“Chinese food in Texas is the best Chinese food in the United States,” Rabbit tells Ruth, in John Updike’s 1960 classic Rabbit, Run, as he waits for the server to bring chopsticks to the table. “Except Boston.”
Updike’s expertise in this realm is questionable, but even if Boston doesn’t have the best Chinese food in America, it most certainly has a take on Chinese cuisine it can call its own. Engineered for palates conditioned by decades of molasses-y baked beans, rich clam chowder, and watery Dunkin’ Donuts coffee ordered “extra-extra” style (extra cream, extra sugar), Boston Chinese, as I’ll abbreviate it, is essentially the “extra-extra” of Americanized Chinese food—simply substitute “white bread” for “cream” and “molasses” for “sugar” and you get a rough idea of the cuisine.
This quasi-Polynesian, quasi-Cantonese style of cooking still has a fervent fan base, particularly among the older set: threads on Chowhound and Yelp are filled with Boston expats everywhere from New Jersey to California to South Korea bemoaning the lack of fat, celery-stuffed egg rolls, and red-slicked pork strips in their lives. “A lot of the Boston natives have moved to other parts of the country, and they can’t find any good Chinese food so they look for the Boston style,” says sixty-four-year-old Rita Linda, a North Shore native who now lives in Fort Lauderdale and has taken pains to recreate many of these dishes at home, sharing her recipes on Chowhound under the pseudonym Hytzipky. “I could not lobby Kowloon into opening a Kowloon in the south of Florida,” she says of the Saugus-based favorite that’s peak Boston Chinese, though it wasn’t for lack of trying: “There are so many people who want that style of cooking.”
Now that Boston is rife with both regional Chinese specialists and more modern takes, Boston Chinese is most commonly found in the city’s suburbs these days. “We are not saying that Boston Chinese is more authentically Chinese—we are saying it is more authentically Boston,” says Boston University anthropologist Merry White. But that doesn’t mean that it’s any less fascinating as a unique intersection of immigrant ingenuity and New England taste buds.
Here are some of the tentpoles of Boston Chinese cuisine—and a few of the current successors to the form:
A staple of Boston Chinese menus, lobster sauce does not contain lobster; it was used to sauce the crustacean, but its protein source is, in fact, ground pork. Elsewhere in the county, this cornstarch-y sauce takes on a yellow or whitish hue, but it’s in the New England region that this gloopy gravy is dark and sweet, thanks to soy sauce and molasses. “The influence of the molasses trade, the sugar trade from the Caribbean, means that a lot of molasses is used in the Chinese food [here],” White says. This extends to the fried rice, which is darker brown, as well as the duck sauce. The condiment of choice for pudgy battered chicken fingers and egg rolls alike, duck sauce in this region is mixed on the premises in various combinations of applesauce, molasses, vinegar, apricot jam, plum sauce, and pineapple juice.
At Kowloon, a Polynesian palace overlooking Route 1, it’s $8.75 to order lobster sauce as a side dish, which is served in a massive bowl and scattered with chopped scallions. Though originally served on shrimp, “people started ordering just the sauce separately because they liked it separately,” says Kowloon’s co-owner Bob Wong. “If you have this thing perfected, it is absolutely the most tasty food,” Linda says. “Just make yourself some Boston-style lobster sauce and mix it with white rice—it’s absolutely delicious.”
Peking ravioli hit Boston in the late fifties thanks to Joyce Chen, who arrived in Cambridge in 1949 from Shanghai and introduced Mandarin-style dishes to the Boston area. One such dish was guo tie, or potstickers, which she called “Peking ravioli” in the hopes that the description would be clearer for diners. The name caught on (and you can learn more about them here).
French bread used to be a fixture of Chinese takeout orders and restaurant dining room tables; before Quinzani’s Bakery in Boston closed during the summer of 2015, it had 196 Chinese restaurant accounts (some of whom now buy from Piantedosi Baking Company in Malden). While bread is still available, providing it is a practice that’s on the wane. According to Judy Chen, owner of Golden China in Canton and The China in Quincy (see below), bread is not popular in her more urban Quincy location, but still in high demand in Canton: “In Canton I think we would lose our takeout customers if we didn’t have bread,” she says.
Bread is also an important component of two micro-regional specialties: the chop suey sandwich of Salem and the chow mein sandwich of the Fall River (a favorite of Fall River native Emeril Lagasse). It’s likely not a coincidence that both are historically port cities, White notes: “These were poor areas—when you went out for Chinese it was because you didn’t have money to go out for anything else. And you couldn’t get much cheaper than a chow mein sandwich.”
If you’re having chow mein in Fall River, the noodles most likely come from the Oriental Chow Mein factory. “The only thing that makes New England Chinese food any different than anywhere else, and maybe it sounds like I am biased, is the chow mein sandwich,” says Stan Wong, who operates the factory with brothers Frederick and Nelson and their mother Barbara. Stan’s grandfather, also Frederick, came to the region from Canton (now Guangzhou), China, and opened the business in 1926, which moved to its current location in 1946. The factory’s flagship product is Hoo-Mee chow mein noodles, crispy noodles made from flour and water and deep-fried daily on the premises. “It’s meant to be served as a main entrée-type thing where you make a brown gravy with celery, onions, and some sort of meat and bean sprouts, and pour that over the crunchy noodles,” Stan says.
As for the bread part? “America will find anything to put on bread, and chow mein is no different,” Stan says. Basically a pile of the aforementioned gravy-sauced fried noodles piled into a hamburger bun, this carb-on-carb combo could be found, at various points in history, on the menu at hospitals, schools, diners, and even hot dog stands in the Fall River area and its forty-mile radius.
While the chop suey sandwich can now only be found at Salem Lowe or Genghis in Salem, it originally had a major proponent in Dave Wong, proprietor of Salem’s legendary China Sails. Wong opened the restaurant in 1949 and, before ceasing operations in 1985, additionally ran a string of mall kiosks proffering chop suey sandwiches and darkly sauced beef-and-onion ones, too. The Salem flagship, meanwhile, put their bread orders to good use: “We took that French bread and made what we called pork strip sandwiches,” remembers Dave’s son Doug Wong, who now handles global franchising for Denny’s. The sandwich, which customers would slather in mustard and duck sauce, is sadly extinct.
Lee Chen’s Chinese & Mexican Food
The concept of Boston Chinese intersects with “drunk eats” at Lee Chen’s in South Boston. If you’re in your twenties and have gone out drinking at a Southie bar on a weekend, chances are you’ve scarfed down crab rangoons and boneless spareribs at this hole-in-the-wall spot on West Broadway, which stays open until two a.m. Or maybe you’ve decided you’re more in the mood for a quesadilla, or fajitas, or enchiladas—it’s all available for binge eating. This Mexican-Chinese combination has paved the way for a menu segment devoted to “Special Wraps:” Burritos stuffed with white rice, tomatoes, lettuce, and fillings like deep red boneless spareribs, shrimp with lobster sauce, and General Tso’s chicken.
For the past seven or so years, the restaurant has been operated by Philip Woo, a veteran of suburban Chinese spots like Jade II in Leominster. “The most popular thing we sell is the General Tso’s wrap,” Woo says of the hybrid creation, a massive roll-up which must clock in at over a pound in weight that contains white rice, the syrupy fried chicken, sour cream, and melted cheese.
If you asked a total outsider to describe what, in their mind, would be the most Boston Boston-Chinese restaurant ever, their description would likely not be all that far off The China: a two-year-old Quincy sports bar located next to a Dunkin’ Donuts, with a wraparound “Decade of Champions” sports mural on the walls, Samuel Adams on draft, and TVs in the bathroom. In addition to Chinese-American standards and a traditional Cantonese-style dim sum that’s served until 1 a.m., there’s also a section of the menu containing pub fare like buffalo wings and burgers, and another devoted to quite solid South Shore–style bar pizzas topped with everything from Kung Pao chicken to General Gau’s chicken.
The concept is the brainchild of Judy Chen, who grew up working at Golden China, her parents’ restaurant in Canton, and is a hardcore New England sports fan. While Golden China has been around since 1978, Chen implemented the new sports theme in the late nineties. “After I went off to college, I said, ‘Why can’t we be a sports bar? Put sports on the TV and have paraphernalia on the walls—something like that?’” Chen says. “It’s kind of taken off.”