The Run Down

We're taking the Red Line to go on a food expedition that starts in Chinatown and ends on the far North side in Little Saigon. We'll make a few stops along the way for some small and not-so-small eats. This is an especially good guide to follow with out-of-town friends/family to see and get a taste of Chicago's different neighborhoods in one go. We'll be munching on soup dumplings, donuts, chicken wings, and Vietnamese crepes on this culinary tour along the Red Line. Here are the details.

1. Soup Dumplings @ Hing Kee

2. Donuts @ Firecakes Donuts

3. Wings @ Birds Nest

4. Banh Xeo @ Hai Yen

1. Hing Kee
(Red Line: Cermak-Chinatown)

We’re starting our food tour just South of downtown in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood. While other Chinatowns in cities like Boston, Philly, D.C., and NY are shrinking, Chicago’s Chinatown is getting bigger and busier than ever. That’s good news for us because that means even more food options to explore.

First up on the docket is Hing Kee, located in the outdoor mall, where you’ll find a dizzying number of restaurants and specialty shops. We’re here for their xiaolongbao, otherwise known as soup dumplings. Before we dig in, as a reminder, we’ve got a lot of places to try during this entire food tour, so do your best to pace yourself.

You’re about a 5-minute walk from the train to Hing Kee. It’s a small, no-frills restaurant on the corner of a busy strip of shops. Their menu has all sorts of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai options, but we’re here for their soup dumplings. If you’ve never tried soup dumplings in your life, then, first of all, you’re welcome. Second, to give you an idea of what a soup dumpling is, it’s basically a savory broth with crab or pork encased in a fragile flour dumpling wrapper.

It’s $8 for a serving of 8 dumplings, which is a pretty good deal, in our opinion. For reference, there’s a fancier place in River North called Imperial Lamian that does a good soup dumpling, but they also charge double the cost. Save your cash and eat here.

Dumplings come in a wooden steam basket. You’ll also get a side of vinegar/soy/ginger dipping sauce. To eat these properly, carefully grab a dumpling and place it into a spoon. Be extra careful because the dumpling wrapper is thin; if it breaks, all the soup will come pouring out.

Once in the spoon, add a bit of the dipping sauce. Now you can puncture the dumpling to let out the heat and mix the soup with the sauce in your spoon. Take a bite and then repeat.

2. Fire Cakes
(Red Line: Grand)

After snacking on dumplings, you’ll jump on the Red Line and head to Chicago’s River North neighborhood for dessert. But don’t we have a few other places to eat? Shouldn’t we wait for dessert until the end? No, because you’re an adult and can do whatever you want.

We’re grabbing a donut at Firecakes in River North, and what we like about having this neighborhood as our next stop is that River North couldn’t be any more different than Chinatown. For your out-of-town guests, the River North high rises and upscale shops are probably what they have in mind when they think of Chicago. It’s two totally different sides to Chicago, separated by a 10-minute ride on the Red Line.

Of all the excellent donut options in Chicago, Firecakes is right up there with the best of them. It’s a small walk-in shop with no tables or chairs. It’s all business…donut business. 

While Firecakes has a bunch of different donut concoctions, I’m a glazed type of person myself, and their honey-glazed donut is an airy work of art.

While we didn’t get it this time, they also have a donut ice cream sandwich on their menu. They have a specialty rectangle honey-glazed donut split in half with ice cream in the middle. It’s much cleaner to eat than you would expect.

3. Bird’s Nest
(Red Line: Fullerton)

You’re back on the train again and headed to Lincoln Park for another snack at Birds Nest. You’ll be in the heart of the North Side, near the DePaul campus, grabbing what many claims are the best chicken wings in Chicago.

When you walk in, you’ll find your classic North Side bar with wood-paneled walls, original tin ceilings, pool, and TVs pointed in every direction. This place makes for a nice break if you want to post up for a while, shoot pool, and grab a few drinks before continuing on.

Now onto the wings. If you thought Chicagoans were tribal about pizza, staking a position on who has the best wings can be just as controversial.

For close to 30 years, Birds Nest has been in the mix for the ‘best wings in Chicago’ discussion. Everyone’s got an opinion, but if you’re in the conversation for that long, that’s a pretty good indicator you’re doing things right.

There are a couple of different sauces, but their “Birds Nest Hot Sauce” (aka buffalo) is what we were after and what they’re known for.  Before we move on to the next stop, here’s a glimpse of the surrounding neighborhood. It’s blocks and blocks of beautiful brownstones along quiet tree-lined streets. It provides a contrast between the high rises in River North and the hustle and bustle of Chinatown.

4. Hai Yen
(Red Line: Argyle)

We’ve got one more stop on our food adventure. We’re taking the Red Line to the Argyle stop and bringing our stomachs to Chicago’s Little Saigon neighborhood. As soon as you exit the train platform, you’ll be right in the middle of Little Saigon. Like Chinatown, this area also seems to be growing, especially after a significant facelift in 2016 that turned a three-block stretch of Argyle into Chicago’s first shared street. This shared street concept is modeled off a European-style plaza where cars, bikes, and pedestrians share the road.

We’re going to Hai Yen, one of the dozens of Vietnamese restaurants along this boulevard. We’re here to try their banh xeo, otherwise known as a Vietnamese crepe. It’s a thin rice flour pancake fried in a sizzling pan. You add bean sprouts, pork, and shrimp to it and then fold it in half like a crepe.

If you need more convincing, we found this video of a guy traveling to Vietnam and eating one of these. 

Before we get to the banh xeo, Vietnamese coffee is in the cards anytime we go to a Vietnamese restaurant. It’s a dark roast drip coffee (usually Cafe Du Monde brand) with sweet condensed milk. Now on to the banh xeo.

It looks like a thin fried egg, but it’s actually rice flour batter. You add turmeric to it, which gives it this color. Accompanying your banh xeo is a big plate of lettuce, pickled veggies, and a fish sauce for dipping. Here’s how to eat this properly.

First, break the banh xeo into a couple of bite-sized pieces. Then make a small lettuce wrap and dip that thing into the fish sauce. Repeat.

This is the last stop on our food tour, but after you’re done eating here, you can take the train back the other way and do it all again in reverse.