The small neighborhood, settled largely by Chinese immigrants, around the turn of the last century, is defined geographically by the interstates 90 and 93, which serve as southern and eastern borders and culturally by the food which has wafted from dim sum parlors and dumpling houses, drawing hordes for over a century. The young and densely populated Back Bay and revitalized Downtown Crossing cap Chinatown to the north and west and, as the city’s supply of housing lags behind its demand, it has seen an influx of luxury buildings spring up, occupied by a new sort of inhabitant.
As with any gentrification, there comes an inevitable tension, one that has been addressed by the city and civic groups to varying degrees of success depending on who you ask. Along with this new blood comes similarly new tastes and Chinatown’s food scene has seen a recent surge of updated eateries incorporating the traditional, the transitional, and the downright new.
Much of this nouveau Chinatown fusion movement can be traced to Brian Moy and his restaurant Shojo which opened to much acclaim in 2012, turning heads as it resembled a modern gastropub far more than Cantonese noodle house. To this day, Shojo serves unapologetically modern takes on Asian fare like five-spice chicken and waffles and duck fat fries, blending old world Chinese recipes with just about everything else in fun and thoughtful ways.
Moy, who hails from a family of restaurateurs, cut his teeth in Chinatown’s oldest, China Pearl (owned by his father), and describes his ventures not just as an act of passion but preservation. As more and more of these “New Chinatown” residents began wandering away to other neighborhoods on weekends for a specific type of dining experience, Brian saw an opportunity to keep them there as well as draw new hungry bellies in from neighboring hoods. To establish or reestablish any neighborhood as a dining destination is invariably a good thing for businesses, and not just the new guy on the block.
Others took note of Moy’s successful formula, like sister team Gloria and Emily Chin, who followed suit in 2016 with their whimsical and pun-derfully named Double Chin, a bright 70-seat cafe serving fun Asian fusion and “glorified comfort food.”
If the menus at Brian Moy’s restaurants dance along the fine line between classic and eclectic, Double Chin’s backflips right over it. Fan favorites like the Rice Noodle Skillet “Mac” N’ Cheese and Tomato Pork Chop Fried Rice blend Chinese tradition with 1950s Americana and may very well deliver the namesake Double Chin if eaten too regularly.
Perhaps most outrageous of all is the Cube Toast, a divinely hot (and cold) mess of mochi, ice cream, and a deluge of other toppings heaped upon a couch—yes, couch—of homemade french toast.
In 2016 Moy took the reins from another of his father’s local mainstays, a traditional Chinese joint called Best Little Restaurant with a cult following and transformed it. Brian may have uncomplicated the name slightly, in shortening it to BLR, but the menu got a blast of cross-cultural traditions evident in dishes like his Schezuan Bolognese, a salute to Boston’s other foodie neighborhood, the Italian North End, and Roasted Bone Marrow which is somehow made richer when served with glistening scallion pancakes.
BLR’s almost gangster speakeasy feel with dim lighting and vintage art is a stark departure from the neighborhood but very much in keeping with the times outside of Chinatown. A mosaic of Mahjong tiles line the walls of the entrance, conjuring scenes from “A Beautiful Mind,” and cleverly beckoning guests to use as a backdrop for selfies destined for social media.
If you ask him, Moy will tell you he is far less a culinary conquistador than he is an ambassador for a neighborhood he so clearly adores. And he sings the praises of its old-school eateries just as much as his own. He’s wise to do so because in Chinatown there is much that’s new but it’s all uniquely derivative of its predecessors, many of whom still thrive doing exactly what they’ve done, generation after generation.
Proof is in the soup dumplings at aptly named Dumpling Cafe on Washington Street or the charmingly old-world Gourmet Dumpling House on Beach Street where the lightbulbs may not be Edison but the food is as good as any you’ll find in town. At China King, just a few blocks off, don’t expect a chalkboard menu but do expect some of the best whole roasted Peking duck this side of the Pacific.
One of the joys of eating Chinese out besides its approachability is its interactiveness, often as good as any stiff cocktail to socially lubricate a first or second date. Mongolian hot pot joints like The Q on Washington Street require diners to cook food themselves in table-side pots of boiling broth. It’s not completely un-dangerous but decidedly less so than it sounds. Cantonese dim sum restaurants like Great Taste Restaurant and Bakery and Moy’s treasured family heirloom, China Pearl, serve fluffy buns and shumai, ready-made and pushed around on carts or stacked in rows behind glass counters to be selected in bulk and shared.
Moy recalls how his father got his start at China Pearl bussing tables at 14. Like so many who immigrated to Boston, food became his life’s work, and this hard work has become a legacy that has framed much of the fearless culinary work his son is doing now.
“It is the longest-running Chinese restaurant in Boston,” Moy tells me, “So it has been trusted and tested through time.” Initially the restaurant was a large banquet and function restaurant and his father had a vision to add dim sum and brought in chefs from Hong Kong. China Pearl has had a very meaningful relationship with Boston, and not just for it’s excellent food offerings. It has always been the main focal point for politicians during elections to gather and rally Chinatown supporters for both parties.
Brian, who just this spring welcomed a new boy, now owns three restaurants in the neighborhood, each in its own way a tribute to the ones that came before and has further established Boston’s Chinatown as an integral part of the city’s food landscape while simultaneously moving it deftly into the future.
“Shojo was a tad ahead of its time for Chinatown in Boston.” Moy continues. “I anticipated the redevelopment of surrounding streets with new high rises coined ‘luxury’ condos. I questioned myself…where I like to frequent restaurants…and started to analyze what neighborhoods I go to for food, as well as where I eat around Chinatown and noticed there was no real overlap of customer clientele. I wanted to create a destination.”
Not everything was as easy as it sounds and Moy notes that the community in Chinatown still does not 100 percent understand what type of restaurant they are, but they do appreciate the first-timers who come to Shojo and have never been to Chinatown. They often become familiar enough with the neighborhood to try other restaurants.
As a bonafide Chinatown historian and ambassador, he tells me there is lots about the neighborhood that folks don’t know, particularly how much of the Revolution was planned and carried out in places like Liberty House on Charles Street.
There are countless food secrets hidden around Chinatown too and when asked about his favorite dish outside of his own joints, Moy points to Jade Garden on Tyler Street which does a fabulous gook knou (or prime rib) with nice cuts off the cap that are ridiculously tender and perfectly marbleized. “The tricky part is whether I get it with string beans and oyster sauce or tomatoes and black bean sauce. Unfortunately, most times I get both.”
See More of Boston
Header image courtesy of Simon Law/flickr.