Together Again - Part One

Eventually, you get to the point where enough is enough. Back in October of 2009, I had a visit from my college best friend, Katherine. I was excited about the fact that she'd recently moved back to the U.S. after receiving a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Japan, after which she stayed there an extra year to live the expat lifestyle and teach English. Now that we were living on the same continent, it would be easier to visit one another, and I was determined not to let so much time elapse between visits going forward. Yet, somehow, life kept stepping in and messing up my plans, and nearly two whole years went by without finding an opportunity to see my friend again. Unacceptable.

This year, I was determined to utilize some of my use-it-or-lose-it vacation time to travel to Massachusetts to see Katherine. However, due to her school schedule, I had to wait until May when she was on summer vacation. By then, I couldn't find a hotel room within a remotely reasonable distance from her apartment because it was graduation season, and there are an abnormally high concentration of universities in her area. (I couldn't just stay at her apartment because she has cats, and I'm horribly allergic.) Refusing to be deterred, I decided to use the money I would have used on my plane ticket to visit her to buy her a plane ticket to visit me, and I used my vacation time to take yet another staycation so we could have maximum time together during her visit.

For her first day in town, I scheduled a local tourism item that had been lingering on my to-do list while I waited for the time and opportunity to make it happen. I've long been a subscriber to the Choose Chicago Facebook feed, the official site of the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau. It conveniently notifies me of interesting things going on in the city, articles about Chicago featured in national publications, and occasionally, offers coupon codes for activities around town. One such deal featured on their feed was for a company called Chicago Food Planet Tours, which offers food-centric walking tours of three different Chicago neighborhoods -- Bucktown/Wicker Park, the Gold Coast, and, the one that caught my eye, Chinatown.

Much as I like Chinese food, and convenient as Chinatown is to where I live, I only go there once every couple years, and it's always to the same place, Phoenix Restaurant, where I went for dim sum for my birthday. To be honest, I found Chinatown a little bit intimidating. When you pass by most of the restaurants, they seem to be full of people who are of at least some sort of Asian decent, if not specifically Chinese, and many of the menus don't exactly cater to native English speakers. It would be nice, I thought, to have an expert point out some of the better spots in the neighborhood and expand my knowledge of Chinese cuisine so I'd have a better idea of what to order.

The only drawback was that, unlike the company's other tours, which are offered several times a week and on weekends, the Chinatown tour is only available on Monday afternoons, which doesn't exactly make it an easy sell for employed locals. As a result, I filed it away on my local "bucket list" and waited for another staycation to roll around. Katherine's visit would present just that opportunity, and luckily for me, the Choose Chicago coupon code that brought the tour to my attention in the first place was still applicable.

Unfortunately, even though I thought I'd finally resolved my conundrum of how to finally spend time with my friend, fate intervened once more and severe weather last night caused her flight to be cancelled. She was able to get moved to a flight that left early this morning, but it looked like she was going to miss the tour. I couldn't round up any of my unemployed or underemployed friends to go, so I struck out for Chinatown on my own, determined not to let the entire ticket investment go to waste.

As it turned out, the tour guide was really friendly and chill, and offered to help Katherine meet up with us whenever she made it into the city, so at least she'd get some use out of the tour I'd paid for. He gave us a rough idea of where we'd be at every point in the afternoon, and even helped me give her directions via text message so she could find us. He really went above and beyond the call of duty. If their customer service is always this good, I can unequivocally recommend that you do business with Chicago Food Planet in the future, if you're interested in learning more about Chicago's neighborhoods and their unique culinary offerings.

For me, the tour wasn't quite as informative as it would be for the average attendee. Working at the History Museum, which currently houses an exhibit entitled, "My Chinatown," I'd pretty much already been exposed to all the historical information the guide had in his presentation. I knew about the tongs, "brotherhood" groups that were formed by early Chinese immigrants that engaged in gambling, human trafficking, and other forms of organized crime within the neighborhood up until major FBI raids in the 1980s. I knew about Ping Tom Memorial Park, a beautifully landscaped park complete with a somewhat out-of-place pagoda, named after an influential local businessman who helped acquire real estate to expand Chinatown at a time when many existing residents were unwilling to sell to Chinese buyers. For someone with less background, the tour would have been very informative, but for me, it was basically a rehash of what I learned at work.

For me then, the real star of the tour was the food. We had five separate tastings on the tour, including three hot meals, and four sit-down stops that helped break up some of the exertion of the walk. The tour operators selected the food for us, and they picked items that were easily accessible to people who have had limited experience with Chinese cuisine. Out of the five tastings, only one restaurant presented options I'd never tried before, but nevertheless, I would return to all five of those restaurants, which gives me five dining options in the neighborhood that I would have been too intimidated to try on my own.

The first stop was Triple Crown, a seafood-focused dim sum restaurant, where we tried this taro puff and a standard barbeque pork bun. They offer made-to-order dim sum, in contrast with Phoenix Restaurant which sends out their food on carts from which the customers choose what they'd like to eat. I prefer the sense of adventure at Phoenix, but if I were with picky eaters, Triple Crown would offer more control over what I was ordering and consuming.

Next, we stoped at Ten Ren Tea & Ginseng Co., where we received a to-go cup of iced lychee-flavored green tea to drink while we continued our walk. It was a refreshing, if a little over-sweetened for me, and a welcome addition to the unseasonably warm day.

The biggest revelation of the day for me was Lao Sze Chuan, a restaurant focusing on the spicy, pungent flavors of Szechuan cooking. Although I can tolerate some spice in my food, I've always shied away from the notorious heat of this style of cuisine, but now I was forced to give it a try and I was pleasantly surprised. I also think Justin, who enjoys spicy food far more than I do, would particularly like the food there, so Lao Sze Chuan is actually at the top of my list for places to return to at a later time. Luckily, Katherine made it just in time to catch the tasting here, which was by far the most substantial vegetarian offering of the afternoon. I was definitely not a fan of the mapo tofu we were served there, considering I don't particularly enjoy the texture of tofu and this dish was very, very spicy, but Katherine loved it, and the guide even let her take the leftovers home with her since she'd missed out on the previous two tastings. Again, he truly went out of his way to give her the best experience possible given the circumstances.

Although I've had Peking duck before, the one we sampled at Lao Bejing, our next stop, was probably the most authentic. It was good, but by that point I was quickly running out of stomach space. The guide mentioned that the Chinatown tour has the most food and the largest portions of all the Chicago Food Planet tours, which are more snack-oriented. The Chinatown tour, however, is sort of like eating three back-to-back lunches. Remember to pace yourself, if you check it out for yourself.

I've never seen oblong egg custard tarts like those at our last stop, Saint Anna Bakery, but they were tasty nevertheless. Aside from being oblong instead of round, they had a short crust, more akin to a pie crust, than the flaky, puff pastry version found on most egg custard tarts in Chinatown.

After the tour, despite spending several hours walking, Katherine felt that she needed additional exercise to work off some of the calories we'd just consumed, so we headed up to the Water Tower on Michigan Avenue and took a long, scenic walk home down the Mag Mile as we finally got an opportunity to chat and catch up. We spent most of the evening doing the same, as we were too stuffed to even consider dinner, although we did engage in a little baking project that I had planned for us, which deserves its own post. Awesome as the tour was, and much as I would recommend it to anyone interested in Chinese food or Chinatown, spending some quiet time with my best friend was by far the best part of the day.

Modern methods of communication allow us to stay in contact basically all the time. I can send Katherine a text message and hear back within the hour, send her an email when I want to share an article or picture with her, or call her whenever I want to hear her voice. However, what I didn't realize until I saw her was how much I missed her face. I've heard other people use that expression before, "I miss your face," and I always thought it sounded weird and borderline creepy, but I finally get it now. There's nothing that replicates the experience of being face-to-face with your best friend, watching her facial expressions, her unique hand gestures, and getting to give her a hug if you feel like it. It's crazy how much you can miss someone and not even realize it. I'm so excited to get to get to spend even more quality time with her this week!

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