Boston Chinatown Tour

Old Jun 14th, 2009, 02:58 AM
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Boston Chinatown Tour

Looking for a local adventure and anxious to de-mystify Chinese food and ingredients, I negotiated a day trip to Boston with DH, the man who hates cities. Several years ago I had enjoyed a North End culinary tour with Michele Topor so I did not hesitate to sign us up for a culinary tour of Boston's Chinatown. This time, Jim Becker would be our tour leader. Jim has studied in China and is a former professional chef.

DH, the man who hates cities, also hates driving into Boston. The last time he had even been to Boston was when Greyhound had deposited DS at South Station at 5:30 am. DH was willing to let DS suffer several long hours until the next bus would bring him north until I intervened. But, no problem this time, directions on our tour info led us directly to a $10/day on weekends parking garage in Chinatown. Jim told us he had just found out you can park at the South Station bus terminal for $8. Even cheaper plus it has public restrooms. We were warned that there would be no restrooms available until our dim sum lunch.

The tour started at 9:30 am with a half hour introduction to Chinatown's history and ended with a dim sum lunch at Hei La Moon. Fortunately we were able to sit in a lovely garden area of the Rose Kennedy Parkway while Jim talked. We would do a lot of walking. Our first treat of the day was a pastry. Mine was a ham and egg. I am fascinated by Chinese pastries. The roll is sweet and delicate but the filling was savory. Interesting combination. We visited a variety of shops where Jim explained about the shop and what it sold. I would never have entered a Chinese herb store by myself. Not only was the visit fascinating but DH and I returned to buy some medicinal drops, one for headaches and one for arthritic joints. Jim is very personable and an excellent speaker. Thanks to his cooking expertise, he could explain ingredients at the grocery store and answer questions about cooking. I had a short shopping list with me. There is no time to shop during the tour so we spent time shopping afterwards. I ran into others from the tour group at the market. Unfortunately I'm leaving on Monday for a week so I wasn't able to buy some of the fresh ingredients that I want to try. And btw fresh fruits and vegetables at the market were less expensive than my local grocery for things like lemon grass and baby bok choy. Fortunately Jim gave each of us a sampling of Chinese candies after our visit to the candy store. We were already filling up on samples and still had lunch on the agenda. DH and I didn't open our candy boxes until that evening.

A long time ago we had to abort a visit to Chinatown when DH and DS (very young at the time) became too uncomfortable with so many strange sights, sounds and smells of Chinatown. This time I am pleased to report that DH thought the roasted chickens hanging in the windows looked good and the live fish, crabs, etc at the market were interesting. Our visits to the different shops were brief but we met with friendly faces and when we stood on the sidewalks for brief lectures, Jim made sure we weren't in anyone's way. Usually there is someone in each shop who can speak English but keep in mind that many workers do not speak English. When I asked for help at the grocery and asked the young male clerk if he spoke English he replied with a shrug "simple" and did his best. I bring this up because my previous dim sum lunch had been with friends, one of whom thought all the waitresses should be able to speak English.

Dim Sum is like a buffet of small plates except you remain sitting at a table while the waitresses roll food carts around the restaurant. It is best eaten with friends because each dish usually holds 4 servings. Jim cut some of the things in half but was very willing to get more dishes for us. I think we were all glad for half tastes because we wanted room to try a variety of things. Not only did Jim explain the ingredients in each dish but he also explained some of the dining customs. I'm kind of sorry we group voted to pass on the chicken feet, after all, this was a great opportunity to try something. Six of us ate for about $51.

The tour included a little map with a listing of Jim's favorite restaurants categorized by type of cuisine. I was thrilled that DH enjoyed the tour as much as I did and hope that we won't wait so long for our next visit to Boston. I want to have a banh mi sandwich and some Asian style ice cream for dessert. If we had had more energy, it would have been nice to follow the Rose Kennedy parkway to Boston's North End. I highly recommend either of the culinary tours for any Boston visitor. Both neighborhoods are unique.
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Old Jun 14th, 2009, 03:35 AM
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Hi dfrostnh, thanks for such a well-written, detailed report! I'm glad your DH had a great time too. How many people were on your tour? I suppose there is a max # of people who can sign up?

I also like Hei La Moon (I call it "the dim sum place underneath the garage"). Next time, I'll try Windsor Cafe, which gets pretty good review but they don't do dim sum carts. Instead, you get a list (like at sushi places) and check off what you want.

Hopefully it won't be long before you can come back for a revisit. I agree that there are so many options in Chinatown that it's difficult to make a choice as to what/where to eat. I face that difficult dilemma every time I find myself in Chinatown ("hmmm... do I want Cantonese roast pork, or Vietnamese pho, or dim sum, or Taiwanese noodles?")

I don't know if there's much difference between Asian style ice cream and regular ice cream. Certainly you can pick up some sweet bakery items for dessert too.

Good tip about the South Station bus terminal parking lot. It is a good deal for weekend. But for weekdays, I believe they're just as expensive as other places ($30+/day).
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Old Jun 14th, 2009, 06:06 AM
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My son is starting at Boston University this fall, and I will be in Boston a few times this summer and fall for that. Thanks very much for the interesting report, and I am going to try this tour.
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Old Jun 14th, 2009, 07:23 AM
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Hi yk! Rain is keep me from garden chores this morning. The tour is limited to 10 people. We had 5 plus our guide. The shops are small, the sidewalks narrow, anymore would be too many. Plus everyone fits around the restaurant table. I think the main difference between Asian ice cream and regular would be the flavors. Ginger is pretty common and found at many ice cream places but red bean is unusual and I like the flavor. According to the info sheet, sometimes Durian is available. (The fruit that Andrew Zimmerman couldn't stomach.) DH loved the coconut pastries also the coconut gelatin at the restaurant. Living in/near the city has its advantages. What a wonderful variety of foods to try.
emd3 - the tour can sell out early for some dates. I think around college graduations it was booked way ahead. Tell your son to try bahn mi sandwiches - Vietnamese subs. They sell for $3 and are very tasty.
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Old Jun 14th, 2009, 07:34 AM
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Not sure which bakery shop you guys went to, but Eldo Bakery in Chinatown will make you a fresh Durian cake on special order. A few months ago I went there in the evening for a dessert snack after dinner, and the smell of durian filled the entire bakery.

DH & I had durian ice cream when we were in Macau in 2008. It tastes quite differently than it smells, strangely.

6 is a good group for dim sum. Sorry that your tour group peers voted against trying chicken feet. What was/were you favorite dish(es) at dim sum?
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Old Jun 14th, 2009, 10:58 AM
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great report!

do you have a website for his tours? I have always wanted to hire an asian food quide to walk me thru the grocery aisles of a few markets in and around chinatown, explaining ingredients and uses.
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Old Jun 14th, 2009, 11:08 AM
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Cool report. I drove through Chinatown just YESTERDAY on my way to Copley/Prudential for shopping and the California Pizza Kitchen (closest one to NH). Small world. I didn't know there was any kind of tour of Chinatown. Thanks for the report.
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Old Jun 14th, 2009, 02:53 PM
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I'm pretty sure the tour that dfrostnh took is also by Michele Topor's company:
http://www.northendmarkettours.com/h...chinatown.html
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Old Jun 14th, 2009, 07:44 PM
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Glad you enjoyed this tour; I too have done the MIchele Topor North End tour , with Michele, and we all enjoyed it - I keep thinking about doing this one , but have yet to get around to it.
I still shop at some for supplies at some of the spots and for some of the ingredients /recipes that Michele talked about during our tour - following the Rose Kennedy Greenway all the way to the North End is delightful - esp on a beautiful day - and you can get some great pastry at Maria's and sit right in the park now and enjoy - it's an amazing space, definitely visit it on your next trip : one of the best things Boston has added in a long time
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Old Jun 15th, 2009, 02:38 AM
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Yes, yk's link in the tour we took. I liked all the dim sum except one particularly crunchy one with shredded taro. It just seemed mostly crunch without much flavor. The little dim sum guide book Jim recommended was out of stock so I don't remember the names. I think I have a recipe for the coconut gelatin. I think the one he called sharks fin had a lot of garlic chives and was esp tasty. The buns with a little bit of sweet filling were also good. Now I can't remember what the filling was. This time it wasn't red bean.
Gyppie, the tour starts at 9:30 am ending at 1pm. I'm not sure how long we were in the grocery C-Mart. I've taken a couple of one night Chinese cooking classes which helped me learn about some ingredients. Of course, we also discussed ingredients during lunch but if you could hire a private guide, I'd certainly recommend Jim. He speaks the language and is a former professional cook. Very personable.
Escargot, I hope DH and I get back soon esp because he's never been to Maria's. Just the bamboo garden near the Chinatown gate was a delightful area of the parkway. It's amazing that the little specialty shops can still survive in this era of tear downs/Rite-Aid proliferaton.
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Old Jun 15th, 2009, 05:34 AM
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I like the coconut gelatin dessert too! It is a must-order for me. Yes, you're right about the "sharks fin dumpling" (others please note that there is NO sharks fin in them). I believe it has vermicelli noodles inside which is similar to sharks fin to a small degree. Was the sweet buns' filling yellow in color? It could be a mixture of eggs and cream (we call it "milk yellow bun"). I wonder if you guys tried a chive dumpling? Those aren't always available, but they are steamed dumplings with transparent skins, and the filling is mostly chinese green chives with small amt of ground meat. That one is my all-time favorite dim sum item, but it is not always available. Lastly, did you guys try the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf?

My friend once told me a funny story: she was in Hong Kong and took some foreign friends to dim sum. One of the friends had a teenage son. They ordered the sticky rice dish, and they were all too busy chatting and didn't pay attention to the boy. He ended up eating the lotus leaf! I guess he got LOTS of fiber that day.

P.S. I have never been to Maria's either, but my sis-in-law swears by their sfogliatelle (clam shell).
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Old Jun 15th, 2009, 04:53 PM
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yk; oh your sister is right - the sfogliatelle - amazing - all her pastries are - also her
chocolate log torrone - and guandi - her homemade panettone - oh, everything ! - the other great thing about Maria is that you know what she has ordered elsewhere and what she has made - she keeps anything brought in in the bottom box vs. her cookie sheets - many of the other bakeries do not do that - and it is worth getting ANYTHING she makes !
you used to be able to order - the fresher things I can't figure how they would ship, but something like the chocolate log I can see..... anyway, next time you are near there - go and taste your way thru her shop - it's tiny - you can see it on their page -

www.northendboston.com/marias
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Old Jun 16th, 2009, 12:41 PM
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An update: my brother was visiting me here and we went to Windsor Dim Sum Cafe today (on Tyler Street). Oh my, very very good quality dim sum! As I had mentioned previously, at this place, you order off a list (like at a sushi restaurant), and the dishes come out when each one is ready. Not only the quality was excellent, you also get steaming hot dim sum straight from the kitchen. We ordered 6 dishes and all were very well done.
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Old Jun 22nd, 2009, 05:39 AM
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I've been away but I'm glad I didn't miss the additional posts. I know we had one dumpling that had lots of chives in it. The sweet fillings we had were all red bean (I think). I'll have to try a sweet bun with the egg filling. We didn't try any of the sticky rice but have had some in the past. In fact, I took a cooking class where we learned to prepare the leaf wrapped goodies. That's funny about eating the leaf. When a friend was very young, he ate shrimp, shells and all at a Boston restaurant. I want to go back with friends to try more restaurants on the list.
While in Peoria last week we ate at a restaurant called One World where I had a great Asian wrap with three dipping sauces. I need to learn how to make some great dipping sauces. One was peanut and my other favorite was the sweet chili sauce kind. Another night we went back to the same area ending up at a Chinese restaurant with the typical lunch special dishes. Still, the food was tasty even if it was Americanized. Next door was a small Asian market where I would have bought more things (like the green peppercorns I need for a recipe) except my bags were already overstuffed. My friend was delighted to find some lychee flavored hard candy and enjoyed my "lecture" about the ingredients I've been buying. My sugar snap peas should be ready soon.
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Old Jun 22nd, 2009, 05:48 AM
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dfrostnh, there are so many bottled sauces available at Asian markets that I personally would not bother with making my own!

None of my potted herbs are growing since we haven't seen the sun for more than an hour in the last 2 weeks! It's been rain, rain, and more rain...
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