Celebrating the Chinese New Year now — and Chinatown always
As a kid growing up in Boston’s Chinatown, Brian Moy lived for Chinese New Year. Every winter, he’d dive into the festivities, beating drums, chasing dragon dancers, and collecting so-called lucky money cash gifts in red envelopes. “Back then,” he recalls, “you could get fireworks, too.” His father’s reaction to seeing his teenage son dancing in the street with a thousand-chamber firecracker chain, lit at both ends, around his neck? “He wasn’t too pleased.”
But the pyrotechnics weren’t what made the holiday most meaningful for Moy. It was the food. “Originally, much of China was poor,” he explains, “so this was when you could have a grand feast.”
If anyone appreciates that, it’s Moy, 36, the restaurateur behind the hot spots Shojo, BLR, and Ruckus, all in Chinatown, where his family has lived, worked, and owned eateries for more than five decades. For him and his relatives — many of them immigrants from southern China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan — the celebrations and meals of Lunar New Year, which begins this weekend, prove a particularly poignant time. They offer a chance to reflect on and rejoice in the family’s journey across the years and around the globe. The holiday will be especially auspicious this year, as Moy’s team has been selected to prepare a special menu at the James Beard House, a New York City foodie mecca, on Friday, which they’ll re-create in Boston at BLR on Feb. 21.
In many ways, the Moys represent a changing Chinatown, demonstrating how the neighborhood increasingly blends East and West, past and present, traditional and contemporary. Their restaurants, especially the next-wave ones launched by the first-generation-American Moy himself, have evolved to serve a changing clientele: diners who now make Chinatown a culinary destination and those who live in the ever-more gentrified, and diverse, district.
Every New Year when Moy was young, people would come to pay their respects at the home of his paternal grandmother, who’d helped many friends and family members emigrate from China. “She always had a table full of food,” says Moy — remembering
arrowhead stew, dumplings, and vegetable dishes that honored the Buddha, a vegetarian — “but she only ate the leftovers.” Her first duty, she felt, was to feed others. “That’s something I didn’t think about then,” continues Moy, whose wife is expecting their second child next month. “But I do now.”
Moy’s father, Ricky, was born in a small village outside of Taishan, in southern China, then moved with his family to Hong Kong when he was 6 or 7. Money and food were sometimes scarce, but New Year’s offered a rare opportunity to indulge.
In 1966, when Ricky was 17, the family came to Boston. As one of his first jobs, he was a busboy at China Pearl, on Tyler Street, later waiting tables there. He’d go on to start several small businesses in Chinatown, eventually buying the traditional restaurant Ho Yuen Ting, on Hudson Street, in 1982, and turning it into the more cutting-edge Best Little Restaurant. Six years later, he came full circle, purchasing China Pearl and reopening it as the second spot in Boston to offer dim sum, a Hong Kong specialty.
“When I came here, all the Chinese food was chop-suey style,” Ricky recalls. “Americans didn’t know what Chinese cuisine really was.” He traveled to China often to scout restaurants, meet chefs, and take cooking classes, bringing back ideas that expanded the definition of Chinese food in Boston. “I’d return with new styles, new methods. We’d mix things from Szechuan, Hunan, and Shanghai, doing fusion Chinese food.”
Brian Moy remembers the huge New Year’s parties his dad threw at China Pearl. “They always ended with lots of friends and lots of food,” he says. “The restaurant never shut down, but it did for this. They’d close one day for the party, another to recover, and then a third to swap stories.”
At the restaurants he’s subsequently opened, Moy has shown a similarly innovative streak. With its kung-fu noir aesthetic and hip-hop-heavy soundtrack, the six-year-old Asian speakeasy and small plates spot Shojo became Chinatown’s first contemporary craft cocktail specialist, while his 2016 reboot of Best Little Restaurant as BLR respectfully, but playfully, adds modern and Western accents to his favorite childhood dishes. With the launch of the pan-Asian noodle bar Ruckus last July, he expanded to fast-casual, serving souped-up umami bombs of ramen, udon, and more.
That creativity will come to roost at the Beard house this weekend. The restaurants’ executive chef Mike Stark — who previously cooked at Tiger Mama and Toro — and Moy have devised imaginative dishes based on traditional New Year’s ingredients and recipes.
The significance of many of these New Year’s staples comes less from flavor and more from phonetics, Moy explains: “We eat boiled lettuce because the word for ‘lettuce’ sounds like Chinese for ‘life,’ and then a stir fry of dried oysters and black moss because ‘oyster’ sounds like ‘good new life,’ and ‘black moss’ like ‘prosperity.’ ” For the Beard dinner, Stark has turned that moss into a foam, which he’ll use with caviar and borage to top a marinated and smoked Kumamoto.
This time of year, Chinese cooks also traditionally make a starchy soup with the taro-like tuber arrowhead. The small root’s bulbous shape, with a shoot coming off the top, suggests the male anatomy, so it’s associated with the birth of sons and the continuation of a surname — good luck for a family. Rather than a thick stew, Stark will make a soup, adding pork trotter, Matsutake mushrooms, and braised lettuce, topping it with an arrowhead crisp.
Although Moy was born into a restaurant dynasty, his life in the industry wasn’t preordained. “My dad wanted something more for me and my sister,” he says. “He felt he came here to make something better for us.” But Moy always wanted to work with his father: “He was my idol.”
Eventually, Ricky needed more help. He asked his son to run the original China Pearl and daughter Patricia to look after the branch he opened in Quincy. After a while, Moy wanted to strike out on his own, serving his kind of fusion food, playing his kind of music, in a space that looked, he says, like “you were in my head.” That became Shojo.
At first, his father didn’t get the concept. “It was a difficult thing,” says Ricky. “Shojo was the first restaurant of its kind in Chinatown. People weren’t coming here for fusion, so I worried it would fail. I realize now that Chinatown can be for another kind of customer.”
Moy recently showed his father the Beard House menu. “He pointed out that it’s very different than modern Asian food in China and very different from modern Asian food in the States,” says Moy. “It’s a third way.”
“I think it’s a good try,” Ricky offers with cautious approval. “We talked,” he says, smiling, “and I gave him ideas to make it better.”
Asked if he’ll go to New York for the big feast, Ricky demurs, “I don’t know.” Then, he turns to his son, perhaps now looking for his approval, and wonders aloud, “Will you let me?”