The location of Hsin Hsin Café — on Mass Ave, just north of Comm Ave — is less enviable than it seems. Yes, the Charles River is within a stone’s throw. But the customers who should be lining up for the restaurant’s tasty and cheap Chinese cuisine (students from BU and MIT, cost-conscious downtown workers) are all just a bit too far away.
It’s a shame, because Hsin Hsin — which recently reopened under new ownership — is an excellent destination for good, inexpensive Chinese food. The dinner combo-plate specials range from $6.50 to $7.50, and include an unusual number of seafood options. But lunch is where the real bargains are: midday combo-plate specials run a scant $4.75.
Hsin Hsin, to its credit, offers a few selections that pair Chinese eggplant with meat. (Most Chinese restaurants serve their eggplant unaccompanied, which can frustrate the solitary diner who isn’t sharing dishes with a group.) During a recent visit, I tried the chicken with Chinese eggplant ($4.75), which came with a choice of rice and appetizer. The menu flags this item as spicy, but gives no hint of how the dish will be prepared. As it turned out, the spiciness was overstated: there was a pleasant hint of heat, but nothing a reasonably hardy palate couldn’t handle — a four or five on a 10-point scale, perhaps. The preparation, however, was outstanding. Thin, lean segments of white-meat chicken and a generous portion of purple-skinned Chinese eggplant — cooked past the wilting point, until the vegetable offered no resistance to the tooth — came blanketed in a rich, extremely garlicky sauce, with a few slices of green and red pepper thrown in for good measure. Not the meal to eat before a job interview, but otherwise a very good choice.
"Spicy" is even less apt in the case of the noodles with Peking-style meat sauce ($5.95). This is a simple dish — one that, as rendered by Hsin Hsin, is weirdly similar to old-fashioned spaghetti with meat sauce. Close to a half pound of standard-issue pasta, cooked past al dente, came slathered in a pale-brown mélange of chopped onion and ground pork, leavened by numerous tiny cubes of bean curd. Was it visually attractive? Frankly, it was not. But it had the simple, disarming earthiness of classic comfort food, and would make a terrific post-hangover meal. So would the fried Peking ravioli ($6.25): sautéed until golden-brown on one side, wrapped in unusually thick pastry, and filled with reddish-pink nuggets that resembled miniature meat loaves, the eight ravioli are what the English call "moreish."
In terms of décor, the reconstituted Hsin Hsin has staked out a middle ground between the countless Chinese restaurants fit only for take-out and fancier establishments like Cambridge’s Changsho. The results are promising. Yes, there are red-vinyl booths and formica tabletops, but there’s also an abundance of thriving foliage, soft lighting, and some smart accessorizing (miniature Chinese lanterns hung around the ceiling’s periphery, small framed pieces of Chinese crockery). This is not the place to celebrate a special occasion. But if you’re looking for a solid Szechuan or Cantonese lunch — one that’s cheaper than a Value Meal at McDonald’s — Hsin Hsin is worth the walk.
Hsin Hsin Café, located at 25 Mass Ave, in Boston, is open Monday through Thursday, from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; on Friday and Saturday, from 11:30 a.m. to midnight; and on Sunday, from noon to 11 p.m. Call (617) 536-9852.