Magazine

Where to eat and what to order in Boston’s Chinatown

These 13 restaurants get it right, from sublime dumplings to classic, crispy duck

HEI LA MOON

Anthony Tieuli/Globe file

Hei La Moon’s dim sum offerings include fried dough wrapped in rice noodle.

Chinatown’s big dim sum palaces offer the fun of choosing from steamer-laden carts being rolled around the room. (Come at peak time, around noon to 1 p.m., for the best selection and to ensure food hasn’t been sitting long enough for fried items to become soggy.) Vast and festively crowded, Hei La Moon is a fine place to experience dim sum on wheels. Try dumplings such as har gao and siu mai, rice noodles folded around shrimp, and steamed buns filled with pork. But most of all, try what looks good. Kids love coming here, and they’re treated like royalty. 88 Beach Street, 617-338-8813, heilamoon.com

CHINA KING

China King’s best rewards are worth planning for. Call a day in advance and order Peking duck, a three-course meal that can feed at least three. The bird is gorgeous, presented whole, then whisked away for carving. Its lacquered skin is the first course, crisp and fatty at once, like duck bacon; roll it into handmade pancakes with scallions and hoisin sauce. Then comes a stir-fry of duck meat, and last a soup made from the bones. Owners Erwin and Doris Mei became known for this duck when they operated King Fung Garden in the same neighborhood. Their welcoming restaurant has a friendly, family-operated feel. 60 Beach Street, 617-542-1763

DUMPLING CAFE

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Dumpling Cafe serves the best xiao long bao, a.k.a. mini juicy buns.

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There are several good places for Taiwanese food in Chinatown — Taiwan Cafe, Gourmet Dumpling House (the one with the blue sign and the long line outside) — but this friendly restaurant with the yellow awning is my top choice. Why? It has the best soup dumplings in town. On the menu as “mini juicy buns with pork” (or pork and crab meat), these are dumplings with thin, delicate skins filled with meat and deep, flavorful broth. Put one in a spoon, add some slivered ginger and black vinegar, carefully bite a hole in the wrapper, and slurp out the soup. Order a steamerful to share with a friend, then sheepishly order another. With a plate of garlicky pea-pod stems, you’ve got a lovely meal. Add rice cake with pork and mustard greens, beef with longhorn pepper, or Taiwan-style eggplant, and you’ve got a feast. 695 Washington Street, 617-338-8858, dumplingcafe.com

PHO HOA and PHO PASTEUR

With the recent closing of the wonderful Xinh Xinh (let us bow our heads), these are your go-to places for Vietnamese food in Chinatown. Come for a solid bowl of pho — giant servings of steaming broth with thin rice noodles, herbs, sprouts, and lime with chicken or various cuts of beef. But don’t forget fresh rolls, Vietnamese pancakes, vermicelli bowls with shrimp paste on sugar cane, and a wide variety of grilled meats and stir-fries over rice. End with an avocado shake or strong Vietnamese coffee sweetened with condensed milk over ice. Frappuccinos can’t compare. Pho Hoa, 17 Beach Street, 617-423-3934, phohoa.com; Pho Pasteur, 682 Washington Street, 617-482-7467, phopasteurboston.net

GREAT TASTE BAKERY & RESTAURANT

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This cramped space is divided down the middle, tables on one side, bakery counter on the other. And though the name doesn’t give any indication, it happens to serve some of the best dim sum in the neighborhood. Because it’s cooked to order, rather than wheeled around on a cart, the food always tastes fresh. Dumpling fillings are particularly flavorful; you can taste individual vegetables in the “fish fin-shaped” dumplings, so named because of the frilly mohawk of dough atop each. Soft, gelatinous chicken feet, their broth made with medicinal roots and herbs, are satisfying to gnaw on. For something sweet, visit the bakery side for dan tat, flaky tart shells filled with the creamiest bright yellow egg custard. 61-63 Beach Street, 617-426-6688, bostongreattastebakery.com

HONG KONG EATERY

Atmosphere stops at the front window, where roast ducks are on display in all their glory. No matter. Hong Kong Eatery offers one of Chinatown’s perfect meals — a big bowl of steaming noodle soup with a small price tag. Sometimes that’s all you want. Hong Kong Eatery’s soup is customizable. The default noodle is thin and yellow, but you can switch it up. And while the broth itself is nothing special, the add-ons are. You can get anything from dumplings to beef tendon, but the won tons are a must. Add roast pork, and some duck, too, if you’re really hungry. Your bill will still be less than $10. 79 Harrison Avenue, 617-423-0838

MEI SUM BAKERY

Dina Rudick/Globe staff

For sublime banh mi, stop in at Mei Sum Bakery.

My vote for the best banh mi in Chinatown, Mei Sum starts off right. The building block for its Vietnamese sandwich is a warm baguette with a gloriously crisp crust. It’s spread with mayo and filled with pickled vegetables, cilantro, fiery sliced chilies (optional), and the filling of your choice — pate, cold cuts, barbecue beef. The tofu version is great for vegetarians and meat eaters alike. Have one at one of the little tables, where silver-haired gentlemen gather to chat, or take it to go. There are plenty of other goodies at Mei Sum, like the fluffy white filled buns the kindly women behind the counter are happy to steam for you. But the banh mi is the best reason to visit. Did I mention it’s only about $3? 36 Beach Street, 617-357-4050

PEACH FARM

Yoon S. Byun/Globe file

Peach Farm excels at seafood, like spicy dry-fried salted squid.

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Show up here late at night and you might find some of the area’s best-known chefs seated at one of the round tables draped in pink cloths. They are here to eat just-out-of-the-tank seafood freshly prepared. And that’s the reason you want to go to Peach Farm. The restaurant is known for its salt-and-pepper seafood preparations; live head-on shrimp, quickly fried whole, is one of my favorite dishes in Chinatown, and I am far from alone. That’s not to knock in-season soft-shells, tender eel in black bean sauce, sizzling flounder, or lobster with ginger and scallion. Anything looking frisky in the tanks is an excellent bet. 4 Tyler Street, 617-482-1116

WINSOR DIM SUM CAFE

Another favorite for dim sum without the carts. Come here to cure your dumpling craving. They are available steamed or fried, filled with shrimp and chives or pork and peanuts, in delicate wrappers and a plethora of shapes and styles. Steamed rice noodles and sticky rice in lotus leaves, bean curd sheet rolls and turnip cakes, and other tidbits are here, too. Winsor’s chicken congee, a comforting rice porridge, is just right when feeling sick or anxious (or hung over). Finish the meal with deep-fried sesame balls and buns filled with sweet yellow custard. The place is small and busy, so you may wind up sharing a table (and possibly dishes) with strangers. 10 Tyler Street, 617-338-1688

SHOJO

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Shojo’s take on the burger, “The Shojonator,” is a 4-ounce patty on a steamed bao, with bacon and “kimcheese.”

Chinatown’s modern side, from a team that understands the neighborhood. It’s located beneath dim sum restaurant China Pearl, which is owned by the family of Shojo business partners (and cousins) Brian and Brendan Moy. Kung fu movies play behind the bar, where the neighborhood’s most inventive cocktails are mixed (not that there is much competition). And Mark O’Leary, the rare non-Chinese chef working in Chinatown, serves culinary mashups like chicken with Hong Kong-style waffles and duck-fat fries topped with cheese and a ma po tofu-esque meat-and-bean-curd sauce. At lunch, there are bowls of O’Leary’s excellent ramen. He is one of the people behind popular local pop-up Guchi’s Midnight Ramen. 9A Tyler Street, 617-423-7888, shojoboston.com

Q RESTAURANT

With modern decor and a full bar, Q offers a more upscale atmosphere than some Chinatown favorites. The hot pot here is excellent, focused around complex broths filled with peppers and herbs. A mala broth is numbing and spicy; a long-simmered black bone chicken broth is soothing and almost creamy in texture. There are many more to choose from. They bubble away in a pot before you, and you cook the ingredients of your choice: thin slices of marbled beef, seafood, fish balls, tofu, assorted mushrooms, noodles. You’ll also find sushi and a wide range of Chinese dishes. 660 Washington Street, Boston. 857-350-3968, thequsa.com

GENE’S CHINESE FLATBREAD CAFE

Dina Rudick/Globe staff

Fang, a cook at Gene’s Chinese Flatbread Cafe, holds the No. 9, cumin lamb on hand-pulled noodles.

Chef-owner Gene Wu’s cafe is just outside of Chinatown proper, but it would be pedantic to omit its vast pleasures on the basis of geography. Wu, a native of Xi’an, won a cult following with his first restaurant in Chelmsford. This is a small, no-frills space with a limited menu. You are here for the phenomenal hand-pulled noodles, thick, chewy, rustic hanks that come topped with either chili oil, cilantro, and drifts of raw garlic or cumin-laced lamb. Watch Wu slap and stretch them in the kitchen while you inhale. Don’t even think about takeout. What’s wonderful freshly made quickly turns into a glutinous blob. 86 Bedford Street, 617-482-1888, genescafe.com

Devra First is the Globe’s restaurant critic. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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