Chau Chow City
With a new flagship eatery, a Chinatown food empire takes a turn for the conservative
by Robert Nadeau
83 Essex Street (Chinatown), Boston; (617) 338-8158
Open Sun - Thurs, 8:30 a.m. to 3 a.m.; and
Fri and Sat, 8:30 a.m. to 4 a.m.
Sidewalk-level access, but bathrooms down a full flight of stairs.
First there was the Swatow stand in the Chinatown Eatery food court. Then came
the small Chau Chow, the Grand Chau Chow across the street, and -- along the
way -- restaurants outside Chinatown, giant supermarkets, and a food import
business. And now the Luu clan has opened one of the largest restaurants ever
in Chinatown, three floors of authentic seafood heaven.
The Chau Chow's way with seafood has won many fans over the years, but the new
restaurant features a rather conservative, generally Cantonese menu. That's not
unusual with very large Chinese restaurants, and it's offset with a noticeable
dedication to service. Where most Chinese restaurants break down is at the end
of the meal; Chau Chow City is the first restaurant where I've noticed the
waiters clearing diligently and setting new dinner plates.
Since the live tanks feature delicacies not recorded on the printed menu --
eels, tautog, and striped bass, along with the crabs and lobsters -- I would
suggest inquiring about off-the-menu specials. That's not to say the
English-language side of the menu doesn't have some novelties, or that the
familiar dishes aren't done very well indeed. But one fishes about for
specifically Chau Chow specialties in a menu hard to distinguish from the Hong
Kong seafood menus of competitors Grand China, Dynasty, or even China Pearl.
The appetizer list starts conservatively with egg roll and spareribs, and adds
the Boston standards of teriyaki and crab rangoon. We tried honey-grilled
boneless spareribs ($6.25); the meat appeared to be an actual thin fillet from
the sparerib area, roasted with a simple honey-soy marinade. It was chewy,
tasty meat, with not too much fat, but the restaurant isn't true to the old
Chinese-American condiments: it serves only some applesauce, rather than the
"traditional" dip of duck sauce and fresh mustard. Peking ravioli ($5.95,
steamed or fried) is another appetizer Boston customers demand in Chinatown,
though they acquired the taste in Mandarin-Szechuan restaurants in the '60s and
'70s. The Chinatown style of dumplings has always been too bready for my taste;
here they are at least served piping hot, with a soy-garlic dip that enhances
the gingery pork fillings.
The kitchen is likely more comfortable with the spicy fried calamari ($9.50)
done in what is sometimes called "Hong Kong style," with the spiciness coming
from a sautée of red pepper flakes, garlic, and green chilies dribbled
onto the heaps of fried seafood. The frying, in very light batter, is
excellent, and the sweetness of the squid comes through the rather mild bite of
One of the more unusual entrees is the Swatowese-style braised duck ($14 half;
$24 whole). I was explaining to the server that this fine platter of assorted
seafood wasn't something we had ordered, and she was explaining to me that this
was the Swatowese braised duck. (It seems that in Swatow, seafood is so
prominent that a mild stir-fry of shrimp, scallops, and dried squid is
considered a sauce for braised duck.) The actual duck was served boned and with
almost all the fat sliced off the skin; the meat was rich but simple in flavor,
while the skins had been marinated in five-spice powder and soy sauce, to make
them the main focus. One could just as well present this platter as assorted
seafood with a sauce of braised duck. Unusual and fun.
"Honey glaze walnut jumbo shrimp" ($12.95) is an interesting dish of numerous
large shrimp in what I am fairly sure is a warm, silky, sweetened version of
mayonnaise. The delicious fried walnuts form a ring around the outside of the
platter. Chau Chow-style rice sticks ($8.25) is a subtly aromatic dish of fine
rice vermicelli (like Singapore rice-sticks, only without the curry sauce),
flavored with blanched garlic chives (called "yellow chives" elsewhere on the
menu), ham, shrimp, and scallions.
Clams with black-bean sauce ($9.95) has been one of my bellwether dishes for
Cantonese seafood restaurants, and Chau Chow City's version did not fall short.
The shellfish were large cockles -- still half the size of native littlenecks
-- from Western Canada, yet fresh and tasty in the tangy sauce of fermented
black beans and a few chilies. There was plenty of soy, and possibly some
oyster sauce as well.
Beef with broccoli ($8.95) and orange-flavored chicken ($8.95) are
Mandarin-Szechuan staples that often join a Southern Chinese menu successfully.
At Chau Chow City, the former benefits from excellent beef sliced across the
grain for tenderness; the broccoli (steamed rather than stir-fried) was perhaps
underdone even by Cantonese standards. The latter dish originally involved
stir-frying the flavors of dried chili pods and strips of tangerine peel into
the oil used to stir-fry morsels of chicken. Now it barely tastes of orange or
chili, and features chicken pieces that are breaded and fried, then presented
in a dark, gingery sauce. It's still great eating, but it's unrecognizable as
the orange-flavored chicken of the Joyce Chen era.
Chau Chow City serves dim sum daily from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and here the
offerings are more adventurous. Along with the familiar shao mai and "crystal
shrimp dumpling" (har gow) and stuffed crab claws, there are items like
"crystal pea pod stems shrimp & pork dumpling," meatball congee with
preserved egg, and shark-fin dumplings.
Despite hundreds and hundreds of seats, Chau Chow City seems a quite
manageable size, since the rooms and levels are broken up into attractive
spaces. The décor definitely sends a traditional message, with relief
dragons and a framed landscape on the main floor. The prominent fish tanks
would be even more effective if someone came out of the kitchen and netted
something occasionally. Background music is rather impersonal jazz fusion.
The barriers to crossover success still seem very high in Chinatown. Despite
more than a decade of success with selling authentic seafood dishes to
adventurous non-Asian-Americans, the owners have launched this flagship
restaurant with a cautious menu. I'm not a business consultant telling them
they're wrong, just a critic telling readers that this is an excellent
restaurant for an authentic seafood feast, and a very decent restaurant if some
members of your party insist on something more familiar. But you intrepid
explorers out there will have to come early for the dim sum, or stay with your
favorite of the smaller Chau Chows for most meals.