In Boston.com’s Perfect Day series, we’re talking to a local expert in each of Boston’s 23 neighborhoods about how they’d spend their perfect day. See what makes this city so special to your neighbors, and share your perfect day with us at [email protected].
Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood is a hub of Asian culture and food in New England, offering up a whole world to its residents and passersby in just a handful of streets.
To Debbie Ho, the executive director of Chinatown Main Street, the densely-populated neighborhood often seems like a “little mall within four or five streets.” Despite its small size, there is no shortage of food markets and restaurants, boba tea shops and bakeries, as well as herb stores, trinket shops, salons, boutiques, and more.
The neighborhood has a rich history and has withstood development and destruction. Boston’s Chinatown was settled by Chinese immigrants in the 1870s and has since seen waves of immigration from several regions in China and across Asia. It is the only surviving historic, ethnic Chinese enclave in New England since the Chinatowns in Providence, Rhode Island and Portland, Maine disappeared in the 1950s.
We asked Ho what a perfect day in Chinatown looks like to her and she shared what she’d do, where she’d go, and — perhaps most importantly — what she’d eat.
Ho’s family immigrated to Chinatown in the early 1900s, and she was born and raised in the neighborhood. Growing up, she lived on Hudson Street, which was considered the main residential neighborhood of Chinatown in the 1950s and early 1960s, before being demolished for the Central Artery.
Despite it all, she said the neighborhood is incredibly resilient and thriving. Her memories of the neighborhood are distinctly joyful, and continue to be so.
“When we were little, during the summertime, we would run across the street to the schoolyard, we would bike, we would play handball. We would sit on the front stoop of the brownstone that we lived in, listening to music. The bookmobile would come out, too. It was a lot of fun,” she said.
Today, she continues making memories with her family and community members in the neighborhood she loves.
“It’s our community to treasure and it’s where my family has been for over 100 years,” she said.
Here’s how she’d spend a perfect day in Chinatown.
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Morning: dim sum brunch
Ho’s perfect day in Chinatown takes place on a sunny Saturday in July. Her grandkids are in town for the day, which is a special treat for her — “They don’t come in too often.” To make it even more special, it’s the day of Chinatown Main Street Summer Festival, an annual celebration hosted by the nonprofit organization.
Passersby and pedestrians hit the streets early around 8 a.m., Ho said, already eager to get a head start on the various vendors selling plants, trinkets, and food along the streets.
Later, lion dancers and martial artists will flood the streets in a blur of color. She’ll return to watch them later with her grandkids, but first: dim sum brunch.
Dim sum is a traditional Chinese meal made up of small dishes that are often accompanied by tea. Dishes are shared among family and friends at leisure, normally in the late morning to lunchtime hours.
Ho has many favorite dim sum restaurants in the neighborhood, but for her perfect day, she’s heading to Empire Garden (690 Washington St.) a legend in the dim sum scene in Chinatown. The restaurant features banquet-style Chinese dishes served by traditional cart-service in a vintage theater. She goes for her usual favorites, namely shu mai, steamed rice rolls, and ham sui gok. But feel free to venture and try other items, too — there’s nothing on the menu that isn’t tasty, she said.
Her other restaurant recommendations include: Hei La Moon Restaurant (83 Essex St.), Winsor Dim Sum Café (10 Tyler St.), Peach Farm (4 Tyler St.), and Jumbo Seafood (5 Hudson St.).
Afternoon: bubble tea, bakeries, and the Summer Festival
Next up on the itinerary are bubble tea and bakeries to satisfy her grandchildren’s sweet tooth. Ho is impartial to the tea-based drink that originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s, but her grandkids love it, so she complies.
There are plenty of bubble tea shops (also called boba tea) around Chinatown, and everyone seems to have their own favorite shop, she said.
“Whether it’s Tea-Do (8 Tyler St.), Kung Fu Tea (66 Kneeland St.), Gong Cha (40-44 Harrison Ave.), everyone coming to Chinatown has already marked their favorite brand of bubble tea,” she said.
She’ll head to Cafe Darq (38 Beach St.), a mom-and-pop café that serves both bubble tea and espresso drinks (her beverage of choice).
Her eldest granddaughter will go for one of the café’s most popular drinks, a brown sugar milk tea with boba, while her grandson will choose a classic Thai tea with bubbles. Both drinks have a black-tea base with milk and sweetener added. For a fruit-based drinks, try a mango smoothie or an avocado shake.
Beverages in hand, it’s time to get some sweet treats for the road. Like bubble tea shops, there are numerous bakeries around the neighborhood. Ho’s favorite bakeries include 180 Café (23 Edinboro St.) and May’s Cake House (233 Harrison Ave.), a basement-level Chinese bakery featuring traditional pastries and cakes, plus tea and coffee.
She recommends going for pork buns for a savory treat, custard buns for a slightly sweet pastry, and mooncake if it’s available and you’re feeling adventurous.
“It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, when it comes to mooncake, but it’s really good,” she said.
Mooncakes are traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is held on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar (typically mid-September to early October). The cakes are traditionally filled with a lotus seed paste, although other fillings are used as well, such as red bean paste or a nut filling.
Pastries in tow, it’s time to sit down and watch the many dancers at the Summer Festival at the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The annual festival is held in early July from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Greenway, just outside the Chinatown Gate at Beach Street. The event features cultural performances such as the lion dance, Chinese folk dances, and martial arts, along with street vendors and arts and crafts.
“We bring our chairs, and we let people sit. If they wanted to sit all day, they can, they can sit all day to see the live performances,” Ho said.
Lion dance is a form of traditional dance in Chinese culture and other Asian countries in which performers mimic a lion’s movements in a lion costume to bring good luck and fortune.
Adjacent to the Chinatown Gate is Mary Soo Hoo Park (located at the corner of Hudson St. and Beach St.), a communal gathering place in the neighborhood where Ho goes to watch her neighbors play cards and Xiangqi (commonly known as “Chinese chess” in English).
“They play these Chinese games that they’ve learned over the years back at home in the villages,” she said. “It’s special.”
Evening: trinket and herb shops
As the evening comes to a close, and the Festival winds down, Ho will do whatever cleanup work she can before heading off with her grandkids for more walking around the neighborhood to window shop. Her favorite places to visit are trinket shops and herb stores.
“You walk up and down the streets to see what types of places there are, and it’s great. When you window shop, you’re going to see all these different items that you’ve never seen in your entire life,” she said.
Her favorite trinket shop is Essex Corner (50 Essex St.), a colorful store that sells traditional Chinese products such as fans, lanterns, stationery, and gifts.
“He’s been there for a long time. He’s got a variety of trinkets that you can go in and shop and look. And you get fascinated. I mean, I get fascinated,” she said.
There are several herb shops (check out Nam Bac Hong, located at 75 Harrison Ave.), and grocery stores (visit Jia Ho supermarket, located at 692 Washington St.) around the neighborhood, which offer everything from grocery items, to specialty teas, to traditional Chinese medicine. They’re part of the cultural fabric of the neighborhood, and add to its rich offerings, Ho said.
“If you’ve never been to a district that’s as culturally rich [as Boston’s Chinatown], you’re going to look at everything and your eyes will just pop out of your head,” she said.
After a long day spent visiting the neighborhood’s many and diverse stores, and sampling their items, Ho and her grand kids will have walked what she estimates could be tens of thousands of steps. They will return home with full bellies and hands full of the days findings.
“You will have maybe four or five shopping bags in hand. And then you walk to your car and then you go home. A day well spent.”
Find all of Debbie Ho’s recommended spots below.