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Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: Chinatown

Eating, shopping, and hanging out in one of the Hub’s oldest neighborhoods

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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. Small shops offer everything from live turtles and small statues of Buddha to Chinese spices and foodstuffs. Chinatown restaurants were once exclusively Chinese, but you can now find an assortment of other Asian cuisines, including Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese.

Anyone who visits Chinatown will discover there’s a lot more to the neighborhood than firecrackers and lion dances. Below are some of the neighborhood’s highlights.

Chinatown Park
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. A refuge from the area’s bustling sidewalks, it’s a quiet place to enjoy your takeout meal. 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 nearly mile-long stretch of parks and green space that today winds through Chinatown, the Wharf District, and the North End.

My Thai Vegan Cafe, Chinatown, Boston

My Thai Vegan Cafe, 3 Beach St., second floor

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.

Gourmet Dumpling House
52 Beach St.

With all the bustle on Beach Street, it’s easy to miss the Gourmet Dumpling House. Don’t let the 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. 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, so if you’re looking for a quieter dining experience, consider stopping by for a late lunch or dinner.

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 spicy candy, 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), Mai Mai is worth the trip to Chinatown. And don’t forget to save room for dessert—the restaurant also serves ice cream.

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 shellfish). 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.

China Pearl
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.

Shabu-Zen, 16 Tyler St.

Shabu-Zen, 16 Tyler St.

Shojo
9A Tyler St.

Shojo specializes in Asian fusion food 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).

Shabu-Zen
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 raw meat and vegetables in 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.

Chinatown Hit
27 Harrison Ave.

From knick-knacks (like ceramic “lucky cats” and Chinese Zodiac figurines) to tech accessories (like animal-shaped iPhone covers) to jade necklaces and bamboo plants of all sizes, Chinatown Hit is the perfect place to find a gift for a friend or for yourself.

Silky Way Martial Arts, 33 Harrison Ave.

Silky Way Martial Arts, 33 Harrison Ave.

Silky Way Martial Arts
33 Harrison Ave.

Silky Way carries books, DVDs, drums, puppets, and dolls. Make sure you find the staircase to the second floor, which offers an incredible array of martial arts accessories.

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. It’s open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

163 Vietnamese Sandwich
66 Harrison Ave.

Craving some bubble tea? Head to 163 Vietnamese Sandwiches, 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, but be sure to bring cash. 163 Vietnamese Sandwiches doesn’t take credit cards.

Eldo Cake House, 36 Harrison Ave.

Eldo Cake House, 36 Harrison Ave.

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.

Winmil Fabrics
111 Chauncy St.

Clean, organized, and amazing in every way, this mom-and-pop shop has a great selection of fabrics, tools, buttons, and patterns. Maybe you need material and accessories for that Halloween costume you’ve been planning or have been looking for material to reupholster grandma’s chair. You’ll find it all at Winmil.

Chau Chow City
83 Essex St.

Chau Chow gives new definition to the term “late night dining.” The restaurant is open until 3 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday, making it the perfect place after a night out dancing at the clubs on Boylston Street.

Winmil Fabrics, China Town

Winmil Fabrics, 111 Chauncy St.

Egg Puffs
42 Beach St.

Located inside a derelict looking food court and nestled between a Vietnamese sandwich shop and a sushi place, Egg Puffs offers one of the best-kept-secret snacks China Town has to offer—a warm, custardy, slightly sweet pastry that resembles a bite-size waffle. The stand is a one-person operation, manned 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 $2.75 for a 30-piece bag they’re an easy habit to maintain. Get your own Monday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Aqua World
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 the on-campus residence policy. Aqua World is open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Hayden Building
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 any serious student of 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 Hayden Building has undergone a series of renovations (while still maintaining its historic façade) and is now the site of loft-style apartments. Richardson, who also designed the State Capitol building in Albany, N.Y., was one of the most influential architects working in 19th-century America.

Otaku
44 Kneeland St.

Hello Kitty air fresheners, oversized rhinestone phone covers, plush dragons—you find it all in this brightly painted gift shop. Featuring a seemingly endless array of Asian knick-knacks and tchotchkes, serious shoppers should plan to spend a good hour here. Otaku is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

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.

Learn about other neighborhoods around Boston here. Check out our Chinatown list on Foursquare for more neighborhood tips.

This article was originally published on September 25, 2008; it has been recently updated to include new locations and current information.

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