The time has come for me to say goodbye to Boston, to head off to Philly, so I thought Id share what Id learned working in Chinatown for the past 4 years. Ive compiled a list of my usual lunch haunts. Often the recommendations on Chowhound, for the most part, are for dinner sorts of places, i.e., its a little weird to order the black bean oysters from Peach Farm Seafood and take them back to your cubicle (not that I havent done that). So, in the interest of presenting a list of good Chinatown lunches, all around the $5-$6 mark, I offer the following recs:
In the Chinatown eatery (intersection of Harrison and Beach, on the second floor of the brick building with the bus ticket sales booth outside) there are two places I frequent,
-Rod Thai, Green Curry w/anything, usually I go with squid or shrimp ($5.50). Pad Kee Mao w/squid ($5.25). At the $6.25 mark you can either get Squid Pikpow (squid sautéed in chili paste, broccoli, baby corn, carrot, ginger, mushrooms, basil & green beans) or drunken squid (basically same as pikpow but w/out carrot & ginger), I dont order these last two all that often. Basil fried rice is also good here ($5.50 or $5.20, depending on what protein you choose to adorn it). Theyve got some standing specials of mango curry and crispy, spicy chicken strips over rice that are both good. The crispy chicken over rice might be the spiciest thing Ive ever had there. Theyre good about bringing the spice here if you ask.
-Royal Pacific, this place comps you a bowl of hot & sour soup anytime you eat in the court. Sometimes the guy brings you a bowl even when youve clearly ordered from a different restaurant in the place. I think hes trying to poach you from future visits to his competition, or hes just nice, I cant decide. Soup is only so-so, has plenty of spice, even if it is gloppy. Anyway, Royal Pacific has a Fried Squid with Spicy Salted with Rice, which is almost EXACTLY the same thing as the Spicy dry fried salted squid from Peach Farm. Peach Farms in $8.50 and come w/out rice I believe. Theirs is $5.25 and come w/white rice (I sometimes get fried rice instead, they dont charge more). I think its as good as Peach Farms and BETTER on some days. Make sure you specify spicy. These people NEVER remember to give me chopsticks for some reason. I think the guy here knows me by now but still, he never does it.
-The Boba place here is the best Ive been to. Im not often in the mood for a boba but when I am, this is where I go.
-The other Chinese place (Swatow) gives me a bad vibe. When I walk in sometimes the lady screams You want General Gaos?!? I dont dig the generalizations about what I want, understandable though it is. Ive heard they have a really good hot & sour soup but I havent tried it.
-The Vietnamese place, Common Touch, closed some time ago, if anyone is curious.
Outside the eatery:
-King Fung (74 Kneeland) has been covered on the list, but for lunch I usually get an order of Shanghai Chow Mein (has a bit of everything in it) or Szechuan Pickle w/pork chow mein (the pickle is pickled cabbage, a nice contrast to the thick, heavy, homey noodles), $4.95 for either. Some days Ill do two apps for lunch, the 6 piece Peking Ravioli is only $3.25 and the scallion pancake is $2.75. A wildly unhealthy lunch, but sometimes just what Im craving. Sometimes, though rarely, I just get an order of 10 pieces of peking ravioli at $4.95. Best Peking ravioli in the city, I think.
-Nam Vang (7 Beach Street), I get the spicy Canh Chua Tom (shrimp in spicy soup) but only when I eat in, $6.50 before any tip. I also get the Goi Tom Thit fairly regularly, a salad of cabbage w/shreds of pork & shrimp. $5.95. They can sometimes be a bit too heavy handed w/the sweet vinegar dressing this comes with. I dont get Pho for lunch that often, because if I want a soup-like something, Im more likely to get the Canh Chua Tom or a bowl of homemade noodles from Noodle Alcove. When I do get Pho, its best from here. Also, good red bean shakes here. Had the avocado shake once here too and it was good but I dont order it often enough elsewhere to compare.
-Noodle Alcove (10 Tyler Street), This place started strong but painted itself into a corner a bit with their cuisine. Theyre really only good for one thing, a nice, mildly flavored bowl of toothsome noodles. I am sometimes really in the mood for this, but it isnt that often. I only get soups here, preferably hand-drawn or knife-shaved (big language barrier here, by the way, tough for me to communicate what I want). The beef noodle soup and the mussel noodle soup are my typical rainy day orders here ($4.95). The pork noodle sometimes has a bit too sweet a taste to it, as if the pork had some kind of a honey-ham marinade before being roasted.
-East Ocean City (25-29 Beach Street). Ive done a bit of an exhaustive study of who has the best duck noodle soup in all of Chinatown and East Ocean City wins because theyre broth is truly a duck broth w/ a good touch of ginger, near as I can tell (could be a beef/duck broth combo too). $5.50. Its served very simply w/broccoli rabe but its broth puts it over the top. I get the impression a lot of other places just give you a beef broth and throw in duck.
-Taiwan Café (34 Oxford Street), weve covered this well, but yeah, same as everyone else, I dig the eggplant w/black bean sauce, the clams w/black bean, the tilapia w/soy ginger (a bit of a mess to eat at your cubicle, by the way, as you get a whole fish), all but the clams are $6 which includes a soup-of-the day, which runs mediocre to great. This place does tofu really well too, generally speaking. If you want the best tofu-anything in Chinatown, this is the place to start.
-House of Pho 2.99 (upstairs at 3 Beach Street), fine Pho if youre on a budget. $0.50 to-go surcharge, so its only $2.99 if you eat-in. Nothing spectacular but a competently made bowl of pho. Really nice people and probably the best quiet place to read during my lunch break. They also have a few chicken & beef dishes served over rice for $2.99 as well.
-Hong Kong Eatery (79 Harrison Ave.) Most of my ordering ideas from this place Ive poached from 9Lives. I go with the noodles & wonton soup ($3.75) and have them throw in ½ lb of pork or duck, which is like $2 or so. The place is really crowded at lunch and the waiters have no compunction about knocking you to the side to get by, which used to annoy me, but oddly, its sort of become amusingly endearing. If youre just looking for some protein, just order a bit of roast pork to go, if for some unfathomable reason youre minding your carbs this is a good move.
-Wai Wai restaurant (downstairs, down the street from Taiwan Café on Oxford street). I dont really know why I like this place so much. Its not any better than Hong Kong Eatery (its also a Hong Kong style place) but its got a lot of character. If you watch an unhealthy amount of Hong Kong gangster movies (as some do), you can easily imagine Chow Yun Fat sliding across the floor of this place towards his gun in slow-mo. This place never has what I want (theyre always either out of tripe, out of wontons for the soup, out of lo mein) but I still dig them. They roast really good pig & duck here, comparable to Hong Kong Eaterys and served with a ladleful of soy/scallion broth over rice. Good noodle soups too. All around $4.75 if I recall (they dont have to-go menus). Horrible language barrier here, I just walk behind the counter with the menu and point to the lady what I want. Spicy tripe over rice or over lo mein isnt that spicy but is one of the best tripe (cow) treatments around Chinatown.
-Oddly, the best scallion pancake in Chinatown is at Shanghai Café, at 232 Tremont. Otherwise very bland food meant for pre-theater crowds, but great scallion pancakes (best scallion pancake dipping sauce is from Taiwan Café, I feel, which, incidentally, is a very similar sauce to the ladleful of sauce that Wai Wai throws on their rice dishes)
-Wings Kitchen, 23 Hudson Street, mighty tasty noodles w/minced pork & spicy chili sauce. An enormous portion that I dont often get.
Banh Mis: a quick summary: Best pork (cold cut) and best beef are now at the Mix Bakery, vaguely across the street from Pho Hoa (17 Beach Street). I used to think the booth in the old Thai Binh place did better beef banh mis. The beef banh mi at Mix has improved over the years. It used to be made with beef that tasted as if it had a sweet-marinade (Im not talking about the sauce they add). Now, it actually tastes how I remember the old Thai Binh one tasting. Odd. The re-opened Lus Sandwich shop, though allegedly the same people as the old Thai Binh people, hasnt risen to the level of the old Thai Binh beef. Having not had a beef one at Mix in about a year, when I tasted the new Lus, it tasted better than I recalled Mix tasting. Other hounds prompted me to re-taste Mixs & they were right, Mixs was now better. All are $2 each.
Saigon Sandwich (696 Washington) Galleygirl is right, the bread is weak here, but theyve got some Banh Mis you dont see elsewhere, like curried chicken. $2.50. Good spring rolls here, also $2 (or maybe $2.50, Im not sure). Spring rolls have cold, sliced roast pork, and sliced shrimp (which from the outside of the wrapper can look like a whole shrimp, dont be deceived). Lus spring rolls arent very good, by the way. Stick with Saigon Sandwich.
Pho Mai (on Kneeland, next to the Chinatown McDonalds) has weak Banh Mis in general. Theyre nice people though, and to be fair Id like to give some of their other stuff a shot sometime.
Eldos Cake House, on Harrison between Beach & Essex. Good little curried beef turnovers for like $1.50 or something, not bad for a light lunch if you grab two. Theyve got some other savory items that escape me now. Theres a chicken bun or roast pork bun or something that I specifically remember disliking (it was too dry), sorry I forget the name. Theyll warm things up for you if you ask. Very accommodating being as youre only spending $3.
Annas Dessert House, again, intersection of Harrison & Beach, next door to the Coffee place, $3.50 gets you freshly made shrimp cheung fun & congee (I think they close it at noon). Its a combo system so you get to pick between cheung fun (shrimp or pork), soya sauce noodles, chive bun, taro bun, fried turnip cake and some other things to go with congee (preserved duck egg w/pork, regular, and maybe one other kind) or with some kinds of sweet milk instead of the congee. More a breakfast thing that I think only goes till noon. I just posted recently on my lunch experiences there.
Thats about all I can think of. Im planning to mail my stack of take-out menus at Amazons menu site, so hopefully everyone else can peruse them online. Not gonna bother with mushy goodbyes as Ill be back in town fairly regularly. If any Boston hounds are in Philly and willing to explore with me, shoot me off an email above!