Boston’s Evolving Chinese Food Scene

David R. Chan

Photo by charlene mcbride / Flickr

In this ongoing series covering American cities with a historic center city Chinatown, there have been two distinct models. In most cities, the best and most authentic Chinese food migrated out of the historic Chinatown into either suburban Chinese communities or to secondary areas away from the downtown core. However, exceptions such as Philadelphia and Chicago illustrate the second model, where the historic Chinatown still reigns supreme, with a few secondary locales to find authentic Chinese food.

In the case of present-day Boston, however, neither model seems to fit. Ten or fifteen years ago, Boston’s historic Chinatown was still dominant, and indeed at that time, I commented that Chicago and Boston were the main exceptions to the suburbanization of Chinese food in America. Today, Boston Chinatown still dominates as a cultural and commercial center (though its borders are threatened by development and gentrification). While Chinatown has not been entirely eclipsed for dining, there is now significantly good Chinese food to be found outside its boundaries.

As with every other 19th century American Chinatown, Boston Chinatown was founded by Toishanese-Cantonese immigrants, and the focus on Chinese dining was exclusively Cantonese through the 20th century. Not surprisingly, like every existing historic Chinatown, Boston Chinatown remains rife with authentic Cantonese dining. Boston’s stalwarts for dim sum and Hong Kong seafood include Peach Farm, Hei La Moon, China Pearl, and East Ocean City, while smaller notable Cantonese venues include Winsor Dim Sum, Hong Kong Eatery, Gaga Seafood, and Asian Garden.

Boston Chinatown first departs from the norm in its relatively early introduction of high-quality non-Cantonese cuisine in Chinatown, where this is just starting to occur in San Francisco Chinatown and Los Angeles. Compared to these other Chinatowns, the Boston area developed suburban Chinese dining alternatives later, and as a result, some of the busiest and most bustling Chinese restaurants in Chinatown are not of the Cantonese ilk.

Three of the non-Cantonese pioneers and still among the most popular Chinatown restaurants are the Taiwanese oriented Gourmet Dumpling House, Taiwan Cafe, and Dumpling Cafe. More recently, as I have reported, Mainland Chinese food has begun to dominate dining in Chinese American communities, and Boston is no exception. There are a number of popular Mainland China-style restaurants in Boston, such as Q Restaurant, which specializes in hot pots, the Sichuan-leaning Hot Eastern and Five Spices House, and New Shanghai, serving up a combination of Sichuan and Dongbei fare.

But perhaps the most significant non-Cantonese Chinese restaurant in the area, located just outside of Chinatown’s official boundaries, is Gene’s Chinese Flatbread Cafe, which serves Shaanxi-style Chinese food. Gene’s Flatbread represents all that is different and changing in Chinese dining in the Boston area, from the late development of Chinese suburban food destinations to Chinatown’s continuing importance to the Chinese restaurant scene.

photo by JD Elliott / Flickr

Where many other American cities dating back to the 1970s and 1980s developed suburban Chinese communities that offered a better version of Chinese food than could be found in the historic core Chinatown, this particular phenomenon did not reach Boston until recently. About 15 years ago, in the area outside of Lowell, closer to the New Hampshire border than Chinatown, two authentic Sichuan style restaurants opened: Szechuan Chef in North Chelmsford and Sichuan Gourmet in Billerica. More recently, the Shaanxi-style Gene’s Flatbread opened in Chelmsford, and immediately created a culinary stir with its Shaanxi-style hand pulled noodles, flatbread sandwiches, and lamb skewers. Only in Boston would such a Chinese restaurant come full circle by opening a location near Chinatown after establishing itself in the suburbs.

Interestingly, several other areas in the Boston area have now stepped forward as Chinese eating destinations. Cumulatively, though not individually, these suburbs provide a major, if not superior Chinese dining alternative to Chinatown, particularly in the realm of non-Cantonese regional cuisines. If there has been a secondary Chinatown, it’s in Quincy, less than 10 miles south of Boston’s historic Chinatown. The Chinese community in Quincy dates back to at least the early 1990s, but as I have noted in discussions of other Chinese-American communities, there is often a significant lag time between the establishment of the Chinese community until there’s a critical mass of good and authentic Chinese restaurants. That point has certainly been reached in Quincy, though there are no real destination Chinese restaurants here. Chinatown Cantonese mainstays Winsor Dim Sum and China Pearl do have outposts in Quincy. Those seeking other varieties of Chinese food may look to Quincy restaurants like L & C Asian for hot pots, Big Boss Pantry for Hong Kong cafe food, Chili Square for Lanzhou and Wuhan specialties, and Fuzhou Gourmet for Fujianese food, commonly found in Manhattan Chinatown, but rare in Boston.

In the ever-evolving world of Boston’s Chinese community, it’s the city of Malden, five miles to the north of Boston, that appears poised to be the next important Chinese dining center. Malden is better situated than Quincy as an alternative to Chinatown, as it is a short subway ride away, and also close to the north of Boston where other Chinese communities have been established. Malden also appears to be a destination of choice for recent Chinese immigrants, most of whom come from inland regions of Mainland China. Consequently, it’s not surprising to find perhaps the best Sichuan restaurant in the Boston area, Fuloon, in Malden. There is also a growing array of picks in Malden, including other Sichuan choices Great Chow and Sichuan Taste, Harvest Hot Pot for hot pots, Mandarin for Taiwanese, WOW Barbecue for Western Chinese specialties, and Yong Yong, Ming’s Seafood, and Sun Kong for top-notch dim sum and Cantonese. More authentic Chinese restaurants are in nearby Woburn, which has branches of Gene’s Flatbread and Sichuan Gourmet, as well as Sichuan Garden. And in Lexington, top destinations include Beijing, Formosa Taipei, and Szechuan’s Dumpling.

One last mention should be made about the Chinese food scene in and around Cambridge. With a continuous flow of Chinese students attending Harvard and MIT for nearly 50 years, I found myself disappointed searching for authentic Chinese food in the area during my visits 10-15 years ago. However, the good stuff has now arrived in the area, with Qingdao Garden serving pan-northern cuisine, and Shangri-La in Belmont and Mu Lan in Waltham offering Taiwanese. Near the campuses, in Central Square and Harvard Square, restaurants such as Shanghai Fresh, Tom’s Bao Bao, Dumpling House, Mary Chung, and Happy Lamb Hot Pot serve excellent authentic non-Cantonese food.

"Boston’s Evolving Chinese Food Scene" originally published on The Menuism Dining Blog.