Midweek, a party of four is eating dinner in an urban lair — brick walls, graffiti-inspired Asian murals, hanging bulbs framed by wire cages. Aside from the small group, the restaurant is empty. Until, suddenly, the door swings open. People swarm in, the TV over the bar goes on, and that video appears, the ubiquitous one, 591,364,368 views on YouTube and counting. A Korean man in a black suit whoops it up in a stable, whoops it up Gangnam style. And at Shojo in Chinatown, the new arrivals whoop it up with him, performing his signature clompy-clomp, lasso-motion, gallop dance.
That culture is global cannot be in doubt when a restaurant started by young Chinese-Americans, showcasing food that spans Asia and the West, fills with Bostonians doing a dance made viral by a Korean rapper named Psy. At Shojo, the scene seems nothing but right. On the menu, bao and shrimp toast appear beside duck fat fries and skirt steak with kimchi butter. Ravioli are filled with Chinese-style barbecue pork, fiery Thai green curry served in a bread bowl. Cousins and co-owners Brian and Brendan Moy, in their late 20s, have backgrounds working at dim sum spot China Pearl (Brian still manages the Quincy branch). They opened their restaurant on the auspicious date Aug. 8 — eights are lucky in Chinese culture — and had an opening party with a traditional ceremony. But their vision is untraditional. They have created a modern Chinatown restaurant — something different in, yet not out of step with, the neighborhood.
The result is a hangout that should be busier than it is. All the elements are here. Chef Nick Lee (Franklin Cafe) has put together a small menu supplemented by daily specials, replete with dishes that are sweet, spicy, and salty all at once. They cross the borders between Asian countries as frequently as a restless backpacker. Hot and sour soup is not the Chinese version one would expect but more like Thai tom yum, punctuated by shiitake mushrooms breaded and fried like New England clams and a (rubbery) poached egg. When the egg is punctured, the yolk turns the fiery orange broth creamy, tempering its heat. Steamed buns are folded around chunks of pork, along with Korean kimchi, crisp slices of cucumber, and jalapeno. Those barbecue pork-filled ravioli, tender and rich, are brought over the top with bacon, Chinese celery, and shavings of Parmesan.
There are inventions like a salad of grilled calamari, quietly and deliciously smoky, piled together with frisee and radish in a citrus-soy vinaigrette, and mussels in a broth fortified with lemongrass and Thai basil, part France, part Southeast Asia, fresh but familiar. A dish of noodles, shrimp, peanuts, and sprouts is cloaked in a web of omelet, like pad Thai wearing an egg hairnet. There are straight-up pleasers like pork ribs in a sweet chili glaze, tender and spicy and sugary enough to approach cloying without getting there. Specials like the shrimp toast — a happy kind of greasy, with a springy texture — occasionally nod to the cousins’ dim sum roots. For dessert, a simple panna cotta with sake-poached pears is just fine.
Then there are mysteries. Mushroom and corn fritters are dense and taste more like falafel than anything; they’re served with a flavorless bell pepper marmalade and wasabi mayonnaise. Nothing about this dish works. Fried oysters with sweet kimchi sauce and smoked paprika aioli, topped with crisp egg noodles: What could be bad? Well, serve those oysters room temperature, as though they’ve been sitting about, and there you go. Served with pickled peanuts and mango slaw, skirt steak is overcooked. Its pat of coral-colored kimchi butter tastes simply, disappointingly like butter, sinking what was a promising riff on a bistro dish. As for the duck fat frites, the flavor is good, but the fries are strange stubby bits rather than long slivers. Small plates are stronger than main courses. Even well-cooked salmon in dashi glaze with miso mustard is tarnished by the slices of fried eggplant on which it sits, so heavily battered the nightshade seems deadly indeed.
But the menu is about to change, a staffer mentions on a recent visit, steering away from large plates and emphasizing small. It is the right direction for Shojo, which serves its purpose best as a delightful spot to drink and snack. This is thanks in part to the staff, casual but attentive and wanting to please. But it’s also due to the drinks themselves. There is a pared-down list of beer, wine, and sake, but the kicky cocktails are the highlight: the verdant and refreshing Reiko Greene, a mix of Hendrick’s gin, green Chartreuse, and lime, with a fat cube of cucumber-infused ice; the Chairman’s Painkiller, a fruity rum drink served in a Tiki mug; the smoky-sweet Morning Star, mescal-based and behatted in floral St. Germain foam. (For the teetotaler, there is also a wonderful house-made ginger beer.)
The emblematic potion is a creepingly strong combination of peach, lemon, and vodka infused with oolong tea. It is called “Cold Tea for Two,” and it is served in a metal teapot, then poured into the white ceramic cups found at every restaurant in Chinatown — “cold tea,” of course, being the longstanding code for after-hours alcohol rumored to be served at certain establishments in the neighborhood.
This bit of tongue in cheek shows where Shojo stands. Able to fondly tweak the area’s dim sum palaces and late-night lo mein joints, it is Chinatown: The Next Generation. Never mind that many diners head to this neighborhood precisely for dim sum and late-night lo mein. Others want their dinner without borders. Now, together with me: legs apart, lasso motion, and gallop Gangnam style.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.