Ah, Central Asian cuisine. Specifically, the foods of the Chinese provinces of Henan, Shaanxi and Xinjiang. My favorite examples of which have been enjoyed in recent years at Xi’an Famous Foods of NYC. Years ago, we discovered this outpost in the depths – and I mean depths – of the food stalls at the Golden Mall in Flushing, Queens. Tiny, cluttered, packed and sweltering, elbow to elbow, we sampled foods not available anywhere else, on a food expedition down to NYC undertaken by Larry, John, Michael and me. Since sparked by a TV appearance on Tony Bourdain’s show, Xi’an’s Famous Foods soon branched out all over the city.
We have collectively been dreaming of finding these dishes elsewhere, and now we have. In an unusual place – Boston’s Back Bay, on Mass Ave at Chef Chang’s. Get out! Yes, really.
Larry, John, Shane and I decided to give it a shot, and, boy, we were pleased. The starter was the traditional Ma-la Beef & Tendon in Chili Sauce, and an exquisite take on this common specialty. Finely ground peanuts, sesame seeds and scallion mixed in with shaved beef shank and tendon, all marinated in highly-addictive chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn, the numbing power (“ma”) that perfectly accompanies the spicy bite (“la”). This fairly generous appetizer serving disappeared in less than 30 seconds, no joke.
Next up, the Cumin lamb with Chinese steamed bun. Cumin being a dominant spice in the region, it offers a nice offset to the richness of the lamb. Chef Chang’s version has the lamb well-fried to offer a crisp texture, and the spiciness is cut by the tendrils of lettuce and the steamed bun.
One of us, did a fun “nips” run earlier in the day. This is an “athletic” event where everyone brings a bunch of airline mini-bottles of alcohol, and toss ‘em into one big bag. At each stop, the runner reaches into the bag, pulls out a random bottle, and knocks it back. So, on 6-7 nips and lukewarm Tsingtao during dinner, we . . . had a lot of fun with him. Luckily, a nice antidote to the alcohol was the XinJiang Big Plate Chicken with Hand Pulled Noodles. This was a massive portion of mild curry with onion, carrots and potatoes, highlighting on-the-bone tender chicken, served over springy, long hand-pulled noodles. Perfect for soaking up those nips.
Then came the “gout special”: Braised Pork Belly Chairman Mao Family Style with Chinese Pancake. “Red-cooked”, braised pork belly slices with a mysterious ingredient – olives? Prunes? I think a date, perhaps. Unctuous, yes, but oh so tasty, and soaked up nicely by the buns.
A mild disappointment was the Shaanxi Chinese Hamburger – a larger steamed bun that’s been toasted, filled with mild pulled pork. Juicy, yes, but, in comparison, non-descript. Note that I was wearing, in honor of our good friend Shane (and those who know him will understand completely why), my Jimmy Buffett concert t-shirt from . . . 1990.
The final dish had the anodyne name, “Tofu pudding beef”, and was perhaps my favorite on the night. Oil poached tender beef, including the chewy bits, with silken soft tofu floating in a rich brown sauce. Slide that on top of some steamed rice, and . . . heaven.
Overall, the food is worth a trip. And I suspect that you should take a trip soon, since I harbor a bit of fear for the restaurant. Given the location, it’s an attempt at upscale Chinese, complete with tablecloths and pink cloth napkins. But the seating is limited, and the two other tables I spotted tonight were ordering things like General Gau’s chicken. How will this place draw the epicures and adventure seekers that it so richly deserves, when it’s attempting to woo a different demographic – complete with the high prices to match? The final dinner bill, with six beers, tax and tip, was $180 for the four of us, easily double what we would have paid in Chinatown or in Flushing.
Still, worth every penny. Really do try a trip if you’re adventures and able!
30 Massachusetts Ave
Boston, MA 02115