What to eat in Chinatown?
We'll be in Boston in two weeks, and I've allocated at least 1 meal to Chinatown. I've read plenty of recommendations on restaurants, I'm looking for recommendations on WHAT to eat. I'm adventurous, my wife not so much, and neither of us really know much about chinese food. This may be our only meal in Chinatown, preferrably non-seafood (we've got plenty of seafood on our agenda), not Peking duck (not sure I can plan it), not dim sum. Here in Lubbock we have maybe 8-10 Chinese restaurants, very popular for cheap buffets and combo plates. I'm looking for something I can't get at home.
I took visitors from the Midwest, whose experience with Chinese food is similar to yours, to Wing's, also Shanghainese but a smaller, simpler restaurant than New Shanghai (which would also be a good choice). It was certainly different without being too weird or spicy. The giant meatballs (lion's head, can't remember exactly how the menu lists it) was a big hit; alternatively get the braised ribs. Definitely some dumplings. I like their cold celery and tofu, or bamboo shoots.
Cookery in Boston's Chinatown, as in most Chinatowns in the United States, is Cantonese based, and often more specifically from the Chaozhou section of Guangdong Province. Because the Chinese who first settled the US (back in the days of the Gold Rush and the Trans-American railroad construction) came from coastal China, much of the cooking tends to be fairly seafood intensive, never mind that they mostly congregated in big cities on the coasts. The style is generally fairly mild, soy sauce-based in flavor, and often not the best places to go for spicy heat (for that, you'll want a Chinese restaurant manned by people who came over a little more recently, and ideally from Hunan, Sichuan or Yunnan Provinces).
East Ocean City used to be the place that my wife and I went to, back when we were dating. Unfortunately the last few times I've been, I have to say I've been disappointed by rising prices and dropping food quality, along with sharply cut back hours, so it is no longer my go-to place in Chinatown. Haven't been to Peach Farm yet, but I would also second Taiwan Cafe as a place where you can order pretty much anything off the menu, it won't be conventional Chinese-American tiki room stuff, and will be pretty good.
I'd opt for Wing's Kitchen, in a basement next door to New Shanghai, over the latter, though to be fair, I haven't been to New Shanghai under their new management. Both places do Shanghai style cooking, which is similar, has had a significant influence since Hongkong experienced a flood of Shanghai emigres after the Communist Revolution of '49, though frankly New York has far better Shanghai eateries. Still, Wing's is reliable for soup buns (xiao long bao, tiny steamed buns with hot soup in the middle, eaten with vinegar and pickled ginger); stir fried eel (I'm afraid I don't know the name of the dish in Englsh); lion's head meatballs (so named because of the size of the meatballs, not the contents, usually quite tasty seasoned pork and stuff in an anise-tinged sauce); doufu and crab meat; rice cakes (nian gao, typically eaten in most of China as a sweet dish, but in Shanghai available as a savory, thick, chow-fun-type rice noodle). And tang yuan, which has a sweet black sesame paste stuffed inside those glutinous rice dumplings. They also do something called "ba si" (fruit, usually apple or banana, cooked in a thick caramel sauce and served rocket hot, you pull the fruit chunks out of the caramel leaving strings of caramel trailing behind, dip it in cold water, then crunch down on something crunchy on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside, and like nothing you've ever had before, though whether that's a good thing or not is open to opinion).
Chaozhou/Teochew (Teochew is the pronunciation in the Chaozhou dialect, which is very different from the Cantonese dialect even though Chaozhou is a city in Canton) food is actually quite rare in the US. Braising in deep rich "master" stocks is a major technique; some of the signature dishes include braised goose, braised stuffed sea cucumber and braised sharksfin. You can get some of these dishes at Ho Yuen Ting, but it's currently under renovation. It appears that that the staff there have taken residence at China Pearl Best Cafe and you can get those dishes there.
Seafood, taro and pickles are popular ingredients. Fried crab or prawn meatballs wrapped in yuba/beansheets/tofu skin (I've had the crab version at Dok Bua; Teochews are the major Chinese minority in Thailand and have heavy influence on the cooking), pomfret steamed with pickles made from mustard greens and sour preserved plums, "crystal" dumplings with sweet or savoury fillings (got a very poor version at Hei La Mooon), "pomegranate" chicken (a moneybag made with wonton skin, filled with small cubes of stir-fried chicken, the former incarnation of New Shanghai had this dish, also available at Dok Bua), cold crab dipped in a honeyned sauce are other common dishes of the genre. And of course one of my favourites -- dessert of taro paste with gingko nuts and pumpkin.
I really like the lion's head meatballs at Wing's too! (They're so named for the "mane" of bai2 cai4/Shanghainese cabbage around the big meatball, the "head" in the centre.)
Try the Shanghainese food at New Shanghai. Ask for the "pearl meatbals" - meatballs coated with a layer of glutinous rice and steamed; it's on the white board as you walk in (might be in Chinese, but it worth the tiny extra effort of asking what the items are). 4 flavoured tofu is actually kaofu, a gluten rather than a tofu dish, sweetly flavoued (although not as sweet as the versions you'll get in Shanghai) with a hint of dark spices like star anise. Pan fried pork buns are a great Shanghai street snack. I really like their stir-fried rice cake with pork & veg. Consider the stir fried beef with green peppers. If they have glutinous rice dumpling with rice wine and osmnthus flowers for dessert ("tang yuan" - on the white board) get it, it's great.
Given your specifications -- not seafood, not peking duck, not dim sum, mix of adventurous palates and not so much -- I'd STRONGLY recommend Taiwan Cafe. Their menu is much less seafood-intensive than some of the other board favorites (like Peach Farm), and more to the point, they do everything on their menu well -- there's nothing we need to warn you against.
Unlike almost every other restaurant in Chinatown (many of which are superb, but primarily in their specialties), TC doesn't put chinese-american dishes on its menu to cater to people who "wouldn't like" the real stuff. Which isn't to say it's all duck tongues and pig intestines -- there are lots of items on the menu that would appeal to less adventurous palates, it's just that you don't need a secret handshake or special menu in order to find what they take pride in. The staff is also pretty helpful about telling you if a pork dish is, for instance, made with an especially fatty cut that you may or may not want.
As for specific dishes, some of my favorites are the pan-fried dumplings, the eggplant with basil, the beef with poblano peppers, the chinese sausage appetizer, mustard greens with tofu and edamame, just to name a few. Lots of people like the steamed soup dumplings, although I'm not nuts about them. If you do a search you'll find lots of other recommended dishes. Good luck and let us know where you end up and how you like it!
Here are my favorite dishes at Peach Farm. If you are only going to one restaurant in Chinatown, in my opinion, it should be Peach Farm.
They have the best hot and sour soup anywhere. Get a single-serving bowl if your wife won't eat it. The "small" bowl that they have on the menu is enough for four people.
Get a half roast-duck. It's on the bone, but there's plenty of succulent meat; I think you'd love it. They also make a great version of orange-flavored beef; the half chicken with Ginger and Scallions is fantastic, if you like fresh ginger. Pork in Garlic Sauce, Chicken in Black Bean Sauce, Strange Flavor Chicken...all really good.
Chicken with Cashew Nuts, Tofu Family Style, and if you like vegetables, get the chinese broccoli in garlic sauce (I can't remember now, but it might be spinach in garlic sauce...anyhow, it's really great).
I know you said no seafood, but if you change your mind, get the shrimp with walnuts, the Peach Farm special flounder, the clams in black bean sauce, or the 8 delights hot pot.
Whatever you order will be great; just do me a favor and stay away from the traditional Chinese-American dishes on the menu (fried rice, egg foo yong, chow mein). I'd hate to see you waste a visit on that stuff.
I like the Peach Farm and East Ocean City. You will find that most of Chinese places in Boston lean heavily on seafood due to the fact that there is an abundance of it in the area. You might try a half portion os tea smoked roast duck which can always be ordered without advance notice. The clams with black bean sauce are also a great choice along with a lobster done Chinese style stir fried with scallions and ginger. The peach Farm also has shrimp with garlis has is very good. I am sure you find the Chinese food in Boston much different and better than in Texas. Enjoy