 2000s; in fact, more than one-third of the Chinese immigrants now living in the U.S. arrived in 2000 or later. Currently, there are more than 3 million Chinese in America, according to the 2008 census report. Whether leaving China for issues ranging from poverty, famine or political reasons, across the decades, the Chinese have built strong communities that keep their ethnic heritage and shared identity; this maintained and rich culture is a defining reason that Chinatowns endure and why they're so appealing for residents and tourists alike.
Around the globe, there are Chinatowns in many major cities, from London (Europe's largest) to Vancouver (Canada's largest), Melbourne to Manila; and fortunately for us, there are many within the United States. Many of these districts share their community with other immigrant cultures, making the sights, sounds and eating choices that much more exotic. Some Chinatowns are more robust than others; rising property costs in some downtown areas have unfortunately led to a decline as city dwellers move to the suburbs. But for those communities able to maintain their identity and vitality, the sensory experience — from the bright colors and unique architecture, the intriguing music and enticing smells of cooking — makes any visit an adventure. In a neighborhood where English is not the primary language, a visitor can feel as though they've left the U.S. altogether — and now they are the foreigner, a tourist in their own city. And that can be incredibly exciting.
In some open-air markets, like those in New York's Chinatown, the produce is stunning and artistically arranged. Some live markets, with everything from eels and frogs, can be jarring to those not expecting them; the roast duck and pork hanging in shop windows can take some getting used to. But there is endless interest in the green grocers, fishmongers and locals picking up ingredients for their evening meal — a sense that even if you were to go back one hundred years, shopping there wouldn't be so very different. With a little legwork, an out-of-towner can seek out the more authentic areas of a Chinatown versus the touristy ones. As always, the best spot, of course, is where the locals shop and eat.
So what exactly makes a Chinatown great? In order to compile our list, we took a look at every Chinatown in America, and ranked them according to the following criteria: quality of authentic dining options, size, cultural experiences available, and whether a visitor will feel like they've left the United States as they explore the neighborhood.
The culinary aspect of a Chinatown is undoubtedly its biggest attraction for visitors; the chance to try an exotic new ingredient or to go back for a dish that can never quite be replicated at home. From dim sum palaces to hole-in-the-wall joints, one can find any Chinese food they're looking for, and (given the enormous menus at some restaurants) many more they're not. So after perusing our slideshow to learn about some of the best Chinatowns across the U.S., put on your walking shoes, because there's much to be explored!
1. San Francisco
Once you walk through the gates at the intersection of Grant Avenue and Bush Street, you'll feel like you just left San Francisco and entered a different country., As a port of entry for early Chinese immigrants before the 1850s, and growing into a dynamic center of Chinese culture, San Francisco's Chinatown was the first such neighborhood in the U.S., and has been a vibrant ethnic destination and is said to be the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. Visitors won't be disappointed by the produce, fish markets, restaurants and stores selling everything from staples to trinkets. Located near the Financial District, the densely populated, narrow streets cover more than 20 square blocks filled with interesting old architecture and colorful décor. Key to popularizing Asian cuisine in America, this neighborhood offers endless choices. Be sure to check out the egg tarts at Golden Gate Bakery, as well as Hang Ah Tea Room, America's oldest dim sum house (circa 1920), and classic Hunan Homes Restaurant for its orange peel dishes (beef or chicken) and vegetarian pot stickers.
2. New York City
Going from Fifth Avenue department store glitz to wandering among the live markets of Chinatown is a trip, in the real sense of the word, but both occupy the same island. Standing in Chinatown's crowded streets, just look north to see the spire of the Empire State Building, though it feels as if you should be continents away. Signs in Chinese everywhere, often with no English counterparts, remind you that despite the souvenir peddlers everywhere, this is also a genuine ethnic community. This lower Manhattan neighborhood, with its crowded tenement buildings, row upon row of live markets and brightly colored vegetables, and more hole-in-the-wall restaurants than you can count, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. For its highly popular dim sum with choices like shrimp dumplings, almond tofu and turnip cake, visit the massive Jing Fong restaurant. The self-descriptive Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles is tiny, casual ... and tasty, with its array of pan-fried noodle choices. And if you're looking for an even bigger Chinatown in the Big Apple, head to the one in Sunset Park or in Flushing, Queens.
Twenty minutes from downtown (and even accessible by water taxi), this community of 70,000 has been growing for well over a century. The completion of the country's first transcontinental railroad in 1869 was instrumental in bringing an influx of immigrants to Chicago, and Chinatown was officially established in 1905. Its red "Welcome" gate invites visitors to check out neighborhood spots like the Chinese American Museum of Chicago, specialty shops like Ten Ren Tea & Ginseng Co. and the numerous gustatory establishments that keep people returning. Lao Sze Chuan is a family restaurant with authentic, spicy dishes like dry chili chicken — recently named America's best Chinese take-out by us. Seafood at MingHin Cuisine is another stellar option.
The Chinatown-International District of Seattle, or the "I.D.," is a diverse community of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese and Vietnamese residents and merchants. Immigrating Chinese laborers began to settle in Seattle in the 1860s, and other cultures followed, creating the interesting neighborhood that remains to this day. Hing Hay Park is an important community spot that hosts cultural events, as does the Wing Luke Museum. For affordable and varied food choices, visitors and locals both go to Uwajimaya Supermarket, a large Asian grocery and specialty store with a food court. For dining, Mike's Noodle House has authentic wontons, noodles and congee. Spicy food enthusiasts like the Red Lantern restaurant. Several traditional bakeries, like Yummy House Bakery, have favorites such as cream puffs, sesame balls and custard buns.
As early as the mid-1800s, Cantonese immigrants began to open businesses near the commercial wharves of Philadelphia, but it was really the 1960s that began to see larger waves of families coming in to create this strong community. Small — just about six square blocks — and easily accessed by public transportation, the neighborhood is demarcated by the Friendship Arch at 10th Street, built by Chinese artisans and symbolic of the cultural exchange between Philadelphia and its sister city, Tianjin, China. Appealing for its Asian grocery stores, porcelain, china and herb shops, and especially restaurants, Chinatown offers a range of Asian food — not just Chinese, but also Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese. Locals are often found at Sang Kee Peking Duck House. Four Rivers restaurant is noted for its crystal wontons and Imperial Inn for its Mandarin food and dim sum.
First emerging in 1860, Honolulu's Chinatown is fifteen blocks of a melting pot of Asian merchants – not just Chinese but Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino and Japanese, to name a few — right in downtown. During the day, when the shops are open, local business people and tourists alike peruse the fresh tropical fruits and fish on display, and street vendors selling everything from trinkets to leis abound. Come evening, there's more of a club and bar scene; street events like parades keep the area lively. The Little Village Noodle House has interesting dishes with oysters and scallops, and sides like a lotus root salad while Yee Hong Pavilion has good seafood and dim sum. Be sure to pick up the popular baked manapua (barbecue pork buns) from Royal Kitchen.
Right in the heart of Boston, between the city's Financial and Theater Districts and just a couple of blocks from Boston Commons, is a small Chinatown that's more than 130 years old. Easily accessible in the very walkable city of Boston, Chinatown is instantly recognizable with its gate of giant imperial stone lions at the Beach Street entrance. The only such neighborhood in New England, it's currently a mix of restaurants, ethnic shops and a smattering of new luxury apartment buildings signifying the advancing gentrification of the area. But don't let that keep you away from the great food, from Sichuan to Northern Chinese and other regional specialties. Try the oysters or Peking ravioli at East Ocean City, and the calamari at Peach Farm.
8. Los Angeles
Though L.A.'s Chinese population is now largely in the city's suburbs, Chinatown here is still worth checking out. Adjacent to the downtown area and easily drivable from everywhere else, especially given that it's along storied Route 66, visitors will find a distinctive red gate at its entrance. The small, colorful neighborhood strewn with lanterns has plenty of vendors of souvenirs and inexpensive clothing, but the bigger draw, of course, is the food. After old-school Chinese fare at Yang Chow or dim sum at Ocean Seafood, don't miss Phoenix Bakery's famous Strawberry Cake.
Not the archetypical Chinatown of winding streets and historic architecture, this is still a neighborhood of ethnic importance; some say it's more "Asiatown" than Chinatown, given its wide array of cultures from Korean to Vietnamese, in addition to Chinese. The southwest section of Houston along Bellaire Boulevard spanning about six miles (making it not so pedestrian-friendly) houses an array of interesting shopping and eating destinations. The Hong Kong City Mall has a diverse selection of stores, food markets and a food court. There also is Ocean Palace, a popular two-floor dim sum restaurant. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, plenty of regulars favor the steamed pork buns at Fu Fu Café, the hot pot at Tan Tan, and the adventurous, spicy menu at China Sichuan Cuisine.
10. Washington, D.C.
Immigrants settled into this historic neighborhood in the 1930s, but have now largely moved to the suburbs outside of Washington. The current Chinatown is quite small, lacking the open-air markets and not as bustling compared to many of its counterparts across the nation, but there is interest in the street performances and food value to be had. The Friendship Arch, celebrating the connection with Washington's sister city of Bejing, signifies the entrance of Chinatown. A few shops and a couple dozen restaurants are worth checking out; even national franchises like Starbucks hang signs with their name in Chinese. It's interesting to note that one of the neighborhood's restaurants, Wok & Roll, is at a historical site where John Wilkes Booth and his Lincoln assassination conspirators met up when it was a boarding house. Ming's Restaurant has large portions, and Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant and Mongolian BBQ offers a popular dim sum menu.