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Cafe de Lulu, your friendly Boston 茶餐廳

Luther Jul 20, 2011 07:05 PM

茶餐廳 is cha chaan teng, a Hong Kong-style diner. Much like traditional US diners, they serve a variety of sweet and savory breakfast items alongside hearty, simple food you might associate more with lunch and dinner. Typical items for a cha chaan teng are toast with a sweet topping; noodle soups (often made with instant noodles) containing spam, chicken wings or hot dogs; fried noodle dishes; stir-fried or deep-fried dishes served over rice; and Western-style food like spaghetti with meat sauce and meat in cheesy or creamy sauces.

Cafe de Lulu got some posts here when it first opened last year, but I never made it down there- something about eating in a windowless basement seemed unappealing even when I wanted to check out the food. I finally made it there recently and it's the most charming basement diner I can imagine. A very friendly proprietress will chat with you in English, Cantonese or Mandarin and the semi-open kitchen allows the short-order stirfry chef to wander around and say hello. The decor is ikea-style and it's easy to forget you can't actually see outside. Several flat panels show Chinese (Mandarin) TV.

Aside from it being one of the few places anywhere in Boston to get the full selection of traditional short-order breakfast all day items, the notable feature is 3 dishes with rice and (basic watery) soup for $22. You select from about 75 items ranging from sweet and sour pork (HK style, not the puffy American kind, and the best version I've had in the US) to a delicately flavored homestyle eggplant and fish filet stir-fry, to salt and pepper deep-fried shrimp, to various combinations of mushroom and vegetable.

The room maybe isn't dirty enough and the service isn't gruff enough... but otherwise this is as authentic of a Hong Kong diner experience as I suspect you'll find most places in the US.

  1. g
    gourmaniac Jul 21, 2011 06:00 AM

    Thanks for the reminder on this place Luther. I've not tried them for dinner but had a couple of breakfasts (congee, soy sauce noodles) and enjoyed them. I recall that they also had silver thread noodles (the wormy rice noodle that Gitlo's had) and these were also good. I agree that this reminds me of Hong Kong snack shops and because the nice hostess is from Hong Kong, she is quite fluent in English, Cantonese and Mandarin.

    2 Replies
    1. re: gourmaniac
      gourmaniac Jul 21, 2011 06:50 AM

      Oops rechecked my previous post. Silver thread noodles were overcooked. I recall a good Wok Heh taste to the noodles with bean sprouts. RE Congee Great taste may be as good. I just had a bowl for $1.80 from the bakery side and that is good value.

      1. re: gourmaniac
        Matt H Jul 21, 2011 06:56 AM

        I appreciate the reminder as well. When I lived around the corner I would stop in for Congee and Condensed Milk Toast pretty regularly. Its a shame I haven't been back recently. Really comforting food.

      2. s
        Spike Jul 21, 2011 06:14 AM

        Any peanut butter stuffed french toast? That's gotta be the weirdest thing I've tried in HK but it was good :-)

        7 Replies
        1. re: Spike
          Nab Jul 21, 2011 06:24 AM

          I don't think they have the PB one, but I would love to be wrong about that !

          I keep telling myself to check this place out when I'm in C'town on a solo mission. I'd only grabbed an egg & beef sandwich from them once not long after they opened. I had a good feeling about their congee seeing it on a coupla tables, glad to hear affirmation from gourmaniac.

          Thanks for the scoop, Luther.

          1. re: Nab
            Nab Jul 21, 2011 06:26 AM

            found the menu:


            1. re: Nab
              barleywino Jul 21, 2011 06:43 AM

              thanks Nab (and Luther)!

              1. re: Nab
                peregrine Jul 21, 2011 12:21 PM

                What is Portuguese Sauce?

                1. re: peregrine
                  y2000k Jul 21, 2011 03:16 PM

                  Portugese sauce is a staple of Macanese cuisine, also popular in HK cha chaan teng. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portugue...

                  You can buy the sauce in supermarkets in Chinatown. I usu get the Lee Kum Kee brand.

              2. re: Nab
                barleywino Jul 29, 2011 05:12 PM

                the congee i had there was a bit more watery than say Hong Kong Eatery but ok. enjoyed the simple shrimp w/ scrambled egg, very fluffy/puffy. skip the pork belly w/ tofu. pork (cutlet) w/ portuguese sauce was a bit bland and the cutlet was not quite as crispy as it could have been. have to go back and try more items!

              3. re: Spike
                galangatron Jul 21, 2011 10:42 AM

                it's not on the menu but they will make it for you

              4. threedogs Jul 21, 2011 07:48 AM

                Thanks so much for posting this, Luther - first I've heard of it. Sounds like the kind of of place I really love discovering. I'm planning a sort of chow-hunt w/a friend this wknd - only wish that it wasn't going to be so d#mn hot and, of course, there's the problem w/parking (hooray for a/c in cars!)... hate to say it, but we may have to compromise for food because of this heat wave. Doubt that places like this have a/c, too - do you know?

                3 Replies
                1. re: threedogs
                  tysonmcneely Jul 21, 2011 07:55 AM

                  I'm about 75% certain, Cafe de Lulu has AC.

                  1. re: threedogs
                    Luther Jul 21, 2011 09:25 AM

                    They have AC... or at least it's rather cool down there

                    1. re: Luther
                      threedogs Jul 21, 2011 11:17 PM

                      Thanks! Realized I could call them, but I was out all day (ugh - heat). We might have to stick close to home - asthma is really kicking up.


                  2. s
                    sablemerle Jul 22, 2011 09:04 PM

                    Wow, this place does sound interesting.

                    I have a dilemma. The rest of the family has at least a couple of things they like about Americanese food (crabragoons, lo mein, Gen. Gau's, etc). Number One son hates all of it. Chinese food to him is sweet, gloppy and salty, in that order.

                    He has a fairly adventurous palate. He is the only one in the family (besides me) who likes "dead fish" (aka anchovies) on his pizza. He adores escargot bourgiougnion (sp?). He likes many Indian dishes and will eat them "medium spicy" so long as he has a glass of milk or a lassi to drink.

                    Long story short, what should we order to get him out of his "I hate Chinese" mindset.?

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: sablemerle
                      barleywino Jul 23, 2011 02:12 AM

                      Have him try the " deepfried fish filet in garlic sauce" there. Tender flaky fish, lightly dusted w/ flour to give a hint of crispiness, a rich dark three-cups-chicken type of sauce well balanced between salt, heat and sweet.

                      1. re: sablemerle
                        Luther Jul 23, 2011 03:25 AM

                        Easy, take him to a proper Sichuan restaurant and don't order any of the American crap. Nothing sweet or gloppy there.

                        1. re: Luther
                          KWagle Jul 24, 2011 06:10 AM

                          I second Luther's suggestion. While the most consistent and uniformly good Sichuan cooking is at Lao Sichuan (Sichuan Gourmet) they don't segregate their menu, so you may accidentally order Americanese dishes. Both "Thailand Cafe" and "Chilli Garden" have clearly marked Sichuan sections (a separate menu in the case of TC) and do very solid work. CG is more nuanced and creative with their dishes; TC caters to Chinese people and doesn't seem to care if you like it, so they don't pull any punches.

                          1. re: KWagle
                            owades Jul 24, 2011 07:26 AM

                            Any idea why Thailand Cafe provides such mediocre rice and tea along with such terrific Szechuan food?

                            1. re: owades
                              Luther Jul 24, 2011 02:01 PM

                              It seems to fit with the overall technical quality of the cooking there, which is generally poor. I really do wish they had better rice. Actually, relevant to this thread, Cafe de Lulu has pretty bad rice too.

                      2. crowdingthepan Jul 23, 2011 08:56 AM

                        Interesting and semi related from todays 'Times dining section:

                        1. n
                          nightsky Jul 23, 2011 09:09 AM

                          I love this place. The owner is really great about customizing noodle dishes according to your likes. I had a great beef noodle dish that was like chow foon, but had more bitter greens and pickled turnip.

                          1. a
                            amidli Jul 28, 2011 12:57 AM

                            pedantic question: is there a chinese-language menu? more importantly, is it in simplified or traditional characters?

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: amidli
                              Luther Jul 28, 2011 03:41 AM

                              Menu is bilingual and uses traditional characters

                              1. re: Luther
                                okra Jul 28, 2011 05:25 AM

                                a link for those of us who aren't familiar

                                Cafe de Lulu
                                42 Beach St, Boston, MA 02110

                                1. re: okra
                                  Luther Jul 28, 2011 07:59 AM

                                  That link is wrong- it points to Beach St in Dorchester. It should be Beach Street 02111 (Chinatown).

                                  1. re: Luther
                                    okra Jul 28, 2011 11:20 AM

                                    Fixed. Thanks!

                            2. threedogs Aug 3, 2011 12:37 PM

                              Ate here for lunch today. Had the BBQ pork on rice - came with some tasty greens. Very good - could have been a bit hotter (as in temp - not a spicy dish), but I was happy. Very tender boneless slices. In fact, it was too much for me to eat at one meal (I've decreased my meal portions intentionally, and am now used to smaller meals), so I brought the rest home.

                              Also got a Bahn Mi from the place upstairs (forgot the name). Never had any there before, but was in a hurry so I figured it was a good time to try. Going to have it for my supper. Mmmm (I hope, lol).

                              1. barleywino Aug 16, 2011 04:24 PM

                                Tried the sweet and sour pork on Luther's recommendation, it was indeed good (not something i normally order so i have no basis for comparison). A similar dish with more meat and sans pineapple (according to the hostess) is the pork chop in peking sauce.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: barleywino
                                  Luther Aug 16, 2011 06:53 PM

                                  True. Haven't had it there but Great Taste does a very good peking pork chops.

                                2. s
                                  sablemerle Aug 16, 2011 08:35 PM

                                  Thank you so much for posting this, Luther. We did end up taking the kids to Cafe de Lulu this past weekend, and ordered 3 dishes deal twice over (6 in all). I was thinking we might have some leftovers, but we demolished everything. Four of the dishes were outstanding - clams w/black bean sauce, baked pork chop w/portuguese sauce, two fish dishes, one pan-fried w/garlic sauce, the other steamed with mustard greens. The stemed fish was suposed to be shredded beef with eggplant, but it was so delicious that we didn't bring it to the waiter's attention.

                                  My husband ordered some General Gau "extra spicy". It wasn't spicy in the slightest, but was lighter, and crispier than usual, without that heavy, puffy batter. Not my favorite Americanese dish to begin with, but he and my daughter enjoyed it. The only real miss for me was curried lamb, which I think could have benefitted from longer braising.

                                  Whole tab came to $60 with drinks and tip. There are actually over a hundred dishes to choose from, and we will definitely be back to try more.

                                  Cafe de Lulu
                                  42 Beach St, Boston, MA 02110

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: sablemerle
                                    lipoff Aug 18, 2011 08:25 PM

                                    I think generally the comfortable surroundings, free WiFi, and friendly proprietor, make up for the okay-but-nothing-special food at Cafe de Lulu. But last time I was there I was quite impressed by the dry fried string beans, which were top notch, and the eggplant and "concubine" chicken were quite good as well. They have a broad array of interesting, non-alcoholic drinks. Condensed milk on toast is *very* Hong Kong.

                                    Cafe de Lulu
                                    42 Beach St, Boston, MA 02110

                                    1. re: lipoff
                                      barleywino Aug 18, 2011 10:48 PM

                                      The concubine chicken at Lulu's is fine although not as good as the version at Best Little restaurant (Empress chicken) imo

                                      1. re: barleywino
                                        lipoff Aug 19, 2011 10:03 AM

                                        Well, that just stands to reason --- how could a mere concubine be as good as an Empress?

                                        1. re: lipoff
                                          barleywino Aug 19, 2011 10:33 AM

                                          careful, some of those Empresses may have started out as concubines

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