Boston’s Chinatown: An Uncommon Treasure
Boston’s Historic, Vibrant Chinatown
By Jacqueline Church
This is one of those secrets one is conflicted about sharing. Tell the world and risk long lines the next time you stop at your favorite noodle shop. But ridiculously good food, for short money, is too good a secret to keep, lines be damned!
Located between the Financial District, the Boston Common, the Theater District and the Leather District, this is one of the most vibrant Chinese communities in the US.
Except for New York City and San Francisco, you will not find a larger, more diverse Chinatown anywhere in your stateside travels.
Whether it’s a dim sum brunch, a Vietnamese sandwich or a satisfying bowl of noodles and dumplings, you will find always find a delicious and inexpensive meal; come hungry or leave sorry.
We Dig the Dig (Finally)
Don’t let the bad news of Boston’s “Big Dig” construction project scare you. It’s completed in this neighborhood and you’ll find everyone enjoy the park on a warm day. Picnicking office workers and old men concentrating on Chinese board games, everyone detours through the park now.
With its paved and well-lit open space, rock gardens, bamboo and fountain, it is home to films and performances in the warm weather.
The gorgeous, new Art Deco State Street Building (Essex Street side) adds a new point of interest to Boston’s evening skyline. The garden is anchored on that end by a sculpture which recalls a Sampan (Chinese junk ship) crossing the harbor. Red for luck.
Tradition, Innovation and Everything in Between
High-end design shops like Vessel and Studio Verticale lie just behind the park on Kingston Street. Inexpensive tchotchkes in traditional shops make great souvenirs.
Why not make a contest out of who can find the craziest gift under $2? Shopping the neighborhood is fun; don’t forget about holidays and birthdays.
Opposite the Chinatown park’s fountain is the Chinatown Gate, pretty even in snow.
Facing it, you’ll have your back to the Surface Artery and be looking down Beach Street into the heart of C-town, the park to your right and Kneeland Street to your left.
Behind you is one of the treasures of the neighborhood.
Tip: Drop into Vessel (hipster treasures here) and pick up Shan Li’s Dim Sum beginner’s guide.
Hei La Moon for Dim Sum
Hei La Moon is located at 88 Beach Street, across the Surface Artery from the Chinatown Gate. Some outdated guides don’t know what residents have discovered: this is THE best dim sum in the city.
After just a year in business, this bustling white-tablecloth 400-seat restaurant doubled its capacity.
Sometimes there’s still a wait for a table! While banquets and weddings make up a large part of their evening business, dim sum is the thing that draws most people to Hei La Moon.
Dim sum, sort of Chinese tapas, includes small plates, and steamer baskets served from rolling steam carts. It provides diners with a seemingly endless array of steamed or fried, savory or sweet choices from 8 AM to 2:30 PM.
You can have a leisurely mid-morning or lunchtime meal, or a quick, hot bite on the fly.
A Dizzying Tradition
Kit Shan Li’s book will lead even first-timers through the wonderful and sometimes dizzying tradition of Chinese brunch.
Steam carts will roll by and you get to pick items such as steamed BBQ pork buns (“Cha Siu Bao”) or shrimp dumplings (“har gow”).
As you pick what you’d like, the bill is stamped by the server, once for each dish. At the end, your card’s stamps are tallied. Each steamer basket generally runs under $4 with 3 or 4 dumplings, or a small steamed or fried dish to share.
Take a few friends so you can try lots of different things. Learn the English pronunciations and use the picture guide in Li’s book. Discover the secret to the “kow tow” old timers do when served tea, and become a dim sum afficionado.
Other Than Dim Sum – What to Eat
Proceed through the Chinatown gate and take in the sights, sounds and smells of one of the largest, oldest Chinese communities.
Try light as air sponge cakes (“zi ba don go”) at Eldo Cake House (36 Harrison Avenue) and be sure to visit the snack store connected to it. This is a “must-see.”
Selling all types of Japanese and Chinese style dried fruits and candies, you can buy just a nibble here, too.
If you’re hardcore, you can even get dried squid and such. Salted plums are handy if you’ve over-indulged at lunch or dinner. Call it Chinese Rolaids, but much tastier.
Stop at Gourmet Dumplings for one of Chinatown’s great new additions. Soup dumplings or “Xiu Long Bao” or “XLB” are a delicacy in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Rather than dumplings in soup, XLB have soup inside a dumpling.
Deliciously difficult to eat, worth every dribble and stain. Expert advice: place your soup spoon under the dumpling and nibble a bit off the side to slurp the hot soup.
New Golden Gate is a best bet for beginners, white-tablecloth but not too fancy or too expensive.
A house specialty in this newly renovated restaurant is the “Steak Kew” – a tender, boneless rib-eye steak sliced and served over bok choy (Chinese cabbage), delicately sauced.
Fresh razor clams or crab are often available. You can also get a terrific variety of authentically Cantonese style dishes.
Hong Kong Eatery is a typical Chinese diner-style restaurant. These places specialize in lunch plates and freshly made noodle and dumpling meals, BBQ pork or roast duck, nearly any time of day or night. Peking dumplings (“wor tee”), and scallion pancakes are popular, too.
Sharing a large table with other small parties is fine, as is waiting for your own, small table. Particularly, when they’re busy, you’ll be offered the choice.
A bowl of Won ton mein (think really, really good ramen with fresh handmade shrimp dumplings, delicious light broth) runs less than $10.00. Order “soy gow mein” and get the special jumbo shrimp and mushroom style dumplings in noodle soup.
Vietnamese Pho, authentic Thai, spicy Korean, and even pretty good Japanese shabu shabu or sushi are all available in this diverse and bustling neighborhood. Never had a bubble tea? Try the shop next door to Hong Kong Eatery (Harrison Ave.) for a good selection.
Know Before You Go:
Chinatown is accessible via Boston’s public transportation system. It’s close to South Station, the Red, Orange or Green line trains, and the Silver line bus all stop in or near Chinatown.
Many restaurants and shops require stairs up or down. (The Americans with Disabilities Act hasn’t quite translated here.)
Pay cash for most small transactions. Most places will take credit cards, but cash is king.
Despite some dated material on the web, this IS a safe neighborhood. You’ll see blue-vested neighborhood watch volunteers and police on the corners.
Buy Boston souvenirs here. Your dollar will go much further than in other tourist areas. A silk brocade purse, slippers, or tissue box cozy, a small vase or bracelet, a beautiful serving bowl or a pair of lacquered chopsticks all can be had in the range of $5 – $20.
Haggling sometimes works, especially if you’re buying more than one of something. Give it a try, what have you got to lose?
The BBQ spot adjacent to Hei La Moon is a local favorite. Pick up a BBQ chicken leg and rice for under $5 (ask for “Dye- Guy – Bay”), picnic in the park.
Photographers will revel in the opportunities this unique neighborhood offers. Sidewalk fruit and produce displays, Chinese street signs, old men sharing a cup of tea, the azaleas and bamboo near the fountain and gate, it’s a fun spot to capture vacation photos.
Jim Becker is a native New Englander, a chef and restaurateur, and is multilingual and leads market tours through North End Market Tours. If you’d like a knowledgeable friend in tow, this is the way to go. (see link)
Especially for Foodie Travelers
Boston’s Chinatown is primarily Cantonese speaking, with most people coming from Hong Kong, either recently or generations ago. For an outsider’s experience with Cantonese style food read:
Frank Bruni of the New York Times recently picked the nearby O Ya Restaurant on East Street as the number one place diners should try outside of New York. To read about Omakase Sushi dinner at O Ya, including links, visit Gourmet-Restaurants.Suite101.com
Boston’s Chinatown has numerous markets. Exotic produce, live fish, fun candies and packaged groceries from all over Asia will delight the adventurous cook.
Some ingredients can be packed home more easily than others. C-Mart on Lincoln Street (behind Hei La Moon) is a large, easy-to-navigate yet thoroughly Chinese, market. Follow the old women to see what they’re buying.
Just don’t try to pack a durian fruit home – you’ll make no friends at the airport!
More Helpful Links:
The Leather District Gourmet is an award-winning Boston-based blog. It combines local knowledge with a globetrotter’s perspective. She previewed the restaurant recently named by the New York Times’ as the number one spot for dining outside the Big Apple, O-Ya.
Check this blog for updates on new restaurants and neighborhood happenings.
Studio Verticale – 115 Kingston Street
In case you’re in the market for a home renovation of the upscale Italian variety. A beautiful showroom that will get you dreaming.
There’s an article about the Gourmet Dumpling (52 Beach Street) on TheLeatherDistrictGourmet.
For an excellent intro to Japanese hot pot “Shabu Shabu” see: GourmetFood.Suite101.com.
Jacqueline Church is a freelance writer, cook and traveler who has eaten her way across several countries including China, Japan, Italy, Germany, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and more. She climbed Machu Picchu, walked icebergs in Antarctica, and explored a shipwreck 100 feet below the waters of Curacao. She has yet to fulfill her dream of filling a passport before it expires, but she vows to keep trying. Read her blog and her gourmet food column.
If you like the articles we publish, maybe you can be one of our writers too! Make travel plans, then write a story for us! Click here to read our writer’s guidelines.