One part well-made cocktails, one part comfort food, one part soy sauce and spice: It’s a recipe for success. Of all the restaurant concepts that have proliferated in recent years, the most joy-inducing may be this. Delicious dishes that capitalize on the flavors of Asia, along with strong drink. Cheeks flushed from craft beer and chile burn, a heat-induced endorphin rush simmering on the back burner, at a communal table with friends talking this and that. It’s as relaxed as vacation.
And as good recipes tend to do, this one is spreading. Recent months have seen the opening of the likes of Koy and Night Market. This coming summer should see more, from several well-known names. Tiffani Faison (Sweet Cheeks) plans to open a Southeast Asian-inspired restaurant and Tiki bar called Tiger Mama in the Fenway. Rebecca Roth Gullo (The Gallows) is behind Banyan Bar & Refuge, coming to the former Hamersley’s Bistro space in the South End. The food, from chef Phillip Tang (East by Northeast), will feature the flavors of Asia and India, with an emphasis on seafood (there will be an oyster bar). And in the works for Newton is a yet-unnamed concept from David Punch (Sycamore) that he describes, in a previous Globe story, as an “east Asian soul food diner meets izakaya.”
Time, then, to check back on two earlier adopters and see how the appeal endures: Shojo in Chinatown, and Blue Dragon in Fort Point.
Shojo opened in 2012, a project from cousins Brian and Brendan Moy, who previously worked at dim sum spot China Pearl. They saw that a more modern kind of place might prevail in a traditional neighborhood, maintaining some of the elements that make this a great area in which to eat. And so we have a tremendously fun restaurant with plenty of character, great cocktails, creative food, and competitive prices. Sad to say, this combination is something of a rarity in Boston.
When I reviewed Shojo after opening, I wrote that the place should be busier. And now it is. It has only gotten better. Last year, Mark O’Leary stepped in as chef — coming from places such as high-end Japanese restaurant O Ya and bar-with-good-food JM Curley, along with popup Guchi’s Midnight Ramen. And so Shojo offers stellar noodle dishes, clever ideas, and rich plates that can push one into a stupor, pleasing or punishing depending on exactly how much one ingests.
The menu changes frequently, but snacking is always a satisfying pursuit. The Korean rice cakes tteokbokki are served with eggplant and mozzarella, the eggplant charred until it is deeply smoky. For suckling pig bao, fluffy steamed bread is folded around succulent slabs of pork with smoked barbecue sauce, kimchi, and jalapenos. Sticky ribs come with shallots, peanuts, and Thai basil.
One of the best choices involves fried potatoes. The fries themselves are very good here, hand-cut and cooked in duck fat, with sriracha aioli. But one can, and should, gild the lily. For $4 more, the menu offers, “make it Shadowless.” What this means: The fries come topped in melted cheese and a mapo dofu-esque meat-and-bean curd sauce. The combination (named in honor of bartender Michael Patterson, who has a tattoo that reads “Shadowless”) has all the virtues of poutine as an accompaniment to alcohol, and it is sublimely delicious.
Shojo’s take on chicken and waffles is just as satisfying. O’Leary takes the kind of waffles that are a popular street snack in Hong Kong (and Chinatown) — puffy, eggy, ballooning roundly out where Belgian waffles dimple squarely in — and tops them with five-spice butter, syrup, and crisp, juicy, salty fried chicken.
Noodles are always cooked to the ideal chewy texture. Hand-slapped strands are wonderful topped with bang bang Bolognese, a meat sauce similar to that on the Shadowless fries. Shojo’s version of carbonara features thick, almost silky hanks with egg, pepper, and very smoky bacon.
Bowls of ramen are on offer, but only at lunch. At dinner, the ramen noodles appear in a dish with beer-poached shrimp. The noodles are perfectly al dente; I could eat them all night. The sweet, light, coconut-inflected curry makes them even better. But the shrimp taste wan and rubbery. A dish of salt and pepper calamari, fishy and chewy, doesn’t touch the versions available at any number of Chinatown restaurants. And Burmese avocado salad with cucumber, peanuts, Thai basil, and strips of mango turns out to be mostly bean sprouts, not mentioned in the description. One night its flavors are balanced, on another bland.
The cocktails are as much of a draw as the food. The Kamehameha — spicy vodka, coconut milk, and lemon — tastes like a pina colada made with chiles instead of pineapple. It’s irresistible. The “Mara” Jungle Bird — rum, pineapple, lime, and bitter-melon Campari — is a Tiki drink with a complicated side, perfectly balanced. And there’s good beer — a mix of craft and easy-drinking Asian selections — and a neat list of sake, soju, and shochu.
Kung fu movies play by the bar. The soundtrack is loud hip-hop. The crowd is eclectic — silver-haired friends, people who look drawn from the pages of manga, those who work in other area restaurants. You should be here too.
Many city chefs have recognized there is a market waiting to be served farther afield, opening restaurants in the suburbs. Ming Tsai reversed the trajectory in 2013. Famed for Wellesley restaurant Blue Ginger, he opened Blue Dragon in Fort Point, Boston’s hottest restaurant neighborhood at the time.
Swamped by the crowds, with no reservation policy, food and service both experienced some initial unevenness. These days, Blue Dragon appears to have found its groove.
Executive chef Tom Woods oversees a lengthy menu of mostly small plates, along with shareable platters of fried chicken, steak, and curry, as well as daily specials. There are many variations on the theme of dim sum. A server — charmingly (almost alarmingly) enthusiastic — encourages us to try the braised short rib and Chinese celery potstickers. The filling is wonderfully savory, like good stew. The dumpling skins are commendably delicate. But that hearty beef needs a heartier wrapper. These practically melt away.
Shishito peppers are ubiquitous, but Blue Dragon’s version stands out, the small green peppers — some spicy — flavored with sesame powder, bonito, and bright lemon. Lamb lollipops are glazed in tamarind, the sweet-tart flavor just right with the mild meat. With a curry dipping sauce and a bright salad of glass noodles and vegetables, the dish is perfectly composed, filled with complementary flavors and textures.
Fried rice is made with shredded duck confit and a fried duck egg, dried fruit offering bites of sweetness and pickled chiles bursts of heat. The pumpkin mirepoix isn’t as much of a presence in terms of flavor, but then, perhaps, pumpkin season is finally coming to a close. It’s a grand dish either way.
A special one night also features duck, this time juicy slices wrapped in lettuce leaves with green papaya and duck cracklins, with roasted sunflower satay sauce (Blue Dragon runs a nut- and peanut-free kitchen) and lime to squeeze over. It deserves to be on the regular menu.
It could replace sriracha Buffalo wings with blue cheese dressing, which are tasty enough but not as interesting as many other offerings. These are basically just Buffalo wings. Or the tender roast pork tail, served with a banana leaf filled with mango sticky rice. The dish is almost great, but it is far too sweet. Just like the lone dessert served here, a giant cookie in a skillet. Mushy and sugary, it’s not a good cookie. It needs to go.
For dessert, have a Tiki drink — yes, of course there is a Dragon Bowl. Herb-driven potions, like the lemongrass gimlet or the Thai basil smash, also go down easy. The beer list is varied and compelling, a real draw. The bar is packed. There’s a wait for the communal tables. But the commotion dies down after the post-work crowd heads home, and then Blue Dragon relaxes, the staff friendly and interactive, the dishes rolling out at just the right pace.
It’s a recipe worth replicating.
Shojo 9a Tyler St., Chinatown, Boston, 617-423-7888,www.shojoboston.com.
Blue Dragon 324 A St., Fort Point, Boston, 617-338-8585, www.ming.com/blue-dragon.htmDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.