I only see one mask all day. It’s a black one, covering the nose and mouth of a deeply fashionable young woman in line at Tsaocaa, Tyler Street’s newest bubble-tea shop, and on her it reads more as accessory than an attempt at protection. It is late winter 2020, the season of coronavirus, and I’m eating my way through Chinatown.
In Wuhan, the Chinese city at the heart of the outbreak, residents under lockdown shout encouragement to one another from their high-rises: “Wuhan jiāyóu!” the cries ring out in the night. It translates literally as “add oil,” an expression of support. But here in Boston, as of yet, only one person has been diagnosed with the coronavirus. We are free to go where we want.
Yet Chinatown restaurants are suffering steep drop-offs in business, anywhere from 30 to 80 percent, estimated Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. Earlier this month, politicians and community leaders organized a dim sum brunch at China Pearl, one of the oldest restaurants in Chinatown (a similar event took place this past weekend at the Quincy branch).
“We are coming together to show support for Chinatown and the small businesses there, particularly the restaurants, which are a hub of the entire community,” said Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu. “It’s a community that’s been hit really hard in the midst of coronavirus anxiety, and some misinformation and unfounded fear about the epidemic led to a surge in discrimination and stereotypes.”
More than 300 people RSVPd, showing up to eat dumplings and steamed buns served from pushcarts passing by.
This is a time to be rational, because if we don’t keep our heads straight, it feels all may be lost: the country, the climate. Let’s start with a simple thing like eating in Chinatown. Science still says go ahead. “There is no evidence of community-level transmission of this virus in Boston, Massachusetts, or anywhere in the US,” said Catherine Brown, state epidemiologist at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Things are changing swiftly, to be sure: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Tuesday that coronavirus is expected to begin spreading at the community level in the US, and that citizens should be prepared for disruptions to everyday life. But what is the chance of contracting coronavirus at a restaurant tonight? “The chance is pretty much zero,” Brown said. (She does recommend washing your hands, covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough, and staying home if you’re sick, because it is cold and flu season.)
The odds of eating well in Chinatown, on the other hand, are ever in our favor. So, where to go?
Let’s start with a classic. Peach Farm is known for its live-seafood tanks and late-night hours. In the basement space, at tables draped in pink cloths, patrons feast on eel in black-bean sauce, salt-and-pepper squid, sizzling flounder, frog hot pot. It’s best to come with a large group and share, but I like a solo dinner here, too: a heaping platter of spicy, salty head-on shrimp; bright green stir-fried pea-pod steams with garlic; a bowl of rice. It’s meditative to sit, crunching into shrimp, sipping tea. I always leave feeling more like myself.
5 Spices House specializes in Sichuan cuisine; there’s one in Cambridge, too. I’ve become slightly obsessed with its spicy dry pot preparations, a concept that is basically Whole Foods salad bar-meets-wok heat. There’s a display of fresh ingredients, sold by weight: shrimp and beef and pig intestine, tofu skin and fish balls, bok choy and oyster mushrooms, glass noodles. Pick whatever you want — pick everything you want! — and it’s whisked into the kitchen, only to return to you a few minutes later steaming in a silver bowl, mingled with fiery chiles and chopped cilantro.
Dim sum is a weekend tradition, for all manner of dumplings, rice noodles with shrimp, fried sesame balls, and so much more. Get yours delivered by cart at places like the aforementioned China Pearl and Hei La Moon, both festive and especially fun with kids.
If it’s not the weekend, you can still have dim sum, hold the carts. Winsor Dim Sum Cafe is a longtime favorite, always fresh and good. (There’s a branch in Quincy, too.) Great Taste Bakery & Restaurant is divided into two spaces, tables on one side, bakery counter on the other. Sit for dim sum and Hong Kong-style plates, then head to the bakery side for dan tat, flaky tart shells filled with bright yellow egg custard.
Beneath China Pearl, and owned by the next generation of the same family, is Shojo. Come for the best cocktails in the neighborhood, along with modern takes on Chinese food, from bulgogi beef bao to fried chicken with Hong Kong-style waffles to the now-classic mapo tofu-topped Shadowless Fries.
Next door, sister restaurant Ruckus is a fast-casual, from-scratch noodle house, offering several styles of ramen and udon, from the more-traditional (Tokyo-style ramen with pork belly) to the less-so (udon with tomato curry).
Wai Wai is another neighborhood specialist, keeping things simple with rice plates that include chicken, roast pork, and more. The tiny, no-frills spot has a cult following for its ginger-scallion sauce.
For Taiwanese food, Dumpling Cafe, Gourmet Dumpling House, and Taiwan Cafe all have their strong suits. Gourmet Dumpling House likely wins the popularity contest, and for good reason. But don’t miss Taiwan Cafe’s affordable lunch specials, about $9 per dish, with soup and rice. And Dumpling Cafe has the edge when it comes to soup dumplings, on the menu as “mini juicy buns with pork” (or pork and crab meat) — thin, delicate skins filled with meat and broth, perfect with the accompanying slivered ginger and black vinegar.
Save room for dessert, of course. Chinatown is a sweet tooth’s paradise, with boba parlors and bakeries serving mooncakes, pineapple buns, and mini cakes shaped like Pikachu on every block. Along with Great Taste are classics like Ho Yuen Bakery and Eldo Cake House, plus newer arrivals like Top Bread, Bao Bao Bakery, and creampuff purveyor Beard Papa’s. Sakura Sunakku and Sweet Kingdom serve shaved ice and other desserts.
But for the most over-the-top sugar rush in Chinatown, head to the cheekily named Double Chin, where customers eat fried snacks served in Spam tins, drink light-up cocktails from Capri Sun-style pouches, and play board games. You’re here for the cube toast, in flavors like Muddy Madness, Taste the Rainbow, and Matcha Ma Call It. It is indeed a cube of French toast; innards removed, cut into batons, and replaced; and topped with a wild array of ice cream, mochi, fruit, sugar cereal, Pocky, and chocolate sauce. If you’re lucky, you might even score a spot on the in-house porch swing.
This barely begins to scratch the surface. On a recent weekday, the neighborhood feels as vital as always. In the bright white space that is Tsaocaa, students drink fruity bubble teas to a hip-hop soundtrack, perched on modern, sherbet-colored chairs. There’s a crush of 20somethings waiting at Tora, a Japanese restaurant specializing in kaisen-don, rice bowls with sashimi. In the crowded aisles of Jia Ho supermarket, in ginseng-scented herb shops, co-workers are deep in conversation. Roast ducks twist eternally in the window of Hong Kong Eatery. There’s no reason to stay away, and there are so many reasons to eat here.
5 Spices House, 58 Beach St., 617-574-8888, www.5spiceshouse.com
Bao Bao Bakery, 84 Harrison Ave., 617-988-8191, www.baobaobakery.com
Beard Papa's, 31 Harrison Ave., 857-263-7169, www.beardpapas.com
China Pearl, 9 Tyler St., 617-426-4338
Double Chin, 86 Harrison Ave., 617-482-0682, www.doublechinbos.com
Dumpling Cafe, 695 Washington St., 617-338-8858, www.dumplingcafe.com
Eldo Cake House, 36 Harrison Ave., 617-350-7977
Gourmet Dumpling House, 52 Beach St., 617-338-6223
Great Taste Bakery & Restaurant, 61-63 Beach St., 617-426-6688, www.bostongreattastebakery.com
Hei La Moon, 88 Beach St., 617-338-8813
Hong Kong Eatery, 79 Harrison Ave., 617-423-0838, www.hongkongeatery.com
Ho Yuen Bakery, 54 Beach St., 617-426-8320
Peach Farm, 4 Tyler St., 617-482-1116
Ruckus, 5 Tyler St., 857-305-3155, www.ruckusboston.com
Sakura Sunakku, 42 Beach St., 781-888-3897, www.sakurasunakku.com
Shojo, 9A Tyler St., 617-423-7888, www.shojoboston.com
Sweet Kingdom, 15 Beach St., 617-338-8885
Taiwan Cafe, 34 Oxford St., 617-426-8181
Top Bread, 77 Harrison Ave., 617-338-1683
Tora, 20B Tyler St., 617-542-6688
Tsaocaa, 10 Tyler St., 617-988-8155, www.tsaocaatea.com
Wai Wai, 26 Oxford St., Chinatown, Boston, 617-338-9833
Winsor Dim Sum Cafe, 10 Tyler St., 617-338-1688