Inside Chinatown

Between the Theater District, Downtown Crossing and the South End, a foreign and often mystifying—for those of us who don’t speak or read the languages of the Far East—world unfurls its culture and heritage along a half-dozen streets jammed with storefronts, cafes and restaurants marked by logograms. This is Boston’s Chinatown, the third largest Chinatown in the United States after those in San Francisco and New York. This little neighborhood is the nucleus of Asian-American life in Massachusetts and the spirit of the place is as Asian as it gets. The area is a lively, traveler-friendly cultural zone that to the untrained eye might be a bit chaotic, but venture in and you won’t regret it. Its compact, manageable size and close proximity to all of Boston’s main attractions makes it easy to navigate, and its abundance of authentic restaurants is a welcome place for food lovers to stay awhile.

So we did. Stay awhile, that is, on a recent rainy morning, and Joanne Chang, owner and chef of Myers & Chang and proprietor of Boston’s three famously fabulous Flour bakeries, was our guide. She lives in the Leather District on the edge of Chinatown, and knows the area well, so we met her nearby the iconic paifang gate. Despite the drizzle, a group of people was practicing Chinese calisthenics in the park at the intersection of Beach Street and Surface Road. Chang is on a mission, though, and we stroll down to
Ho Yuen (54 Beach St.), a local bakery where she recommends the pineapple buns and sticky rice cake with red bean paste. “The pineapple buns aren’t made with real pineapple, but they’re delicious anyway,” she says. “They’re coated with a sugary sweet egg glaze, and they’re called pineapple buns because of the grid pattern on top of the bun.”

Chang should know. She’s an accomplished baker who recently published a cookbook, Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Café. Chang explains that her mother loves Ho Yuen’s traditional Chinese pastries so much that when she visits from Dallas, she goes straight there from the plane before she arrives at her front door.

After the pineapple buns, we try the mochi-textured red bean rice cake, another of Chang’s favorites, and then nip into
C Mart (692 Washington St.) where she buys groceries and other essential ingredients for Chinese cooking like ginger, garlic, scallion, soy sauce, sesame oil and rice vinegar. Chang says that C Mart has the best choices and prices.

Next, it’s on to
Silky Way (38 Kneeland St.), an Oriental curiosity shop, and after browsing the porcelain Buddha figurines, sabers and nunchaku, it’s time for lunch. For our midday meal, Chang takes us to her favorite restaurant, Taiwan Café (34 Oxford St.). “Taiwanese cuisine uses seafood and vegetables,” says she, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan. “I like the food because of the fresh ingredients, and it’s light on the palette.” She orders a set lunch with three dishes: ma po tofu, stir-fried beef with peppers, and braised eggplant with Thai basil. We start with an appetizer of soy-braised bamboo shoots, shiitake mushroom, sticky savory rice pudding and fried dumplings. Five minutes later, we’re devouring one piping hot and tasty meal.

Since it’s hard to choose just one among the many, Chang recommends other restaurants, in particular Best BBQ, which serves inexpensive takeaway meals of rice, stir-fried veggies and roasted meats. She also praises
Hei La Moon (88 Beach St.), the area’s most popular place for dim sum, which features a wide selection of fresh options and constantly replenishes the food items on their carts.

We walk by
163 Vietnamese Sandwich Shop (66 Harrison Ave.), a tiny eatery that sells Vietnamese banh mi subs, as well as Nam Bac Hong Herbs (75 Harrison Ave.), a Chinese apothecary packed with herbal cures for any condition from acne to arthritis. Chang wraps up our day at Bao Bao Bakery (77 Harrison Ave.) with bubble tea, an edible phenomenon that took off about 15 years ago in Asia and was a huge hit among Asian teens. Although Bao Bao is primarily a cake shop it also serves the best of what we’re looking for, in Chang’s opinion. I order honeydew flavor, and the cold beverage of frothy, milky tea studded with black tapioca beads requires an extra large straw for drinking. Now I’ve got something to chew on while I continue to explore and decide where to stop next.

About the author