Since I moved to Boston, back in the early 1980’s, I’ve always been fascinated by our Chinatown. Immersed in history and filled with pungent smells, Chinatown always transports me to another place. Whenever life in the suburbs gets a little too Wonder bread, I go here, armed with lists of exotic spices, vegetables and meats and fish. When I started my catering business in the early 90’s, I would take my then, 5 year old little girl, now 20. At the mere site of the people here, her eyes became larger than silver dollars. So different, so exotic. It was like we had just entered Hong Kong. We would tromp down each aisle of Super 88 picking up Kadoya Sesame Oil, Yamasa low sodium Soy Sauce, Kikkoman Aji-Mirin, Marukan Seasoned Rice Vinegar, Viet Huong Fish Sauce, Srirachaa Hot Chili Sauce, rice noodles, rice wrappers, dumplings and shao mai, sushi rice. And then, the produce- oyster mushrooms, lemongrass, a million varieties of bok choy, bean threads, ginger… I could go on and on.
But on the Tuesday before New Years, my real dream came true. A few months ago, I met a wonderful Chinese woman by the name of Carol Cheung at an Asian food market in Acton. I heard her speaking English to someone and I approached her to ask about some different brands of curry pastes. It was obvious she knew her brands and I immediately befriended her. We must have talked for an hour in this little market. She teaches Mandarin Chinese in the Westborough school system. Very admirable I must say! We’ve stayed in touch and promised one another that we would meet for dim sum in Chinatown after the holidays. We met at Hei La Moon Restaurant, (88 Beach St., 617-338-8813) the most respected dim sum restaurant in Boston. They are open daily from 8:30AM until 11:00PM. I’d been there many times before but always as an outsider.
This time was different. Carol knew about every potsticker and bun served to us. Each ingredient, which ones were better than others. She would speak Cantonese to the servers and out would come steamer baskets of shrimp hargow, BBQ pork bun, pork shiu mai, steamed sparerib, sticky rice in lotus leaf, spring egg rolls.
As I was stuffing my face with these tasty morsels, she started explaining to my daughter and her boyfriend about why Chinese people are not fat. I stopped chewing and she went on to explain that the Chinese enjoy their food; chewing slowly, eating with chopsticks. They live in the moment, enjoying their family time together. At Hei La Moon that day, I watched families savoring ever so slowly each steamer basket that arrived at their table and suddenly I slowed down and really began to understand what Carol meant. I watched my daughter’s exchanges with her boyfriend David. I noticed my little one, Jackie and her friend Nina pointing at the different foods passing by them (I told them both before entering the restaurant that they were not allowed to use the words “yucch, or eww”). It was happening right before me- Life… It was a very meaningful moment for me. Just spending time with loved ones and new interesting friends.
After finishing our dim sum, Carol had promised me that she would give me a tour of her favorite places for live chickens, roasted duck, pastries, and her favorite restaurants. My daughter Nikki and her friend David went off to Newbury St. for some sight seeing, while Jackie and her friend, Nina Olsen joined me on a true adventure. It had to be minus 20 with the windchill factor, but we followed her dutifully to each market, each restaurant like soldiers. First we hit all her favorite bakeries. Each bakery had similar items but each was better at one thing or another. One bakery, on 62 Harrison Ave. had no name. Just a coffee sign on the outside. They had the best, what the locals call, paper wrapped cupcake. Best described as a very light, chiffon style cake literally looking like a huge ice cream cone. I brought some home and served them with a chocolate fondue. Exquisite! One of the best things I’ve ever tasted and I’ve tasted way too much food in my life. Another favorite bakery of Carol’s was the Crown Royal Bakery on 23 Edinboro St.; 617-338-8889. They had some lovely egg custards. Carol went ahead and bought me a huge box of her favorite desserts from this bakery, some including savory fillings. I liked the egg custards very much, but the other pastries seemed a little too exotic for me. I was a bit mad at myself for not liking them. I wanted to love everything I tasted. Still worth stopping in again the next time I’m down there!
Carol’s favorite restaurants in Chinatown include Peach Farm on 4 Tyler St.; 617-482-3332 and China Pearl on 9 Tyler St.; 617-426-4338. We stopped in each one as she spoke to the owners in Cantonese. We witnessed the delivery of fresh, still live boxes of gorgeous shrimp.
Carol has two favorite live poultry shops. One is Eastern Live Poultry Corp. on 48 Beach Street, Boston, MA 02111 phone: 617-547-9191 The second poultry shop is called Ming Kee Poultry on 54 Kneeland Street, Boston, MA 02111 phone: 617-482-3618 According to Carol, “You can certainly taste the difference between live chicken, better fed than the one coming from the supermarket. Bell and Evans can’t match the flavor or taste of real chicken from Chinatown.” I believe her. She says that they come from Connecticut and are all free range. She asks lots of questions, striking up conversations with the shopkeepers. Carol has a very exacting sense about everything she does, so I am excited to have found such a wonderful friend to help me around Chinatown.
Next on her favorites list was roasted duck. Her favorite place for this is the China Pearl Best Cafe on 11 Tyler St., 617-426-2341. I ordered the Peking duck, but they also had Crispy Roasted Duck, 5 spice duck and the menu changes on an almost daily basis. After ordering the duck, they pluck one down from the roasting hangars, place it on a huge round chopping block and with a giant cleaver, they chop the duck up into almost bite-size pieces. My mouth was already watering but I refused a sample. They packed up the duck with some amazing hoisin sauce, nothing like what I buy and thought were pretty authentic hoisin sauces. We ran over to C-Mart at 109 Lincoln St.; 617-426-8888; to complete the shopping for dinner that night. Scallions, cucumbers and Mandarin pancakes (in the frozen section).
Two places we missed due to the falling temperatures that day were her favorite noodle/fortune cookie factory called Ho Toy Noodle Company on 73-79 Essex St., 617-426-0247 and a place called Wings Kitchen on 23 Hudson St.; 617-338-2218. The noodle company is a wholesale business that supplies all the top restaurants and supermarkets with freshly made noodles and fortune cookies. A 5 lb., high quality noodle here is only $4.25. And the fortune cookies, which I find are always stale in Chinese restaurants are as fresh and crispy as can be.
The Wings Kitchen specializes in excellent squab, chicken and lobsters. Carol says this is her favorite for chicken. And it looks like that will be included in our next adventure to Chinatown along with a visit to a place that makes the best Vietnamese spring rolls. I’m salivating already!
If any of you readers live in the Boston area and are interested in joining me and Carol on our next jaunt to Chinatown, please let me know in the comments section. I would also love to know if this piece was helpful or even useful to any of you.
Thanks always for reading!!