Canton’s Brian Moy, 40, grew up working at his family’s restaurants in Chinatown back in the 1980s, including dim sum mainstay China Pearl. His dad is Cantonese, and his mother is from Taiwan. They took over the restaurant in 1986, and it quickly became a local institution for dim sum. It closed right before the pandemic.
These days, Moy brings modern renditions of Chinese favorites to the neighborhood. His restaurant Shōjō became a sleeper hit with duck fat fries drenched in ma po tofu and nacho cheese sauce. Next door, Ruckus carved out a niche with turbo-charged ramen and a hip-hop aesthetic. His latest venture, Nomai, is an Asian-New American mashup at Hingham’s Derby Street Shops. In the suburbs, he says, the restaurant scene is busier than ever. But he’s still betting on Chinatown: He hopes to unveil an updated version of China Pearl with a new menu and a tiki drinks focus this spring.
I’ve been reporting on so many closures. It’s nice to know that some places are still opening.
Yeah, it’s a little weird, opening [Nomai] during this time. Honestly, it’s sort of like two different worlds, almost: the city and the suburbs. Consumer demand is very different.
Do you feel like the pandemic is hitting the suburbs differently?
Granted, I’ve only been open for a week. But, you know, even leading up to opening, I live around the Hingham area. I have friends down Route 3. And whenever we were dining during the pandemic, it just seemed like the consumer demand was really high out in the suburbs. I think it’s more like they almost create their own ecosystem. They stay within their local places; they shop, dine, socialize within their own community. It’s almost like they’re in their own realm.
Now, when you get to the city, it’s more people who commute to work. You have tourists, you have office workers, you have residents. So it’s a much bigger blend of people and demographics. And, with the pandemic, you lose tourism, you lose office workers, and I guess you get [fewer] people visiting versus what the city normally is, where it’s a destination.
Do you think that in the future chefs are going to move away from opening new places in the city and look to the suburbs instead?
We’ve already sort of seen it, where MIDA in the South End opened in Newton. I’m trying to think of some other brands. You probably know better than I do. But there’s a handful of them that are city brands that made the move in the suburbs. It’s not the Wild West, but there’s a lot of opportunity. When you’re talking about Cambridge and Boston, I think there’s some glitz and glamour of opening in the city, but it’s highly competitive. …
The suburbs do seem like there’s a little bit more of a safety net, because people are living there. There has been less change that’s happened throughout the decade, the last decade. I think there’s a strong need and want to have something new [with] the city flavor coming in. I was always jealous of my friends who lived up North. You know, you have Burlington. They tend to have all the city brands, really good restaurants out there. If you have the best of what the city has to offer within 5 or 10 minutes, why drive 20 to 30 minutes just to get to the place and then parking and then commuting back home?
As someone who’s deeply entrenched Chinatown and comes from a restaurant family, how would you say the neighborhood is different now than when you were growing up?
I don’t even know where to start. Honestly, growing up, Chinatown was much dirtier. It’s a lot cleaner nowadays. The demographic of the residents have changed. It used to be families, new immigrants, children walking around. Now, it’s more young professionals. You see people in scrubs coming out of the buildings. So it’s definitely like a working urban neighborhoods more so nowadays than before, when it was sort of a Chinese immigrant neighborhood.
The restaurants themselves have changed a lot. A lot of the businesses have changed. They’re really geared more toward the international students the last few years. It used to be more heavily Cantonese cuisine. In the last five to seven years, we’ve had this huge uptick in international students from Asia. … You see a whole bunch of bubble tea shops, you see a lot more Sichuan cuisine, you see a lot more Taiwanese cuisine, whereas before, it was really just all Cantonese. So that’s a big change.
When I was a child, I used to see a lot more street vendors. There used to be this fruit truck that would park right in front of our barbecue bakery store. They grew up in the neighborhood; they were sort of like the street guys. They’d be yelling in the street, “Oranges! Apples!” Really fresh. I got to know them really well. I would stand in front of them on the inside, and they would teach me how to sell, how to promote your food. There was a shrimp lady that sold dried shrimps and frozen shrimp. There were a couple food stands. So I miss that part of it. You could go into a bakery or restaurant to get food, but there were people on the street who had food stalls, produce, and things of that sort.
On Chinese New Year, even when I was a kid, the streets were filled. The street would literally be inches thick with red firecracker paper. My parents used to probably have a nervous breakdown about it, but I used to get these thousand-chamber rounds rolls of firecrackers and wrap it around my neck like a scarf and light both sides and sort of dance in the streets.
For those who don’t know your backstory, could you share the restaurants that your family owned and how you got into the industry yourself?
So some of my father’s family had a successful restaurant. I think it was a year or two before I was born. Before that, my father had tried opening three different restaurants that sort of failed.
He had one in New Hampshire; my mother used to tell us that he used to go up there Monday through Friday and live there and work at another restaurant. He used to commute back and forth. And, from there, the family opened a restaurant called Ho Yuen Ting, named after this very famous temple where he was from in Canton, China. It was literally a family restaurant: my grandparents, aunts, uncles, my father, they all worked there. It became a Chinatown staple. It was very well-known. They had a few signature dishes.
I remember my childhood growing up in that restaurant in terms of family meals, holidays, just going to see my father, going to see my family. They used to joke with me when I used to go into kitchens. My uncle used to feel my stomach. He’d say, “Oh, I think you ate like five Peking raviolis!” And I was always shocked: How did he know that? Now I know it was because he cooked it for me. But, back then, I was like, “This guy’s amazing. He knows exactly what I ate.”
That was my first job also. I was like six or seven. We went there for dinner, and this one patron gave me $1 to watch their bicycle. … Back then, everybody wore Hawaiian shirts. [My mom] bought me a couple of Hawaiian shirts, and during the summer, I would help my dad pick up the soda cans off the tables. I made a little bit of money for candy and comic books. But I think I really just wanted to be with my dad. It was that exhilarating feeling of helping out at the restaurant.
Tell me about China Pearl closing.
COVID first hit in Chinatown really hard. We were the first business in Chinatown to close, and I think it was right after Chinese New Year. We drastically slowed down in January 2020. Our demographic was really a lot of the more elderly people of the community. ... They were reading the news, what was happening in China. They were preemptive and cautious. So they stopped coming out altogether, and our business literally nose-dived down very quickly.
We were like: “OK, we have to get to Chinese New Year.” We got to Chinese New Year, and we made the decision to close. And, when we decided to close, we actually were planning a large renovation for many years — but it was so difficult to close for three months, five months, because we always had weddings. We always had functions.
So COVID hit … and we started drawing plans. We started doing the demolition phase. So we’re not gone. It should be open within the next few months. … We’re going to focus on the fact that we’re the oldest active Chinese restaurant in Boston, since 1960. We’re going to change the dim sum a little bit and change the dinner menu as well. We’re building two bars in there as well. We’re going to focus on cocktails … craft cocktail tiki drinks, classic Chinese cocktails. We’re going to change our food menu. We’re going to have classic dim sum, but we’re going to have a lot of elevated dim sum as well.
Do you think the restaurant industry, especially in Boston, is going to bounce back; like what’s next? What’s next for restaurants? Is dining ever going to be the same?
Yeah, I think dining will come back. And I think it never really has gone; it’s just that there’s so many obstacles and so many hurdles to overcome. You know, when I look back at summer 2021, consumer demand was at an ultimate high, it felt. It felt like COVID disappeared. And so that gives me a ton of faith that people will be there to support. It’s the backbone infrastructure of the industry that’s concerning. There’s labor costs, increasing fair wages. For my businesses, at least, I try to always promote a healthier lifestyle. Gone are the days of working six days a week. Five days a week is what I really try to enforce, and even within that, five days is probably really like four-and-a-half days.
I’m hoping that shortages will catch up. It’s just the weirdest thing: plastic cups shortages or glass shortages. Everything is just a little bit tougher to get in hand and maintain your supply. I feel like it’s forced inflation, but I’m hopeful that consumers will understand the price hikes that restaurants have to go through. …
I think that consumer demand will always be there. I think that restaurants have a great future forecast.
Where do you eat when you have free time?
I love Alden & Harlow, Waypoint, Toro, Coppa. Those are sort of my mainstay places. Penang over in Chinatown. That’s definitely one of my favorite places. China Gourmet on Tyler Street. That’s one of my favorite places as well, for offbeat Chinese food that’s not common with other restaurants in Chinatown. And pizza is my favorite. There’s a place locally that I like to go to, where I live in Canton. It’s called Stone L’Oven. They have really good wood-fired pizza.