The Tao of Chow

CHINATOWN WAS JUST CATCHING ITS COLLECTIVE breath after the blowout of Chinese New Year when we shuffled into the dining room at Peach Farm Seafood Restaurant. As westerners, we were conspicuous, and co-owner Mui Leung made us out in a second: “You must be here to see Bik,” she said.

Indeed. Experts on Chinese food may abound, but if you want to know about authentic eating in Chinatown, Bik-Fung Ng is your woman. Longtime best bud of Lydia Shire and other chefs, she's an unrepentant foodie who speaks as knowledgeably of Tuscan or Spanish cuisine as Cantonese or Szechwan. Our quest—to find real Chinese food in Chinatown—would not be an easy one, and as with all epic journeys, we first had to seek the advice of a master.

As a general rule, the impossibly long (and remarkably similar) menus that are Chinatown staples make us throw in the towel and pick “house specials.” But whatever we order, the plates on the tables of Chinese diners always look more interesting. We wanted to learn how to eat Chinese-style in Chinatown.

So we found ourselves seeking out Bik at Peach Farm, where Madame Leung whisked us into the inner dining room, past a fish tank, a mirrored wall, and the obligatory painting of the Great Wall of China. We were on our second cup of tea when Bik bustled in from her downtown day job. Nights and weekends, she teaches Asian cooking at local culinary schools and operates Mein Dish Culinary & Cultural Tours (, which approach Chinatown through the lens of food.

We'd been eyeing the inscrutable characters of the hand-printed specials posted on the wall at Peach Farm, and asked Bik to translate. She looked up and frowned. “Deer tendon with goose feet and vegetables,” she read. “We don't want that.” She put the menu aside, turned to the waiter, and asked, “What's fresh? What's special tonight?”

Peach Farm's specialty is seafood, and that's what the waiter suggested. We ordered a batch of Gulf shrimp flown in that day from Florida, which were swimming furiously in their tank by the door. Three minutes later they arrived steaming on a plate, sweet and fresh. Bik dismissed the suggestion of a giant Alaskan king crab—”too expensive”—in favor of a Dungeness crab newly arrived from Puget Sound.

“Do you like eel?” she asked with a wicked grin. We were game, at least until the waiter headed into the front room with a net and brought a fat, black eel back to the table. It squirmed and slithered in the bottom of a white plastic bucket. Bik sized up our reactions. “Too big,” she pronounced, and we converged on the tank to find a smaller, even livelier one, which she ordered fried, salt-and-pepper style. Our initial repulsion gave way to a pang of pity. But when the dishes arrived, appetites trumped tender western sensibilities. The pieces of eel were crisp and peppery on the surface, meltingly soft and sweet inside. The crab, boiled with minced dried garlic, then sautéed with ginger and scallions, was as good as any we've eaten.

Bik's parting words that night could have come from a wise fortune cookie: “Eat with an open mind.” Confucius couldn't have said it better.

 Despite an influx of other ethnic influences, Chinatown restaurants remain overwhelmingly Cantonese. This cuisine's fetish for freshness explains both the live poultry shop at 48 Beach Street and the fish tanks that are as ubiquitous as paintings of cherry blossoms. None are quite so imposing as those at East Ocean City, where giant bass flutter in the front window, and an eye-level aquarium full of hyperactive shrimp sits beside the cash register while crabs, spiny lobster, sea raven, clams, and American lobster creep or swim around still more tanks elsewhere in the restaurant.

Once seated, we quickly perused the menus and put them aside. We wanted to try the “salty chicken,” steamed with salt on top, and needed a fish and a vegetable dish to round out the meal. “What's special tonight?” we asked our waitress, practicing our new mantra. “What's fresh?” We could have guessed: black sea bass from the tanks. She also plugged the baby bok choy (not on the menu, as it turned out).

Both the chicken and its ginger dipping sauce were redolent of star anise. The meat and skin were properly pale and a little undercooked for our tastes, but slightly mushy meat that's pink at the bone is standard in Cantonese cooking. The bok choy was a sprightly harbinger of spring, but the whole steamed bass with ginger and scallions was clearly the pride of the house. Tony, one of the waiters, expertly boned and separated the flesh on one side. When we finished that, he flipped it over and repeated his ministrations, all the while conversing about that subject dear to all Bostonians: the scandalous price of real estate. (Tony, it seems, has a place in Malden but wants to live in Cambridge.)

East Ocean City is one of many Chinatown restaurants decorated with Hong Kong embellishments—in its case, strips of mirror etched with Chimeras and a golden smiling Buddha. In the semiotics of Chinatown decorating, Hong Kong glam is said to signal a special place with a traditional menu.

Jumbo Seafood Boston has similar touches, including a vast oil painting, on black velvet, of Hong Kong. On the heels of our successful foray at East Ocean City, we carefully examined the massive bank of fish tanks, including one filled with giant clams that looked like quahogs on Viagra.

Maybe because it was a Saturday night and we'd snagged the last two-top, our waiter was in no mood for our what's-special-what's-fresh routine. “Everything,” he answered, finally relenting enough to push the stir-fried lobster with ginger and scallion, one of the pricier dishes in Chinatown. We took it, as did at least half the tables. We augmented this with shredded beef with pickled mustard greens and a house special, “trio delight” (shrimp, chicken, and scallops in garlic sauce). The lobster was delivered before we could unwrap our chopsticks. The beef took five minutes longer.

Lobster and chopsticks are a bad match, though every segment of the crustacean had been split with a cleaver. A six-inch stack of paper napkins materialized on the table to mop up the sticky blend of lobster drippings and pasty sauce. Trio delight was a punchy if predictable “greatest hits” stir-fry, and the pickled vegetables with the beef needed more time in the pan for the flavors to meld and the sulfurous cabbage smell to evaporate. The meal was a letdown.

Time to move on and try a few dishes that almost never disappoint: Peking duck and Mongolian fire pot.

 Red vinyl booths and green Formica tables make King Fung Garden the antithesis of Hong Kong kitsch. But this minuscule restaurant has big ambitions coupled with earnest service. It's the only place we found in Chinatown offering Mongolian fire pot. The dish comes with a plate of burning charcoal beneath a clever copper vessel in which a moat of hot broth surrounds the chimney. Our table was stacked with plates of raw lamb, beef, pork, chicken, squid, cabbage, tripe, and enough tofu to feed Dennis Kucinich until election day. Every thin slice was impeccably fresh and carefully fanned on the plate so we could pick it up, morsel by morsel, to cook by swirling in the broth. Little more than halfway through (a lot of tripe remained untouched), we dumped the cabbage and noodles into the broth and made soup. We were warmed and stuffed.

The lone large table at King Fung was occupied by a foursome from the burbs who'd driven in on the strength of Internet postings to feast on Peking duck. Despite the modest setting, the staff turned the meal into an event, first bringing out the whole beautifully browned duck, head tucked under one wing, to be admired before returning it to the kitchen for disassembly. Soon a stack of steaming, thin pancakes with scallions and cucumbers arrived with squares of crispy skin and a big bowl of duck sauce. As we left, the party was digging into the second course of sliced meat sautéed with scallions. “We're making the soup now,” the server told them, referring to the upcoming third course. They were having a ball.

Too bad China Pearl Restaurant couldn't muster as much effort when we had Peking duck there a few nights later. We had called ahead for a reservation, an extra step often required for this dish, which takes at least a day to prepare properly. We arrived precisely on time and were seated in the cavernous, nearly empty room. Then we were ignored for 20 minutes before a waiter took our orders for drinks and an appetizer.

The duck came without ceremony. We never saw the whole fowl. Instead, we got a huge plate of steaming buns (an acceptable if nontraditional alternative to the pancakes) and skin tossed on top of shrimp-flavored chips, which are like a cross between pork rinds and Cheetos but without the salt, flavor, or artificial coloring. Instead of a big bowl of duck sauce, we got a couple of tablespoons of hoisin. A few minutes later, a waiter delivered a plate of duck sautéed with bean sprouts and scallions. The food was tasty enough (crispy duck skin is Chinatown's supreme guilty pleasure), but we missed the sense of occasion that even a mom-and-pop place like King Fung could muster for this banquet specialty.

Truly great duck—in fact, the all-around finest food of our quest—awaited at New Shanghai. We went on a Thursday, when restaurants are fully stocked but not so busy as on weekends. We arrived early so our waiter would have time to advise us. We trotted out our what's-special-what's-fresh line.

The waiter didn't understand a word we said but was friendly and eager, and we remained dogged but upbeat. Finally, he brightened. “C. K. make special meal for you.” Our gastronomic fate was in the hands of C. K. Sau, Chinatown's only name chef and the man Jasper White once called “a treasure.”

A gorgeous stir-fry of meat, asparagus, and julienned sweet red pepper was the opening salvo. “Austry,” the waiter said. Our brows furrowed. “Big chicken.” He flapped his elbows. “Ostrich!” we exclaimed. He nodded vigorously and smiled. (The chef later explained that he had ostrich on hand especially for a big group on Friday; usually, the customers choose among chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, and vegetables.) Another waiter whisked out a heaping plate of pea stems sautéed with paper-thin slices from huge cloves of garlic and asked if we needed anything. Yes: chopsticks. (Incongruously, New Shanghai sets its white linen–clad tables with salt and pepper shakers and forks.)

Now we were cooking. As we savored the tender ostrich morsels and crunchy asparagus stalks (just a little hot from flecks of chili pepper), our first waiter plunked down an almost-black duck half with crackly skin and rich, smoky meat. We were transported. Finally came the capper: shelled lobster meat and a mirepoix of scallions and red pepper on lo mein noodles with an addictive sauce that melded a swirl of flavors.

The staff hovered at the edge of the room watching us eat. They stepped aside as a small man in kitchen whites came over to our table. C. K. Sau introduced himself and asked how we liked the meal. The duck, as we'd guessed, had been marinated for a day and smoked in the wok with a mixture of black tea, rice, and sugar. The lobster he called “Chinese scampi. The sauce is simple: lemon, ginger, and white soy sauce.” It's a dish he said he taught to Ming Tsai of Wellesley's Blue Ginger.

We shook hands all around, and he returned to the kitchen, seemingly as pleased as we were. He'd certainly had an appreciative audience, and we'd struck gold by setting the menu aside. “Eat with an open mind,” Bik had said. Of course, a little luck doesn't hurt, either.