On a recent evening, freezing cold, I found myself seated at Zhi Wei Cafe drinking house-made soy milk, steaming hot, out of a mason jar mug. It was such an ideal antidote to Boston winter that I Googled “how to make soy milk” three sips in, then the next day did the lazy/sensible thing and bought a pre-made gallon at H Mart.
Zhi Wei Cafe opened in July near South Station, a few minutes’ walk from the heart of Chinatown. It is one of several new Chinese restaurants to open in the last year, and one of the best. Here, the specialty — and true winter warmer — is Lanzhou beef noodle soup. The soy milk is just gravy.
The dish consists of thin hand-pulled noodles with scallion, cilantro, and translucent slices of white radish in a flavorful broth with the most tender slices of beef. Order the clear version, or (as I did) the one warmed and flavored with chile oil ($14.99). Although the noodles originate in Lanzhou — the earliest version of the dish dates to the Qing Dynasty, according to an informative mural at Zhi Wei Cafe — they are popular all over China and beyond. Lanzhou noodles are increasingly found in the Boston area, at places such as Aries’ Noodle & Dumpling in Waltham and Chili Square in Quincy. (I miss the fantastic iFresh Noodle in Allston, shuttered after a fire in 2022.)
In addition to noodles, Zhi Wei Cafe offers handmade soup dumplings and pan-fried buns, desserts like osmanthus-flavored ice jelly and rice cakes filled with brown sugar, and plenty of lamb: Tender lamb chops, spicy lamb skewers, and lamb hot pot served in beautiful cloisonne-pattern vessels. The space is cozy and pretty, with brick walls and lots of wood. Even the disposable chopsticks are aesthetically pleasing, handles covered in a blue-and-white floral pattern.
Across the river, in Central Square, Cambridge, there is another new stop for Lanzhou beef noodles. Lanner Noodles & Bar, in the space that was long Tibetan restaurant Rangzen, opened last month. At lunch, the little restaurant is populated with older couples, solo diners, and a business meeting or two, everyone eating bowls of hand-pulled noodles. The menu also offers fried noodles, lamb stew, small plates including fried mushrooms and spiced lamb skewers, and desserts like a sweet soup made of rice and egg. Lanner’s Lanzhou beef noodles ($14) follow the dish’s formula: fragrant broth, diced scallions, cilantro, sliced beef, a dollop of red-brown chile paste. This brand-new restaurant is still getting up to speed, but the noodles are a fine start.
In Chinatown, Nan Xiang Express arrived in July, the pretty fast, very casual offspring to New York’s Michelin-anointed Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao. (It received nine Bib Gourmand nods since debuting in 2006 in Flushing, Queens.) The specialty here is soup dumplings, filled with pork, pork and crab, chicken, or spicy beef. Other dim sum specialties and Shanghai-style snacks are available, too: steamed buns pan-fried crisp on the bottoms, assorted non-soup dumplings, beef noodle soup, fried noodles, and more.
Nan Xiang Express has red and white walls, helpful posters explaining how to eat soup dumplings, a touch screen you can order from if you prefer not to deal with humans, and kitchen curtains adorned with a cartoon of a very adorable smiling soup dumpling perched on the edge of a bamboo steamer, awaiting its death. And if any food is ephemeral, it is the soup dumpling, a thin-skinned marvel of engineering, with its soupy middle only good as long as it remains hot. (After that, it coagulates into something less magical.)
For this reason, it seems to me a terrible idea to get soup dumplings to go. But when I see the crowded room and uncleared tables on a weekend night, takeout suddenly seems more appealing. I order with an actual human and take my space beside the Emerson students and takeout deliverers to wait. Then I hunker outside to wolf my pork soup dumplings ($9.95) before they cool. They’re quite good, although not necessarily better than those available in local shops around the neighborhood. I am really impressed with the takeout setup, which involves steamer paper to keep them from sticking to the container, and an insulated bag sealed tight. Another Nan Xiang Express is slated to open in the South End.
Perhaps the most anticipated Chinese restaurant to open in the last year is an Allston branch of Szechuan Mountain House, a popular New York-based outfit with an outpost in Los Angeles. Mountain House Boston opened in November, and the crowds flocked. It’s worth the wait (and timed strategically, the wait doesn’t have to be long).
The restaurant feels appealingly like a modern take on an old Chinese inn, with wood beams, round windows to peek through, good lighting, and genuinely soothing music. The menu is an array of dishes divided into categories like House Signature, Szechuan Special Street Food, and Modernist Cuisine. It all sounds delicious, which makes it hard to order. But everyone seems to get the Swing Pork Belly ($14), thin strips of meat alternating with thin strips of cucumber, hanging from a table-top scaffolding above a dish of garlic and chile oil. Grab a strip, swipe it through, and chew: It’s a familiar Sichuan flavor profile deconstructed.
Another good bet is the La-Zi Chicken ($20), a heavy metal scoop filled with diced stir-fried chicken and red dried peppers, the fragrance of toasted chiles wafting from the surface. Less showy but incredibly satisfying is a homey bowl of dumplings in mushroom chicken soup ($10), and fried corn kernels with salted duck egg yolk ($18) are the perfect drinking snack we didn’t know we were missing. A cold dessert of Peach Resin Rice Ball ($9) is fruity and wobbly and mildly sweet.
It’s a welcome addition to the Allston food scene, and a fine way to usher in the Year of the Dragon.
Lanner Noodles & Bar, 24 Pearl St., Central Square, Cambridge, 617-395-3206, www.lannernoodles.com. Mountain House, 89 Brighton Ave., Allston, 617-329-6920, www.szechuanmountainhouse.com. Nan Xiang Express, 52 Beach St., Chinatown, Boston, 617-992-2600, www.nanxiangexpress.com. Zhi Wei Cafe, 104 South St., Leather District, Boston, 857-277-0937, www.zhiweicafeboston.com.