Mayor Jim Kenney headed for lunch at Ocean Harbor last week, along with Health Commissioner Thomas Farley and members of City Council, to get out ahead of fears over the virus, which have already dealt a blow to businesses in Chinatown despite no cases reported in Pennsylvania. The economic ripple effects have nonetheless been real, so this moment is more pressing than usual to support our historic Chinatown.
I write about Chinatown frequently, but much has changed since I made my last roundup of favorite classics in the neighborhood in my 2018 dining guide, and my much larger update to our Ultimate Guide to Chinatown four years ago. Some of my old favorites from those lists — Tasty Place, Empress Garden, Vietnam House, Imperial Inn, Hakka Beef House — have sadly closed. Sakura-Mandarin has changed names with a contemporary decor makeover into Bai Wei (1038 Race St.), but remains a crowd-pleaser for my family’s annual Jewish Christmas Eve feast of soup dumplings and giant spicy stir-fry bowls.
I did a soup dumpling crawl for this year’s dining guide dumpling page and decided my current favorite is now Shanghai 1 (123 N. 10th St.) where the richer Wu Xi dumplings were a hit, and the panfried Taiwanese dumplings are also a must-order. Speaking of my Chinatown dumpling hit list, I was remiss not to include Ray’s Café & Tea House (141 N 9th St.) Known for its siphon coffee, Ray’s handmade dumplings are also superb (especially the curried chicken variety).
The old favorites keep evolving. Szechuan stalwart E-Mei (915 Arch St.) also recently got a handsome makeover. But what’s remarkable is how dynamic Chinatown remains with a steady stream of new arrivals, including a giant cauldron’s worth of hot pot spots and an increasing presence of out-of-town chains. Here are some of the newer ones you should know.
— Lau Kee (934 Race St.): This Cantonese-style duck house come from a former chef at Sang Kee. That explains why the duck here was outstanding — wrapped-up with scallions, crispy skin and hoisin inside folded pancakes, but also sliced into strips stir-fried with green beans.
— Canto House (941 Race St.): Yet another new Cantonese duck house entry, this one comes from one of the partners behind Ting Wong, with solid versions of classic BBQ meats hanging from racks in the front window. The honey-roasted pork is delicious, and especially good over a bowl of shrimp wontons and snappy noodles in flavorful broth. The steamed rice noodle rolls are also excellent, but Canto’s salt-baked seafood was the real star, featuring huge shrimp and juicy sweet scallops in a crispy white crust.
— Chubby Cattle (146 N 10th St.): This flashy chain out of Las Vegas scratches the high-end hot pot niche with options for A5 Wagyu beef and a mag-lev conveyor belt that whisks plates to your seat. The difference in beef quality isn’t especially obvious once dunked into the fiery “heaven and hell” broths, but we enjoyed our meal — in particular the chewy handmade green tea and potato noodles.
— Shi Miao Dao (901 Race St.): This international chain, which has over 750 locations in China, has opened a cozy corner where Yunnan “crossing the bridge” rice noodles are served separately, then added tableside to mini-hot pots with various broths (try the original or spicy pickled pepper) and tiny trays of fixings, from quail eggs to ham, mushroom, bean curd skin, lettuce and multiple cuts of beef.
— Xun Yu Si Kao (140 N. 10th St.): Szechuan boiled whole fish served on ornate metal platters buried in crimson chiles, black mushrooms and a powerfully flavorful bubbling broth is the primary draw to chain out of Brooklyn specializing in seafood. There’s a big menu of other Szechuan specialties to explore, so bring a crowd and prepare to mop your brow. These Chongqing chefs don’t mess around with peppers.
Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot has closed. It remains open at 1017 Arch St. with its regular hours.