Christmas Means Chinese Food

When I was growing up back in Hull, there was no bigger treat than a late-night Chinese feast. I’d rip open the white carton containers and grab spare ribs and chicken wings straight out of the hot foil bags adorned with dragons as a fierce wind blew off the ocean and made the windows shake. I’ll be thinking of that memory as I eat my usual Christmas Eve Chinese meal tonight.

Back then the cuisine was what we called “Cantonese.” But it was really much more solid Americanized Chinese food than the food of any region of China. It came, as most Chinese food then did, with little dinner rolls and butter.  (I’ll explain the origin of that New England tradition below.) The restaurant that served the food, Hull’s Sar Ho Village, sadly no longer exists.

 

In honor of the tradition of eating Chinese food at Christmas, I’m going to list some of my favorite places in the area. I invite you to write in with places I may have missed.

All-Around Favorite

Chinatown. Stoughton, MA – When my father visited last month from Las Vegas, he said he hadn’t had a decent Chinese meal in years. I drove him right down to Cobbs Corner. This is a restaurant that has mastered the traditional favorites but offers a great variety of newer dishes as well. I think it excels in freshness and quality. It crosses generation divides. My father went ultra-old school, ordering beef chop suey and boneless spare ribs! The Fabulous Dana has newer tastes with a palate that prefers moo shu and chow fun dishes. I like everything.

Chinatown/Sea Food 

Several years ago I went on a quest for the best salt and pepper squid in Boston. That quest lead me to a basement restaurant in Chinatown, Peach Farm Restaurant. I’ve since had the whole fried fish, lobster, and scores of other dishes here and never been lead astray.

Chinatown/Fast Food

Chinatown Cafe.  262 Harrison Avenue. This place offers incredible value for the taste. I love to get the black pepper beef. It’s also great for the roast duck noodle soup with wontons, a dish that really hits the spot on a cold winter day. I consider this more a lunch spot. You order at the counter and wait for your number to be called.

Weekday Dim Sum

Chau Chau. Dorchester.  This place offers Chinatown-level food with the convenience of free parking and an easily accessible location. I go when I have  a dim sum fix, when I need Chinese food on my way to the South Shore, or when I’m meeting somebody from the Boston Globe. The location is the same one I used to frequent when it was Linda Mae’s.

Real Szechuan

Mary Chung. Central Square. Cambridge. This is the place to go for as authentic Szechuan cuisine as you can get in Boston. I had the spicy beef broth and noodles, a perfect treat for a raw day, and the Suan La Chow Show, a dumpling dish. In addition to the food, this restaurant brought me back to the old Central Square. I remember the Central Square of when my father first moved to Cambridge as a funky, eclectic locale filled with new ethnic restaurants catering to the student community of MIT. (Remember how many Indian restaurants there used to be!) Mary Chung still has that vibe.

Best Alternative to Golden Temple

Mandarin Gourmet. Putterham Circle, South Brookline. I’ve got nothing against Chef Changs on Beacon Street other than its too inconvenient for me to frequent.  No question Golden Temple has amazing quality. But the prices have gotten so out of control that even former Bernie Madoff clients can’t go there any more. I find that Mandarin Gourmet has solid quality for an array of Chinese dishes. The dinner dishes are superior to the luncheon specials. The fine owners of Mandarin Gourmet have more than lived up to the reputation of the predecessor institution, Ho Sai Gai.

Best Newcomer

Kantin. The food court at the Super 88. Packards Corner. Allston. This place offers all the dishes I like at the Chinatown Cafe only with a parking lot.

Now for a final observations and a story. I’m concerned that aside from Asian Americans — many of them foreign born students — I’m not seeing many young people eating Chinese food these days. I’m well aware of the popularity of Thai and Sushi these days, but I could see Chinese food going the way of print journalism in a few decades.

I’ve heard all kinds of people mock the New England practice of serving dinner rolls with Chinese meals. Even as knowledgeable a source and passionate Kowloon aficionado as Howie Carr stated his befuddlement at it — and Howie, for reasons I’ll enumerate, of all people should know better. Back in the early days of Chinese food in Boston, Chinatown abutted Italian bread bakeries. In fact, it still dies. Wedged right between Chinatown and the Boston Herald is Quinzani’s.  Somehow that proximity lead Chinese restauranteurs to buy dinner rolls along with their meals. A sign of how old-school a Chinese restaurant is in Massachusetts is if they still follow this practice. If anyone has any more detail on the origin of this, please let me know.

Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah.

 

 

 

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13 Responses to “Christmas Means Chinese Food”

  1. Russell Says:

    Seth,

    I am having a Sar Ho craving right about now. It is amazing but I really loved that place. My stand by was the good old Poo Poo Platter. Have a great Holiday season Seth.

    Russ

  2. Dan Kennedy Says:

    You are correct, sir. For the Kennedy family, it’s off to Mandarin Danvers after church this evening. Happy Chanukah!

  3. Cousin Andrea Says:

    The Shapiro Cassel family has a Christmas Day Chinese food tradition, although I’m thinking about Vietnamese (if Xinh Xinh is open) this year. Followed by a movie, naturally.

  4. ml Says:

    was the Chinese food from Sar Ho Village?

  5. Mike Bonin Says:

    Wow, Seth. You took me back to growing up in Massachusetts. In my family, we did not do Chinese on Xmas Eve, but we did sp on New Year’s Eve and the occasional Friday night, getting take out from the Fung Wong Restaurant in Clinton. Lo Mein, chicken wings, neon pink pork strips, and those dinner rolls. They don’t do those dinner rolls here in Los Angeles, and I had completely forgotten about it.

    I’ll always remember a trip to Chinatown in Boston with you, Susan Glasser, Melissa Hart, and John Thompson for a special edition of the Crimson’s weekly magazine the five of us did, focusing on Boston.

    Merry Xmas.

  6. gitell Says:

    Here are some assorted comments that came in via Facebook:

    Risa Sherman at 5:13pm December 24
    Great piece, Seth. Thank you. Regretably we’ll have marginal Chinese tomorrow night up here at Loon. I want you to rest assured that the Katcher kids can put down some Chinese like nobody’s business. They are HUGE fans of Super 88 and think there is no place better than East Ocean City on Beech Street. They will settle for CK Shanghai in Wellesley in a pinch. Keep the faith and Chag Sameach.

    Howard Leibowitz at 6:04pm December 24
    Seth – hit Mardarin Gourmet last night, terrific as usual. An occasional run to Bernard’s in Chestnut Hill is also in order, occasionally.

    Best,

    HL

    Sara Kussmaul DuBose at 11:14pm December 24
    We had Ocean Kai tonight. Never as good as Sar Ho’s!

    Michael Castaldo at 7:50am December 25
    we miss san francisco and ‘margaret cho’s “kung pao christmas”‘ – stand up and chinese food on christmas day! a more perfect union i could not imagine! we had our kung pao here on tuesday – best on the east coast ;-)

  7. friend-of-fab-dana Says:

    We should have gone next door to Peet’s to the Number 1 Noodle House in Newton!

  8. Mooselet Says:

    I’m a bit late, but thanks for the memories that this post brought back. Sar Ho’s was great – I always remember Benny Lee giving me free Coke with a drink umbrella as we waited for our order. Australian Chinese is nothing like American Chinese, and I find after reading this I’m really missing it!

  9. Ira Says:

    In Brooklyn the kosher restaurants are open Christmas eve so we do Israeli food instead of chinese.

  10. Susan E Says:

    Thanks for bringing me back to the go-go ’80s, ‘new jewish money’ and old school eats!! Ho Sai Gai while skipping Hebrew School (don’t tell Albie). Luv it.

  11. Dave Says:

    OH!…………..SAR HO! I miss you!

  12. Jeff N Says:

    Boy, having spent many summers living on W St, Sar Ho was a regular event. – and Ho Sai Gai was our special event place.

  13. Rich Quinzani Says:

    Serving bread with Chinese food originated in the early 1900’s. This was a time when there were many immigrants coming to Boston from all over the world. Some of them started their own restaurants, which consisted mostly of authentic food from their home countries. The European immigrants were used to eating similar foods and styles of cooking. The Chinese style cooking was something they had never seen before. A way of bringing some familiarity to the meal was to simply add a piece of bread. An inexpensive bread that most of the bakeries in the area made was called a “French Roll”. It was made with the same ingredients as the French bread, just cut into roll sized pieces. My Great Grandfather would drop off samples of the French Rolls to the Chinese restaurants everyday on his way home from work. Quinzani’s Bakery is located next to a bean sprout wholesaler, which is a staple in Chinese cooking. Every day between 8am and 1pm you will see over one hundred Chinese Restaurant vehicles pull up to Quinzani’s and buy dozens of French Rolls and then go next door and pick up bean sprounts.

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