CHICAGO — It's noon Sunday, and the line from Triple Crown restaurant snakes down the stairs, out the entrance and onto bustling Wentworth Avenue, the heart of Chicago's old Chinatown. Most of the customers are Chinese, and they chatter in Mandarin and Cantonese.
I don't know what they are saying, but they could be talking about the delicacies they will select from the dim sum cart.
Dim sum is a style of dining where customers choose from a selection of tempting, bite-size morsels. Carts loaded with bamboo steamer baskets of dumplings and small plates of assorted meats and vegetables are rolled tableside. Each time a customer makes a selection, the server marks a card on the table. At the end of the meal, the customer is charged accordingly.
My husband, Wesley, of Malaysian Chinese origin, frequented Chinatown restaurants when he lived in Chicago years ago. He introduced me to dim sum when were dating. I have been hooked ever since.
As we sip hot jasmine tea, a busboy clanks dirty dishes into a tub and a server shouts in Cantonese at the cashier. Laughter of the Chinese family next to us, at least three generations, gets louder with every course.
I love it. Sure, it's a madhouse, but it's a madhouse that serves authentic Chinese cuisine hard to find outside of Chinatown. These dishes have not been transformed into something deemed more palatable to the average American palate. There's a reason the first language on the menu is Chinese.
Having said that, I don't pile braised chicken feet with black bean sauce on my plate like the Chinese customers, and I pass on the beef tripe with turnips. But I can't get enough of the crunchy, deep-fried shrimp balls and the barbecue pork turnovers with the light, flaky crust. The delicate shrimp dumplings are so irresistible, we take two steamer baskets.
Normally, Wesley and I come to Chinatown for dim sum, stop at a couple of quirky gift shops and call it a day. Today we join a 90-minute walking tour led by the Chinese Cultural Institute to learn about the history of this 10-block neighborhood that's been on Chicago's south side more than a century.
We first turn onto an unfamiliar side street where a guide introduces us to St. Therese Chinese Catholic Mission. A mighty pair of foo dogs flank the entrance. In the 1940s, the mission was an oasis for Chinese refugees fleeing their war-torn homeland. The church helped meet their basic physical needs and offered advice on how to navigate American culture.
If You Go
• Where to stay: Omni Hotel, 676 N Michigan Ave., Chicago. (312) 944-6664, www.
• Where to eat: Triple Crown, 2217 S Wentworth Ave. Chicago. (312) 842-0088, www.
• Tour: For a walking tour of Chinatown, contact the Chinese Cultural Institute, (312) 842-1988, www.