Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: Chinatown
Eating, shopping, and hanging out in one of the Hub’s oldest neighborhoods
Chinatown is one of Boston’s most densely populated neighborhoods, bordering 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, before 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’ll also find small shops that offer a range of goods, 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 the mother of President John F. Kennedy (Hon.’55). 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.
Inside an unprepossessing 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—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—from noodles to rice plates to chicken or beef, and even frog dishes. But it’s their dim sum, served until 4 pm 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.
Wai Wai Restaurant & Ice Cream Shoppe
26 Oxford St., basement
Tucked away in a basement storefront, this off-the-beaten track place is one of Chinatown’s hidden gems. With its affordable prices, generous portions, and 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 at very reasonable prices.
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.
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. Among standouts are the pineapple bun and the egg tart, and if you’re in need of a beautiful cake for any occasion, Eldo has you covered. It’s open daily from 7 am to 7 pm.
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—this small eatery doesn’t take credit cards.
Nam Bac Hong
75 Harrison Ave.
Situated 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 small 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, entrées, 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 am to 4 am 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 scads of businesses, 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.
682 Washington St.
This hidden gem serves up some delicious pho, or Vietnamese soup. Beyond its beef, chicken, pork, and seafood pho varieties, the restaurant also serves entrées including rice dishes, hot and sour fish soup, and vegetarian options. The drinks menu even balances the tastes of America with Vietnamese traditions: the restaurant pours not only coffee, tea, and lemonade, but also egg soda and salty plum soda. Pho Pasteur is an ideal stop if you find yourself around Boston Common, either for a warming bowl of pho or to try new dishes.
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.
Check out our Chinatown list on Foursquare for more neighborhood tips.