It’s pretty clear that a Chinatown a hell of a neighborhood to explore. Aside from the more touristy shops that typically line the area, here are the five places you’re should visit during your trip to get the true Chinese food experience.
1. The Grocery Market
You might recognize the grocery markets by the rotting produce strewn along the sidewalks, but that shouldn’t keep you from exploring the treasures awaiting inside. Not only can you buy cheap fruits and vegetables, but you can also take home handy kitchen appliances, dried and preserved goods and other specialty items that you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. Try looking for fresh quail eggs, goji berries and ginseng root. During the summer especially, be sure to also pick up a bag of hand-picked lychee fruit.
2. The Herb Company
You won’t find any marijuana here unfortunately, but you will find an array of herbs, medicines and homeopathic treatments imported straight from the motherland. Running down with the flu? There’s a remedy for that. Feeling hungover again from last night? No worries, because there’s something for that, too. The herbalists running the shops might seem like phonies, but in reality, they’re true experts in their field. Just like Western doctors go through a grueling eight years of medical school, these Chinese doctors undergo special training to be able to concoct the perfect healing brew.
3. The Chinese Bakery
The buns and pastries you’ll buy here are unlike American or European-style loaves of bread, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less delicious. Thanks to a special kind of bread starter called “tang zhong,” made from a simple mixture of flour and water, Asian-style breads are so soft and fluffy that you’re taste buds won’t know what to do with themselves. Make sure to try the pineapple bun, coconut cream bun, egg custard tart and taro root bun at least once in your lifetime. Warning: always keep some distance from the regulars (otherwise you may or may not get trampled over for that last brick of Taiwan toast).
4. The Dim Sum House
Some of the best dim sum you’ll ever taste will come from the dim sum parlors sprinkled throughout Chinatown. Whether the restaurant is a sit-down, banquet-style experience or a quick take-out option, nothing comes close to beating the insanely affordable prices you pay for steaming hot baskets of dim sum. If you’re stuck on what to order, here’s a handy beginner’s guide on navigating your way through a dim sum menu.
5. The BBQ Shop
Marked by glass cases of hanging roast ducks, the Chinese BBQ restaurants are places you can’t afford to miss. Here you’ll find yourself in a meat lovers’ heaven surrounded by everything and anything you could possibly imagine barbecued from crispy roast pork belly to succulent Peking roast duck and sweet soy sauce chicken (cooked whole, of course). Count on your butcher to choose and chop the perfect cut of char siu for you. If you’re feeling adventurous enough, go for an entire BBQ squid head. You can definitely expect to leave with a full stomach and a set of greasy hands.