Tour of Boston's Chinatown brings visitors into shops and eateries

By Alexandra Pecci
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Warm, sweet-smelling air hits my face as I step out of the swirling snow and into Ho Yuen, a tiny bakery in Boston's Chinatown. The place is packed with locals ordering their morning favorites -- and us, a small knot of tourists venturing into a shop like this for the first time.

Our guide passes around a small pink plastic bag filled with pieces of the bakery's moon cakes, which he said might remind us of "Aunt Martha's fruitcake, if Aunt Martha were Chinese." They're filled with nuts, lotus seed and fruit, and if you're lucky, a duck egg yolk or two. I reach into the bag and pull out an entire duck egg yolk with a small piece of pastry clinging to its side. Lucky me!

My six companions and I are on the Boston Chinatown Market Tour, a look at the neighborhood's culinary specialties and highlights. Our guide, Jim Becker, is an American chef who studied in China in the 1970s (which is why "proletariat" and "bourgeoisie" are part of his Chinese vocabulary).

Exploring Chinatown can be intimidating for the uninitiated, especially when it comes to food, what with all the mystery ingredients and the language barrier involved. It doesn't help that Boston's Chinatown was once considered part of the "Combat Zone," the nickname given to the city's red-light district. Today, the Combat Zone has virtually vanished, and the tours -- the brainchild of Boston chef Michele Topor and given every Thursday and Saturday -- aim to help folks feel comfortable exploring and eating here.

In the interest of not acting like a luck-hoarding glutton at the bakery, I share my duck egg yolk with a guy on the tour. It tastes better than I'd imagined it would, the egg yolk giving the pastry a creamy finish. Next we sample coconut dumplings and dumplings rolled in sesame seeds and filled with sweet red bean paste before moving on to our next stop, the modestly named Great Barbecue. Here, glistening roasted chickens and ducks hang from metal hooks behind a glass case, their heads still attached and their eyes wide open. Colorful paper signs declare the price per pound in Chinese and English.

Jim hands out toothpicks and wet naps before popping into the back of the shop to retrieve a plastic-foam box filled with roast pork strips. I stab one with a toothpick and take a bite. Unlike the pink takeout versions, these strips, seasoned with five-spice powder, are mahogany-colored and fall apart in your mouth. The box passes my way again, and I snag another.

We get a quick lesson in tea and jade at a small, relatively new shop called Chinese Art Collection, where we try a tea flavored with jasmine petals that's dubbed Iron Goddess of Mercy. "Sounds like a Catholic school nightmare," quips Jim.

Then we head to the herbal pharmacy Nam Bac Hong Chinese Herbs.

I'm in the way no matter where I stand in the busy shop. People wend their way between the narrow pharmacy counter and stacks of countless ready-made cures, such as "Men's Vigor Tea" and camphor-scented white flower oil, which Jim rubs into his temples whenever he has a headache. Other customers disappear into the back of the store, where an herbalist assesses their condition and orders a prescription of herbs, bark, seeds, roots and other ingredients stored in wooden drawers that line the shop's back wall from floor to ceiling. We watch pharmacists mix the ingredients on metal hand-held scales, crush them with a mortar and pestle and wrap them in paper. Customers steep their prescriptions in tea or soup.

At Bao Bao Bakery and Cafe, a popular place with mirror-lined walls and Technicolor cakes, Jim once again goes into a back room. This time he returns with mango, peach and litchi-flavored iced tea. The latter, mixed with a scoop of "bubbles" -- fat, black, chewy tapioca pearls -- makes bubble tea. We use extra-wide straws to slurp it up. People are crazy about bubble tea, or so Jim says, but it's a bit too sweet and perfumey for my taste. I take just a few sips before ditching it.

We take a quick peek into Eldo Candy House, a shop that uses the word "candy" loosely: It sells scooped snacks such as wasabi green peas and candied olives. The store is small and a bit overwhelming with its vast tubs of goods, so we duck outside, where Jim brings us each a miniature Chinese takeout container filled with candied ginger, tamarind and other samples from the store. I stash it in my bag to eat at home later.

On to C-Mart, an Asian grocery store. At the fish counter, eels swim in tanks and the shrimp are still twitching. "Shrimp don't get much fresher than this," says Jim. As we stand in an aisle alongside produce that includes dried candied persimmon and ginkgo nuts, I start to notice the shoppers' reactions to us. Some people stop to listen, others look bemused. It makes me wonder what I would do if tourists stood in front of the deli case while I was doing my grocery shopping. "These are cold cuts," their guide might tell them. "American suburbanites eat them between two slices of bread."

The tour ends with a dim sum lunch at a restaurant named Hei La Moon. Jim greets the servers in Cantonese, then expertly chooses steamer baskets filled with delicate taro root dumplings, spareribs and crispy deep fried spring rolls from the carts they wheel around the restaurant. Tea etiquette, he tells us, states that you pour your neighbor's tea and say thank you by rapping two knuckles on the table. I try to remember to do it whenever someone refills my cup. The entire meal -- tea plus 10 dishes, which easily served eight -- cost only $57.

The tour is officially over after lunch, but we all linger around the table a little longer. Jim's heading back to C-Mart to do some shopping of his own, and he invites us along. I'm tempted to go, but I have a baby waiting for me at home. As I walk back to the subway, I find myself already planning a trip back. I snap some pictures of the street scene, wondering whether my husband would like dim sum and imagining exploring the neighborhood with my daughter over the summer.

I've lived outside Boston all my life and had never been to Chinatown before. I don't know why. But I do know that it'll be much harder to eat greasy, Americanized Chinese takeout now that I've had the real, unadulterated thing.

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