First Bite: East by Northeast

Chef Phillip Tang bestows brilliantly modern — and affordable — Chinese cuisine upon Inman Square

First Bite East by Northeast

Photograph by Michael Piazza

There are plenty of reasons not to go to East by Northeast. It’s a quirky eatery from a little-known chef in an out-of-the-way neighborhood. The seasonal menu is rife with unfamiliars like kohlrabi and rutabaga. With just 25 seats, there’s usually a wait, and they don’t take reservations. And forget walking from the T — it’s too far.

Discouraged yet? Good. More seats for the rest of us.

East by Northeast is exactly the restaurant this city needs right now: a tonic for all the big-budget, focus-grouped dining “concepts” that have dominated in recent years. Chef-owner Phillip Tang, an alum of Hungry Mother and T. W. Food, has found his voice in a fresh and skillful hybrid of northern Chinese (steamed breads, noodles, rich soups) and Taiwanese (the now-ubiquitous pork bun) cuisine, with a French twist. The food is refreshingly personal — Tang’s family owns two Chinese restaurants outside DC, and he draws on the clan archives as much as his classical French training. It’s also affordable, with nothing over $10.

Specifically, that means chewy pork dumplings on a bed of butternut squash purée and five-spice jus, and thick-cut noodles with garnishes like smoked meatballs in a rich pork broth. There are flavor surprises that amount to little “aha” moments, from the candied pecans laced with Szechwan peppercorns to the bowl of gnocchi-esque rice noodles elevated by XO (spicy seafood) sauce. And then there’s that pork bun: a crispy-chewy-sweet-salty slice of pork belly with crunchy pickled onions and bean paste sandwiched between rounds of steamed bread. Men have killed for less.

Advance press described the place as Boston’s own Momofuku, that game-changing noodle house from New York wunderkind David Chang. This makes sense — both are Asian hybrids with locavore tendencies, and feature fancier takes on peasant fare. But, true to its name, East by Northeast feels like New England, if only thanks to the immaculate ingredient sourcing. Get in before Tang is tempted to dumb down his style, or allow an out-of-season zucchini to darken his door.

1128 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-876-0286.