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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.