Caitlin Weigel finds comfort in learning “Temple Star” exists beyond North Broad Street.
LONDON – Though ethnic pockets can be found in most major cities, none are quite as notorious as Chinatown. While wandering through seemingly average streets – past the usual grey buildings and typical McDonald’s-like establishments – you may stumble into a new territory strung with colorful lanterns, strewn with fish and vegetable markets and adorned with signs written in an unfamiliar language.
That, my friends, is Chinatown.
London’s Chinatown is in the middle of the Soho area, and turning the corner onto the main drag feels like stepping into an entirely different world.
The first indicator that you’re no longer in fish-and-chips territory is the large, ornate arch stretching across the street like a giant welcome banner. These arches – known as “Paifang” in Mandarin Chinese – are generally donated by the People’s Republic of China and adorned with special Chinese inscriptions. Aside from serving cultural purposes, Chinatowns are also popular tourist destinations.
Central London’s Chinatown is no different. At night, it’s packed and bustles with late-night revelers on their way to one of the pubs sprinkled throughout the busy streets or night owls swinging by for egg rolls to satisfy midnight cravings.
During the day, it’s easier to get a lay of the land. Its storefronts are fairly similar to any Chinatown. A number of restaurants hawk Chinese cuisine – from the more upscale sit-down establishments to simple, hole-in-the-wall take-out stalls. (By the way, if you ask for take out in London, the only thing you’ll get is a sideways glance. The proper term here is “take away.”)
In between the foodstuffs, you’ll find tiny shops packed with trinkets and herbal medicine stores. I spent the evening in a hidden, underground pub called Waxy’s. The interior of the pub looks like a giant tree house – there is literally a tree – and I felt a little like a member of the Baggins clan.
After last call, I grabbed some General Tso’s chicken from the shop next door, which looked identical to every other shop on the block. As I sat on the stoop gorging myself with unnaturally orange chicken, it occurred to me how much I miss Temple Star, a thought I never imagined would have crossed my mind.
Fortunately, Chinese food here tastes identical to the Philly version, so there’s no need to venture any farther than 10th and Arch streets near the Race-Vine subway stop. The Friendship Arch takes after its location’s namesake and stands as the focal point for the area.
If you’re seeking general Chinese food, you can’t go wrong with where you choose to indulge in some standard lo mein, but there are a few stand-out spots for those looking for a more unusual Chinatown experience.
The Asia Supermarket, located at 143 N. 11th St., can be a little tricky to spot, but if you keep your eyes open you won’t be disappointed. It feels as though you’ve stumbled upon a secret world as you explore the crowded underground supermarket. Highlights include cheap, floral dishware, bordering the fine line between pretty and downright tacky and the turtles-in-tupperware containers near the front of the shop. If you have a sweet tooth, be sure to grab some Pocky – a crispy snack biscuit that is actually from Japan – before you go.
If, after perusing the aisles, you’re still feeling a bit hungry, swing by Pho Cali at 1000 Arch St. Three crisp single dollar bills will score you a Vietnamese hoagie. Pair it with a bubble tea, and you might as well be sitting on a stoop next to me in London, devouring the same munchies after downing a few pints.
Caitlin Weigel can be reached at