Located in one of Boston’s most densely populated neighborhoods, Chinatown borders the Boston Common, Downtown Crossing, the Massachusetts Turnpike, and the South End. It is the third largest Chinatown in the United States and home to a vibrant Asian community.
The neighborhood was originally a tidal flat; once that was filled, a succession of Irish, Jewish, Italian, and Syrian families called it home, and then the first Chinese immigrants arrived in the 1870s, pitching tents in the area now known as Ping On Alley. The city’s garment manufacturing began there, and some of the old plants have been converted into apartments and condominiums.
Beach Street remains the heart of Chinatown’s bustling business district. The number of dining opportunities is almost overwhelming. Chinatown restaurants were once exclusively Chinese, but you can now find an assortment of other Asian cuisines, including Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese. You can also find small shops that offer everything from live turtles and small statues of Buddha to Chinese herbs and foodstuffs.
Below are some of the area’s highlights.
160 Kingston St.
Just outside the Chinatown gate, the neighborhood’s formal entrance, is a small park featuring a giant floor chessboard, bamboo gardens, and a large mural. It’s a quiet place to enjoy a takeout meal, a refuge from the area’s bustling sidewalks. The area used to be a highway exit ramp but is now part of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, named for President John F. Kennedy’s mother. The Greenway was created when Boston’s Big Dig construction project moved previously elevated roadways underground, making way for a mile-and-a-half stretch of parks and green space that today winds through Chinatown, the Wharf District, and the North End.
My Thai Vegan Cafe
3 Beach St., second floor
The back stairs leading to My Thai may look somewhat foreboding, but for vegans, or vegan wannabes, the climb is worth it. The menu is extensive, the food inexpensive, and the restaurant has huge windows, an excellent vantage point for viewing the comings and goings on Beach Street below.
42 Beach St.
Located inside a derelict-looking food court, Egg Puffs offers one of the best-kept-secret snacks Chinatown has to offer—a warm, custardy, slightly sweet pastry that resembles a bite-size waffle. The stand is a one-person operation, staffed by an elderly woman who is known simply as “the Egg Puff Lady.” She makes these delicacies using a single electric griddle. Each piece is crunchy on the outside, with a soft, airy interior and a subtle, sweet taste. They’re addicting, and at $3 for a 30-piece bag they’re an easy habit to maintain.
42 Beach St.
A new addition to the food court at 42 Beach St., Sakura Sunakku bills itself as a “snackery,” serving up crepes, drinks, and desserts with a Japanese twist. The crepes are beautifully folded into handheld cones. Try a savory one studded with chicken teriyaki, egg, baby spinach, carrots, corn, red onion, mayo, and yuzu dressing. Or go for the sweet wild berries crepe, filled with strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, red bean, chopped cookies, custard cream, whipped cream, and crushed pistachio, all topped off with a chocolate drizzle. Another must-try is Sakura Sunakku’s shaved snow: folds of airy, icy “snow” in flavors such as matcha, strawberry, lychee, and taro that are topped with fruit and a variety of other toppings—everything from popping boba to flavored mochi to sweetened condensed milk.
Gourmet Dumpling House
52 Beach St.
Don’t let Gourmet Dumpling House’s unassuming façade fool you—inside this tiny, bustling restaurant you’ll find a fabulous ginseng chicken soup, spicy fish soup, sautéed Chinese watercress with garlic, all manner of beef and chicken dishes and, of course, dumplings. Be sure to try the mini juicy dumplings with pork (but be careful to bite the top off to let the steam out—otherwise you’re in for a world of hurt). And a word to the wise: Gourmet Dumpling House is often packed during peak meal hours (expect to share a table, once you get one), so if you’re looking for a quieter dining experience, consider stopping by for a late lunch or dinner.
Great Taste Bakery & Restaurant
63 Beach St.
Half restaurant and half bakery, Great Taste holds true to its name. Its novel-length menu offers a wide variety of delicious Hong Kong–style dishes at great prices—everything from noodles, to rice plates, to chicken or beef, and even frog dishes. But it’s their dim sum, served until 4 p.m. daily, that steals the show. There are no carts in this cozy space. Instead, you check off items from a special dim sum menu, and they come out in stages, fresh and steaming hot. Stop by the bakery next door for an array of delicious desserts (standouts include the egg custard tarts and red bean cakes) and bubble tea available in many flavor combinations.
Sun Sun Company
18 Oxford St.
Oxford Street is more an alley than a street, but it still has room for Sun Sun Company, a grocery store offering fresh vegetables, meats, seafood (they even sell live crabs), and candies, all at great prices. The staff is friendly and will help you locate all the ingredients you need to make an authentic Chinese meal.
Wai Wai Restaurant & Ice Cream Shoppe
26 Oxford St., basement
Tucked away in a basement storefront, this hole-in-the-wall is actually one of Chinatown’s hidden gems. With its affordable prices, generous portions, and a variety of mouthwatering dishes (including BBQ pork, roast duck with noodles, and chicken with rice and veggies), Wai Wai is worth the trip to Chinatown. And don’t forget to save room for dessert—the restaurant also serves ice cream in flavors such as ginger and coconut.
Happy Family Food Market
11 Hudson St.
If you are a fish lover, then Happy Family Food Market is the place for you. They carry standard seafood (including crab, shrimp, and lobster) as well as a selection of more exotic sea creatures (like turtles and bamboo clams). Plus, the market receives new deliveries every day, so you know that you’re getting fresh seafood—and it’s all for sale at very reasonable prices.
9 Tyler St.
China Pearl’s yellow sign beckons lovers of dim sum to go upstairs, where they can pick and choose from pushcarts that offer items from steamed buns to dumplings and rice noodles. Point to the dish you want, and the waiter will put it on your table and then stamp your card. If you’re a dim sum novice, it’s best to bring along a friend familiar with this authentic Asian cuisine.
9A Tyler St.
Shojo specializes in Asian fusion cuisine that gives traditional Chinese cooking a deliciously modern twist. The restaurant prides itself on its ever-changing menu, a mélange of inspired dishes that feature local produce and fresh ingredients. Be sure to come hungry and thirsty (the drinks menu boasts a wide variety of sake, soju, shochu, and creative cocktails).
16 Tyler St.
If you like to add an extra challenge to a meal, try hot-pot style dining, where you cook an assortment of thinly sliced raw meat, fish, and vegetables in hot broth right at your table. Not sure if you want the beef or the pork? You can cook up both, with your choice of veggies.
20 Tyler St.
Take a trip under the sea to Aqua World, the only Boston pet store specializing in aquatic creatures. Large tanks containing fish of all colors and varieties line the walls in this small store. A vibrant beta or sunny goldfish makes for the perfect low-maintenance pet for students living off campus. Living on campus? You’re better off looking, not buying, as pets of any kind violate BU’s on-campus residence policy. Also of note: the store does not offer exchanges, returns, or warranties.
Eldo Cake House
36 Harrison Ave.
Pastries, buns, candy, and other sweet treats can be found all over Chinatown, but no shop does cakes better than Eldo. Standouts include the pineapple bun and the egg tart, and if you’re in need of a beautiful cake for any occasion, Eldo’s got you covered. It’s open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
163 Vietnamese Sandwiches & Bubble Tea
66 Harrison Ave.
Craving some bubble tea? Head to 163 Vietnamese Sandwiches & Bubble Tea, where you can get coconut- or avocado-flavored drinks with or without the gummy tapioca balls at the bottom. Then order up a curry chicken sandwich, which comes with mayo, cucumbers, pickled carrots, daikon, onions, chili peppers, cilantro, and soy sauce, or try the restaurant’s famous BBQ beef sandwich. The prices are great (most items are around $4), but be sure to bring cash—the small eatery doesn’t take credit cards.
Nam Bac Hong
75 Harrison Ave.
Located just a few minutes from Tufts Medical Center, Nam Bac Hong is a Chinese herb and medicine shop that sells centuries-old treatments for almost any ailment imaginable. The cramped storefront is filled with herbal teas, lotions, potions, and other traditional medicinal methods of healing.
86 Harrison Ave.
Named for sister owners Gloria and Emily Chin, this Asian fusion café features an array of quirky snacks, entrees, desserts, and drinks. The menu offers some startling twists on both Asian and American dishes—think crab Rangoon with craisins; Spam and taro fries served in a Spam can; poutine made with waffle fries topped with kimchee, cheese, sriracha, mayo, scallion, and seaweed seasoning; and the “Down to Earth” cocktail, made with sake, green apple, lychee, and gummy worms. The eatery is a welcome addition to the late night scene; it’s open from 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. If you’re there with a group of friends, be sure to try the café’s famous cube toast dessert, a hollowed out hunk of brioche stuffed with ice cream, candy, mochi, fruit, and other sweets like Pocky sticks, red bean, and granola. It’s perfect for sharing. And if you prefer to satisfy your sweet tooth in your own home, you’re in luck: the sisters have opened Bao Bao Bakery next door at 84 Harrison Ave., where you can pick up buns, breads, cookies, and cakes to go.
681–683 Washington St.
Henry Hobson Richardson—the influential architect responsible for Trinity Church in Copley Square—completed this building in 1875, and it’s a must-see for anyone with a passion for architecture. A reflection of the constantly changing neighborhood, the Hayden Building has housed everything from pharmacies to tailor shops to adult movie theaters over the past century. After falling into a state of disrepair, the building has undergone a series of renovations (while still maintaining its historic façade) and is now the site of loft-style apartments, with a liquor store on the bottom floor. Richardson, who also designed the State Capitol building in Albany, N.Y., was one of the most influential architects working in 19th-century America.
32 Kneeland St.
Juice Republic opened in 2015, and it is a unique addition to Boston’s growing juice bar scene. In addition to fresh-squeezed juices and inventive fruit and vegetable smoothies, Juice Republic also offers customizable Taiwanese bubble teas. Unlike many other places in the neighborhood, here you can specify how much sugar you’d like in your tea, and if you’d like milk or cream. The smoothies come in a variety of unique combinations—patrons rave about the avo-deva smoothie, made with avocado, apple, lemon, agave, and homemade cashew milk.
Getting there: Take the Green Line inbound to the Boylston Street stop, turn left out of the station, walk away from the Boston Common on Tremont Street, take a left on Stuart Street (which turns into Kneeland Street), and walk about five minutes until you reach Chinatown, or take the Orange Line to the Chinatown stop.
Click on the points in the map above for more information on the places listed in our guide to the Chinatown area.