A Chef’s Guide to Eating Well in Chinatown
Bordered by Essex Street to the north and Kneeland Street to the south, swaddled between the Financial and Theater Districts in downtown Boston, is the third largest Chinatown in the country—the only one that still exists in all of New England. Despite being home to over 50 restaurants offering everything from Sichuan, Northern Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Malaysian food, Chinatown has yet been able to secure the reputation as a regular “culinary destination.” Without the dozens of high profile chefs that populate the South End or the historical allure that attracts hordes of tourists to Hanover Street, Chinatown remains mostly an misunderstood enigma.
Except with chefs.
The over 130-year-old neighborhood has always embraced the nocturnal, the hours after the witching hour, when off-duty cooks are at their most ravenous. That’s why we asked two Chinatown regulars, Phillip Tang of East by Northeast and Tim Maslow of Ribelle, to give us their insights into the best hot pot, the most succulent salt and pepper shrimp, and even the greatest worst coffee in town. Here in their own words is an expert beginner’s guide to eating well in Chinatown.
Maslow: “This is a smaller Vietnamese restaurant, especially compared to Pho Pasteur, which most people know about. My dad took me here for the first time and now whenever I’m craving pho or a bowl of bun I go here. One time, I just happened to see these shredded pork skin, vermicelli-stuffed spring rolls, and they were just unreal. The pork skin inside is just boiled, so it’s not crispy or puffed. It’s got this bouncy, offal texture, which is really, really fun and delicious. I always order an iced pickled lime soda as well. They literally just put salted lime brine—the jarred kind you find in Super 88—into a glass with seltzer and a ton of sugar. Just avoid the sweet slick at the very bottom. It’s at least four tablespoons worth of sugar down there.”
7 Beach St., Boston; 617-422-0501 or xhinxhinboston.com.
Gourmet Dumpling House
Tang: “The soup dumplings here are awesome, particularly the ones with crab. I also tend to order the fish slices in spicy Szechuan broth. Although it’s pretty spicy, it has a nice balance of flavor, with nice chili heat and a numbing quality from all the Chinese peppercorns.”
Maslow: “The Xiaolongbao, which are soup dumplings, take about 15 minutes to prepare, but they’re well worth the wait. At Gourmet Dumpling House they call them ‘mini juicy dumplings’ and they come with either pork or pork and crab. If you’re going for the first time, start with the regular pork. The best way to eat them is to take a bite and fill the cavity with their gingery dumpling sauce. Whenever I’m in Chinatown, I go to town on those!”
52 Beach St., Boston; 617-338-6223.
Gene’s Chinese Flatbread Cafe
Tang: “I love the hand-pulled noodles here! The texture is perfect with just the right amount of chewiness, while still remaining tender. I usually order the noodles with cumin lamb, which has a light sauce and tons of crunch from the onions, peppers, and bean sprouts. I also really like the plain hand-pulled noodles, which are tossed in this pungent sauce made with tons of garlic.”
86 Bedford St., Boston; 617-482-1888 or genescafe.com.
Great Taste Bakery
Maslow: “Whenever I go into Great Taste, I’m definitely the only white guy in there, which is a good sign. I had always been told that their fried cruellers were amazing, so the first time I went in there I was asking them, “Can I have a crueler?” and they had no idea what I was talking about. Finally, I said, “You know, fried dough,” and they all went “Oh, fried dough!” A lot of times when you go into Chinatown, you don’t see the most hospitable service, which is definitely not the case here. They’ll bend over backward for you. Not only that, but the food is delicious. The egg custard and the cruellers are just kind of perfect. It’s also funny that, without asking, they just give you this pre-milked and sugared coffee. It’s horrible coffee, but it’s the perfect foil for that fried dough.”
63 Beach St., Boston; 617-426-8899 or greattasteboston.com.
Tang: “I love a good pho and Pho Pasteur makes an exceptionally clean broth that makes for a good, quick lunch. I always go with the dac biet, which has rare steak, flank, brisket, tendon, and tripe. I honestly don’t order anything else because nothing can top that combo of offal and a little meat.”
682 Washington St., Boston; 617-482-7467 or phopasteurboston.com.
Maslow: “This is the one that used to be in ‘The Combat Zone.’ I don’t know if you’re familiar with that term, but back when my dad was bouncing around down there 20 years ago, it’s where you could find the strip clubs and drugs. It’s obviously been cleaned up since then. I like to order the frog leg hot pot, which is less a hot pot of soup and more of a hot pot of stir-fry. It has cabbage and frog—and when I say frog I mean the entire frog, not just frog legs. You’ll find rib cage and little flippers. There’s no skin and they clean it up really nicely, but it’s a little surprising the first time you take a bite. Out of all my selections, this is definitely the spiciest dish I chose. It’s loaded with chilies, but they temper it pretty nicely.”
695 Washington St, Boston; 617-338-8859 or dumplingcafe.com.
Tang: “Although not for everyone, I love the fried stinky tofu. It’s an acquired taste, but it reminds me of my childhood trips to Taiwan. The pan fried buns are also really great. The big, fluffy bread wrapping gets pan-fried, so they’re nice and crispy at the bottom.”
Maslow: “They have this fried pork chop that is sweet and salty and cooked all the way through. It’s probably not the ideal way to cook a pork chop, but it’s succulent, juicy, and flavorful, and for some reason, its got tons of umami. I have no idea how they achieve that. I also love their five spice beef shank, which is like eating a terrine. It’s just this delicious, gelatinous pork shank that’s been braised until super tender. The five-spice dressing is viscous and sweet and such an interesting foil to some of the other dim sum-style dishes. It’s cold, so it’s refreshing, but it’s rich at the same time.”
34 Oxford St., Boston; 617-426-8181 or taiwancafeboston.com.
Winsor Dim Sum Cafe
Tang: “Although the food isn’t rolled out on carts, which is part of the fun of ordering dim sum, it’s all for the better. The chefs instead cook everything to order, which makes the quality of the food stand out. All the dumplings here are phenomenal and definitely don’t miss out on the daikon cake, which has this creamy interior, and a beautiful crispy crust from the pan frying.”
10 Tyler St., Boston; 617-338-1688.
Maslow: “I love the dry spice shrimp or what they call Salt-and -Pepper shrimp. But they do the same preparation with all kinds of seafood: shrimp, scallops, squid, whatever. They’re all very good. But there’s something about head-on shrimp that are just so attractive to me. Every time I’ve taken a date there or gone with my family and they don’t eat the heads, I’ll remind them of what my grandfather used to say when someone didn’t eat their potato skins, “You’re just missing the best part.” And don’t forget about the iceberg lettuce at the bottom of the plate. It’s put there as a garnish, but when you mix it with the liquid coming from the shrimp and chilies, it’s delicious on its own.”
4 Tyler St., Boston; 617-482-1116 or peachfarmboston.com.
Tang: “This is definitely one of the most unique spot in all of Chinatown. They have a phenomenal cocktail program at Shojo. After hours, my whole staff will go over there just to order the Kamehameha, which I think they used to call ‘Tiger’s Blood.’ It’s made with chili-infused vodka, coconut milk, and Fire Puncher. I haven’t tasted the dinner menu since Mark O’Leary took over the kitchen, but I hear great things, particularly about the squid ink ramen.”
9 Tyler St., Boston; 617-423-7888 or shojoboston.com.