In 1950, husband and wife Chun Sau Chin and Tow See Chin started a small restaurant of 40 to 50 seats called the Mandarin House. The couple, who had moved to Massachusetts from China, offered dishes that would appeal to American diners: fried rice, chow mein, egg foo yong. Their daughter and her husband, Madeline and William Wong, took over the business in 1958 and began to expand, buying adjacent land and building additions. Along the way, they had six children; in her spare time, Madeline worked as an insurance agent for John Hancock, setting sales records as one of the rare Asian American women on staff. Eventually, the restaurant would come to have 1,200 seats, themed areas like the Tiki Lagoon Room and the Luau Room, a comedy club, and a different name. The Kowloon still stands on Route 1 in Saugus more than 70 years after it opened, a landmark of glorious isosceles architecture, the tiki god above the entrance glowing in the neon light.
Over the years, the menu evolved with the restaurant. “When my grandparents ran it, it was chop suey and chow mein and a lot of American dishes, too, because American-born people weren’t really familiar with Asian food,” says Bob Wong, one of Madeline and William’s children, who runs the Kowloon with his siblings. (His father passed away in 2011; his mother is now 94.) “There was a lot of steak. Cutlets, pork chops, club sandwiches, BLTs, things like that. As people got a little more sophisticated with Chinese food, it grew.”
Today the Kowloon serves everything from Sichuan to sushi to Thai, but it’s the nostalgic Polynesian fare most diners associate with the place. William Wong, inspired by his travels to Hawaii and the tiki trend that swept across midcentury America, put it on the menu. It would simply feel wrong to visit the Kowloon without feasting on pupu platters laden with spare ribs and chicken fingers, crab Rangoon, and Saugus wings, without sticking a straw in a Scorpion Bowl, Blue Hawaii, or Mai Tai. (Perhaps a festive way to celebrate the upcoming Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb. 1.) The Kowloon, and places like it, are for many American diners the template of what a Chinese restaurant is.
Now, around the country, the next generation of Chinese American chefs is embracing and updating that template. With restaurants such as Lazy Susan in San Francisco, Lucky Danger in Arlington, Va., and Nice Day Chinese Takeout and Pecking House in New York, they pay tribute to the classic restaurants they grew up with — and often in, helping out with the family business. The menu might play it straight, as with Lazy Susan, where the focus is on staples like crispy spring rolls, hot and sour soup, fried rice, and beef and broccoli. It might offer riffs like cheeseburger egg rolls and mapo mac and cheese, as at Nice Day; or fried chicken spiked with five-spice powder and Sichuan peppercorns, made by a former Eleven Madison Park sous chef, as at Pecking House. It might lovingly send up stereotypes, with tongue firmly in cheek: At Lucky Danger, a classic red-on-white takeout menu is scattered with malapropisms and silly jokes. (“No Mask - No Honor - No Service,” it reads on the front.)
Some might argue this food is not “authentic,” but what does that mean, really? “The problem with authenticity is it requires people to hold a culture in time and space and place,” says Lilly Jan, a lecturer in food and beverage management at Cornell University who researches cuisine and culture in Chinese restaurants. “It doesn’t give it the flexibility to grow and evolve, which is what culture is. It’s a living thing, just like language.”
Is American Chinese food true to the rich regional cuisines of China itself? No. It has evolved into a delicious cuisine in its own right, in the same way that, say, American Italian food has. “It’s really important to acknowledge the entirety of Chinese American experience,” Jan says. “To deny acknowledging or honoring that part is almost denying some of the entrepreneurial and creative spirit of our forebears. I’m glad people are seeing [American Chinese food] for what it is. I’m glad it’s being revamped and those traditions being upheld because there’s nothing wrong with it. I think a lot of people are conditioned to think authentic is best, but good is good.”
In the Boston area, Shojo has been bringing a similar sensibility to Chinatown for a decade this year. Owner Brian Moy’s family operates upstairs dim sum favorite China Pearl, the oldest restaurant in the neighborhood. (It’s currently closed for renovations, but the Quincy branch is open.) Its menu is a traditional array of shu mai, pork buns, chicken feet with black bean sauce, and rice noodle rolls. But at Shojo, diners find dishes like Shadowless Fries (fried in duck fat and topped with mapo tofu), chicken and Hong Kong-style waffles with five-spice butter, and the Shojonator, a bacon-“kimcheese” burger on a house-made sesame bao. The drinks list both pays tribute to tiki drinks and riffs thematically on classic cocktails: The Nihonshu Negroni replaces gin with sake, while the “Cold Tea for Two” (made with bourbon and, yes, tea) is the perfect Chinatown inside joke, served in a metal teapot.
Ran Duan’s opera-singer parents started their Sichuan Garden restaurants, in Woburn and Brookline, in the ‘90s to support their family. After graduating from Johnson & Wales with a degree in hospitality, their bartender and restaurateur son opened the Baldwin Bar, a destination for cocktails and Sichuan dishes, inside the Woburn restaurant. Here, the tiki drink gets due respect. There are three versions of the Mai Tai alone: one based on Don the Beachcomber’s 1933 recipe, the original 1944 Trader Vic’s version, and the Chopstick Mai Tai: “O.D.B., no shame, crushed ice.” Duan followed that with an upstairs lounge, the Baldwin & Sons Trading Co. Then, in 2018, he opened Blossom Bar at the Brookline restaurant. Part of its menu is dedicated to American comfort cuisine, as it calls the likes of scallion pancakes, chicken fingers, and General Tso’s chicken; the drinks here are more tropical than explicitly tiki. (And, it should be said, tiki drinks have had quite a ride. The craft-cocktail world reclaimed the genre when bartenders wearied of Very Serious Mixology, belatedly reckoned with concerns over cultural appropriation, and is still figuring out how to reconcile cocktail history, enjoyment, thoughtfulness, and respect — not your usual drinking game.)
In the historic Conductor’s Building in Harvard Square, Wusong Road — currently in its soft-opening phase, aiming to officially open during Lunar New Year — is the newest local salute to the classic American Chinese restaurant. Chef-owner Jason Doo’s parents ran a restaurant in Malden called Bobo’s while he was growing up. “We were that neighborhood bar where people would shoot darts, get a Mai Tai, get some chicken fingers, and relax. That’s where I kind of fell in love with the whole Chinese restaurant version of tiki,” he says.
“In my life, at this stage, with how America is going, comfort food is where it’s at. I don’t know why American Chinese food is looked down on,” he says. “It allowed my parents and a lot of other immigrant families to generate income and support themselves, and put their kids through college so they could have a better life. Most people didn’t want their kids to work in restaurants. They wanted them to be a doctor, a lawyer, in an office working.” But he was hooked. (Plus his college studies in rabbinical theology and biblical exegesis didn’t offer the clearest career path, he says with a laugh.)
After traveling around as part of a gig with the InterContinental Hotels Group, he came home to work at Menton, then Woods Hill Table, Adelita, and Woods Hill Pier 4. Along the way, he spent time in New York, in the kitchens of places like Fatty Crab and Momofuku Ko that reimagined Asian cuisines; he staged, or interned, at restaurants in France; he backpacked around Asia with friend Tracy Chang, chef-owner of Pagu, who has a similar background. Her Taiwanese grandmother operated Tokyo Restaurant in Cambridge. Alongside dishes influenced by Japan and Spain, Pagu’s menu features the likes of squid ink unagi bao, hand-pulled biang biang noodles, and mapo tofu.
The food at Wusong Road is simultaneously traditional and modern, updated with love and care. Crab Rangoon is stuffed with house-made cream cheese, served with the restaurant’s own sambal and pineapple duck sauce. The restaurant also makes its own steamed buns for pulled pork char siu bao; the pork takes 18 hours to prepare. Dan dan noodles are topped with Berkshire pork ragout, and there’s koji-treated beef in the steak and cheese egg rolls.
“Everybody knows duck sauce, but most people don’t eat real duck sauce,” Doo says. The version he makes at Wusong Road contains salted plums, pineapple, stewed apples, and more. Some people don’t like the char siu, he says. It tastes too funky for them. “They’re so used to American Ah-So Sauce, but we actually put fermented red tofu in there.” Others have mentioned that five-spice seasoning reminds them too much of a Starbucks latte. He’s learning and adjusting as he goes. He and general manager Kaila Fong recently brought aboard tiki expert Justin Crooks to expand the drinks list, which currently contains greatest hits like the Scorpion Bowl, Painkiller, and Zombie.
“The way I look at it, when tiki went down the tubes and became this faux pas almost, American Chinese restaurants kept that culture alive,” Doo says. “Tiki did have a resurgence and became super-posh again, but everything is a cycle. Let’s just do some good tiki drinks and keep that fun aesthetic. I grew up with that. I’m not embarrassed by it. Customers aren’t embarrassed about it, and they shouldn’t be. If you want your drink to be green with Midori, go with God. We want to remove that judginess.”
In addition to fun, this new generation of American Chinese restaurants offers a form of cultural preservation. The families who opened restaurants years ago don’t always have someone to pass them on to — which was the plan all along. The kids got MBAs, became engineers, went into real estate or medicine or law. At the Kowloon, the Wong family is figuring out the restaurant’s future. They are thinking of downsizing, a process that will take several years. “We’re not closing. We’ll have a smaller Kowloon. We have to think of it sooner rather than later. We have a lot of loyal customers who say, ‘You can’t go, you can’t go!’ But things can change,” says Bob Wong.
“It’s great we have another generation that’s going to be enthusiastic about the food business, to keep carrying it on and innovating.”
Where to celebrate Lunar New Year: Baldwin Bar and Baldwin & Sons Trading Co., 2 Alfred St., Woburn, 781-935-8488, www.thebaldwinbar.com. Blossom Bar, 295 Washington St., Brookline, 617-734-1870, www.blossombarbrookline.com. The Kowloon, 948 Broadway, Saugus, 781-233-0077, www.kowloonrestaurant.com. Pagu, 310 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge, 617-945-9290, www.gopagu.com. Shojo, 9A Tyler St., Chinatown, Boston, 617-482-8887, www.shojoboston.com. Wusong Road, 112 Mt. Auburn St., Cambridge, 617-528-9125, www.wusongroad.com.