Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: Chinatown
Eating, shopping, and hanging out in one of the Hub’s oldest neighborhoods
This article was originally published on September 25, 2008; it has been recently updated to include new locations and current information.
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, home to a vibrant Asian community.
The neighborhood was originally a tidal flat; a succession of Irish, Jewish, Italian, and Syrian families called it home before the first Chinese immigrants arrived in the 1880s, 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 items from live turtles and small statues of Buddha to Chinese spices and foodstuffs. Chinatown restaurants were once exclusively Chinese, but they now offer an assortment of cuisines, including Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese.
Although it’s easy to feel like a stranger in Chinatown, there’s a lot more to the neighborhood than firecrackers and lion dances. But you can quickly become comfortable here, especially if you check out the places below on your next visit.
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 bring your takeout. Although the section that housed the small playground is currently under construction, most of the park is still open to the public. The area used to be a highway exit ramp and is now part of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, named for President John 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 North End neighborhoods.
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 food is inexpensive, and the restaurant has huge windows, an excellent vantage point for 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 restaurant is ginseng chicken soup, sautéed watercress with garlic, 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.
Vinh Sun BBQ & Restaurant
58 Beach St.
Stop by this sliver of a restaurant on the corner of Beach and Oxford Streets for a delicious and cheap breakfast—fried ham and eggs or rice porridge. Be sure to pair your meal with the restaurant’s sweet coffee or Hong Kong milk tea. Vinh Sun also serves lunch and dinner, with an extensive menu of beef, chicken, pork, and seafood dishes.
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, seafood, and spicy candy. They even sell live crabs.
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.
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.
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 cake, the coconut cream pudding, and the egg tart. It’s open daily from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
163 Vietnamese Sandwich
66 Harrison Ave.
Craving some bubble tea? Head to 163 Vietnamese Sandwich, where you can get the coconut- or avocado-flavored drink with or without the gummy tapioca balls in the bottom. Then order up a curry chicken sandwich, which comes with mayo, cucumbers, pickled carrots, daikon, onions, chili peppers, cilantro, and soy sauce.
111 Chauncy St.
Clean, organized, and amazing, 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. The store is closed on Sundays.
Chau Chow City
83 Essex St.
Early morning is a great time to grab some Chinese food from Chau Chow. And we’re talking early: the restaurant is open until 3 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Walk over after a night out dancing at clubs on Boylston Street.
Registry of Motor Vehicles
630 Washington St.
Okay, it’s not a historic site, and you certainly can’t order dim sum here, but the RMV branch is one of the first buildings you see when you step off the train in Chinatown. It’s the place to go for vehicle registration, for paying citations, and for getting a Massachusetts driver’s license. Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Getting there: Take the Green Line inbound to the Boylston Street stop, turn left out of the station, and walk down Essex Street, 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.