Braving Chinatown In Bad Weather Is Worth It
Even heavy snow won't keep Elisha Siegel away from some of his Chinatown favorites.
Nobody ever said food writing was easy (or hard) but when you’ve procrastinated down to your last day and a deadline looms you do what you must to get the story. Even if that means going out and eating in two – no three – Chinatown restaurants when your hometown is threatened by an historic Nor’easter. The local news is predicting a snow storm the likes of which we’ve seen a whole bunch of times and panicked citizens are hoarding bread and milk. (Why is it always bread and milk?) But I have a job to do - one that literally nobody depends on, but makes my mom a little proud. So I won’t be deterred by a couple dozen inches of snow. I’m going to have a long lunch in Boston’s Chinatown, Nor’easter be damned.
I step off the orange line sometime around noon. There are steady flurries, but the roads and sidewalks are relatively clear. It’s an easy walk to Penang. Being a Malaysian restaurant, Penang offers an eclectic blend of dishes from India and Southeast Asia. I’m actually pacing myself today so I go small with an appetizer order of roti canai ($4.55), a thin, slightly crisped flatbread with chicken curry for dipping. The roti is soft and flakey, leaving my fingers greasy as I rip it into pieces and scoop up the spicy curry. It has a nice warming effect and prepares me to go back out into the blizzard.
By now, the snow is starting to come down harder. It’s accumulating faster than the cleanup crews can clear it off the sidewalks. Flakes are sticking to my glasses and the cold is making it really hard to text. (I will last exactly two seconds in the zombie apocalypse.) For my next stop, I head a little off the main drag down Harrison Avenue towards the Mass Pike. I’ve had my eye on Chinatown Cafe for years. A bit removed from the center of Chinatown, I always assumed that if this place could survive away from the action for so long it must be good. This cafeteria style restaurant greets you with a window stocked with the usual Chinese barbeque fare. Smoked ducks and racks of ribs hang on hooks, dripping their fat into tripe, chicken and pork short ribs that sit in the steam table below. I opt for a bowl of pork and pickled egg congee ($5.25) and a bit of the roast pork. The congee is a delicious warm rice porridge with a delicate texture that straddles the line between silky and gelatinous. The pork is nicely seasoned, with a hardy textured skin and slightly burnt ends.
Once I leave Chinatown Café, the snow is now up to my ankles. I can’t see through my glasses and I’m wishing I’d worn a scarf or owned boots. (I know mom, I know). But I have a job to do, and a deadline to meet, so I trek on to find one more location.
Sometimes you can find a nice meal in the unlikeliest of places. Located in a basement on Oxford street is Wai Wai, a subterranean eatery that sports minimal décor, thin plastic table clothes and no windows. But the home-style food is the perfect respite from the end of days that is occurring outside. After a little deliberation I order a leg of roast duck and rice ($7.75). Complimentary cups of hot tea and rich chicken soup warm me up for my main course, which is a simple and delicious offering. The duck is tender and rich and the flavors seep into the rice. It doesn’t take me long to clear my plate.
Just as the news predicted, the snow is now up to my waist. I trudge back to the orange line wondering the whole time if I have enough milk and bread at home to make it through the night. My socks are soaked and I’m sure to catch a cold but I feel like it was all worth it to get a taste of Chinatown before we’re snowed in forever.
Penang – 685 Washington St., Boston, 617.451.6373, penangmalaysian.com
Chinatown Cafe – 262 Harrison Ave., Boston, 617.695.9888
Wai Wai – 26 Oxford St., Boston, 617.338.9833