May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which brings with it an opportunity to single out and celebrate AAPI restaurants. It’s an opportunity I welcome. Although I love all kinds of food, if I’m given the choice of where to go for dinner, I will always gravitate to the Chinese restaurant with the excellent roast duck (come back to me, China King!), the Japanese restaurant with the sweet omakase (love you, Cafe Sushi), the Thai restaurant where the rambutan salad and beef massaman are so extraordinarily craveable (get in my belly, Mahaniyom), the Vietnamese restaurant with the perfect vermicelli bowl and gloriously rich cafe sua da (looking at you, Banh Mi Oi). In fact, I have just created a new holiday, AAPI Restaurant Appreciation Day. Here’s what you do: Open your calendar, create an entry for today, and under “repeat” select “daily.” All set.
There is no other accurate way to recognize the Asian restaurant’s place in, influence on, and inseparability from the dining landscape.
And what is an Asian restaurant?
It is, of course, a place like Ming’s Seafood Restaurant in Quincy, currently serving the best dim sum in the area by a Boston mile in rush hour traffic. (If you’ve found better, please let me know.) You can tell just by looking at the translucency of the dumpling skins, the delicacy of their frilly pleats. Order your usual favorites, but also eye-catching morsels such as crispy shrimp red rice rolls, salty egg yolk lava buns with cuttlefish sauce, and coconut pudding in the shape of a rabbit.
Or a place like Viet Citron in Burlington, serving fresh, bright, flavorful pho, rice bowls, and more, with much heart. There’s a sweet kids’ menu with a toasted PB&J banh mi and a kid-size portion of chicken and rice with bubble tea. And there are specials like hu tieu mi go, an egg noodle soup documented lyrically in an Instagram post: “My fav childhood’s uber eat, Hủ Tiếu Mì Gõ noodle cart passing by my old house in Saigon every night, and all I had to hear was the wood stick knocking sounds unique to this type of noodle stall and voilà, a hot bowl of noodle soup cooked right in front of my door. The sounds, the fragrant of the broth, the sight of seeing how it was made really kicked up my appetite for that big slurp. That’s exactly the experience that we want our guests to experience when they come to Viet Citron.” How could you not want to eat here upon reading that? Viet Citron opened two years ago, a.k.a. 2020 of Our Dark Pandemic Age, and still made a splash.
Or a place like the tiny iFresh Noodle in Allston, which is always and rightly crammed with customers feasting on Lanzhou beef noodle soup, cumin lamb biang biang noodles, and Wuhan dry hot noodle. I mean, people, come for the noodles! They are springy and chewy and excellent. The place is so cramped it can be hard to squeeze in even to pick up a takeout order (but eat here, if you can, to experience the noodles at their best), and it’s cash only, and you might have to wait, but it’s worth it.
But it’s also a place like Baldwin Bar, a dim and swank cocktail lounge within proprietor Ran Duan’s family’s longstanding Sichuan restaurant in Woburn. He brought their Brookline restaurant new popularity with a similar transformation into Blossom Bar. At both, customers can eat dan dan noodles and slow-braised duck breast while drinking inventive and excellent cocktails. Duan also runs Brookline’s Ivory Pearl Bar, where the menu is stocked with oysters and parsley-garlic fries with caviar mayo and buttermilk chicken sandwiches and tentacle hot dogs, featuring octopus with sauerkraut, roe, apple, and mustard on a bun. And coming soon is his Birds of Paradise, a cocktail bar inspired by travel and escapism. (It will be located at the Charles River Speedway, where you can also find the Koji Club, Boston’s first bar dedicated to sake. As you sip, eat perfect Japanese rice with house-made pickles, or a cheeseboard, or empanadas.)
And Tanám, which specializes in Filipinx American food, and uses menus as a way to tell stories about the places they illuminate. A fine introduction to the Somerville restaurant is one of its kamayan feasts, featuring a dizzying spread of dishes (spicy coconut milk mussels! lumpia spring rolls filled with house-made sausage! roast pork belly!) served on banana leaves.
And Pagu, where chef Tracy Chang oversees a menu drawing on all of her life experiences — growing up with a Taiwanese grandmother who ran the Japanese restaurant Tokyo in Cambridge, working for a three-star Michelin chef in Spain and at O Ya in Boston — and works relentlessly to innovate and lead within the hospitality industry. (During COVID, she cofounded and operated two nonprofits, Off Their Plate and Project Restore Us.) You can order jamon iberico, squid ink bao, and the cult classic Guchi’s Midnight Ramen.
And Wusong Road, an explicit salute to American Chinese food, which chef Jason Doo was raised on at Bobo’s, his parents’ Malden restaurant. And Moonshine 152, a South Boston community hub, where chef Asia Mei hooks diners with party tots, fish tacos, Mama Mei’s dirty fried rice, brown butter-braised rabbit pasta, and butterscotch pudding. And Cafe Madeleine, a classic French bakery where chef Hana Quon continually wows patrons. And Flour, made famous by chef Joanne Chang, whose breakfast sandwiches and sticky buns are beloved in Boston and beyond.
Excellent restaurants either reverentially caress tradition or keep cuisine moving forward. Well, often both. The notion of an Asian restaurant is meaningful, but it’s also epic in scope, diverse, encompassing so many visions, so many ideas, so many flavors. Restaurants pave a path of possibility for immigrant families; they are vehicles of culture and showcases of skill; they help transform the way we taste the world and transport us into the future. Celebrating Asian restaurants during AAPI Heritage Month is not a frivolous pursuit. It is essential.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.