Change is coming to Chinatown, with luxury high-rise rentals shooting up like bamboo all over the old low-slung landscape. Bostonians look on nervously, wondering which beloved traditional Chinese restaurants will be steamrolled by gentrification. The news isn’t all grim: Some restaurateurs are choosing evolution over migration or extinction. Consider the Best Little Restaurant, a nearly hidden basement spot near the Chinatown Gate, beloved for decades by food geeks for its brilliant Cantonese and Teochew cuisine at amazing prices, served in a tiny, dumpy room. Brendan and Brian Moy, scions of the China Pearl empire and the architects of Shojo, the neighborhood’s hippest bar/restaurant, have reinvented Best Little. With the help of executive chef Mark O’Leary, who also helms Shojo’s kitchen, the new BLR by Shojo boasts a shiny new look and a menu that tries to fuse the old and new Chinatowns as much as Eastern and Western flavors.
Some dishes here are straight-up Best Little classics, like delectable honey-garlic glazed pork ribs ($13), crisp and meaty in a sticky coating flavored with hoisin and soy sauce with a side of excellent rice sprinkled with black sesame seeds, and the similarly crisp, sweet, generous pile of chicken wings ($8 for eight). The Cantonese standby of whole fish in soy, ginger and scallion shows up as Best Little Trout ($19), here roasted rather than steamed, with a less-common choice of fish, filleted in the kitchen (head and tail left on), and boasting a subtle chili heat and perfect cooking. Chen’s famous veggie mapo tofu ($12.50) brings the umami with mushrooms subbing for pork, its mala heat (Sichuan peppercorns and capsicum chilies) rounding out a traditional take on the Sichuan street-food favorite. Lionhead meatballs with pickled chilies ($9.50) seem spirited in from a traditional Shanghainese menu, featuring three big pork-meatball beauties in a dark glaze, crunchy with bits of water chestnut and zingy with fresh ginger. Dry-roasted garlic lends punch to very typical seasonal Chinese greens ($7). An echo of the early-’60s Hong Kong fervor for Western flavors crops up in honey-walnut shrimp ($16) with chunks of canned pineapple, walnuts and broccoli in a mayonnaise(!)-based sauce: bizarre-sounding but fantastic.
East/West fusion rears up deliciously in dishes like surf clam ceviche ($11), a gorgeous specimen of the oversized offshore species, its soy-lime vinaigrette lending piquancy and tenderness, tart goji berries and skinny rice noodles adding textural counterpoint. Salt and pepper smelts ($12) offer a Mediterranean gloss on the traditional batter-fried, chili-accented Cantonese dish, subbing adolescent smelts for the usual shrimp or squid, great by themselves but worth a dip in sharply mustardy aioli. Hawaiian beef short ribs ($16) in soy-pineapple marinade recall mid-century “Polynesian” American-Chinese fare: a big portion of thin slices of sweet and fatty beef, uncharacteristically bone-in. Szechuan Bolognese ($14) suggests what would happen were a Chengdu native to find himself in Northern Italy, saucing wide noodles with a mala-spicy, chunky ragù of pork and mushrooms.
Duck confit mooshu ($16) gives a Francophilic flavor to the Shandong stir-fry with honey-glazed shredded duck, leaves of Brussels sprouts and smear of hoisin, marred slightly by the wan pancakes provided for wrapping. By contrast, roasted bone marrow with a sweet soy glaze and funky XO sauce ($16) is offered for smearing onto terrific scallion pancakes, a smashing and original bit of fusion; the two fat bone halves yield enough marrow to maybe require extra pancakes ($3 each). House special soy sauce chicken ($12.50) reads like an elevated General Gau: a pile of popcorn chicken in an almost crunchy glaze of caramelized soy garlic. Braised Hong Kong steak ($18) is a rare flop, its oversalted, dryly stringy chuck steak and nearly raw string beans unsalvageable by good bone marrow gravy. Opt instead for vegetable-centric dishes like the wonderful fu-yu cucumber salad ($7) with tofu dressing, crunchy/soft pickled peanuts and a dusting of sesame seeds, or the mild and lovely chilled tofu-skin noodles ($8) with lots of mushrooms and roasted garlic in a chili vinaigrette, or the interesting Middle Eastern accent of wok-charred Chinese eggplant ($10) with tofu and tahini. Some cold lager would be fabulous with this food, but for now, BLR is limited to fine oolong or jasmine tea ($4) served in pretty porcelain pots and canned soft drinks ($3-$4) like sweet chrysanthemum tea.
Old Best Little fans will be wowed by the physical makeover: the newly exposed overhead beams and brick walls, the comfy new banquettes lining the 30-seat room, the glow of red-paper lanterns off gold-painted walls, the mahjong-tiled entryway, the old martial-arts movie posters and the black-and-white photos of the illicit Chinatown gambling dens that the space is cheekily meant to evoke. But as one longtime customer who mourned the old place’s passing, with its fabulous pork-and-long-bean lettuce wraps and great cheap lobster dishes, I’m still grateful to see this new direction, one that neatly connects the older, more traditional Chinatown with a new one that can embrace the inventive but respectful fusion instincts of a talented Western chef like O’Leary. Boston’s Chinatown will have to adapt to survive; BLR by Shojo exemplifies one very appealing evolutionary strategy.
- MC’s Picks
- -Fu-yu cucumber salad
- -Surf clam ceviche
- -Chilled tofu-skin noodles
- -Roasted bone marrow
- -Szechuan Bolognese
- -Honey-walnut shrimp
- -House special soy sauce chicken
- -Lionhead meatballs
- BLR by Shojo 13A Hudson St., Boston (617-338-4988) blrbyshojo.com
- Hours: Tue.-Sat., 5-10:30 pm, Sun., 5-10 pm
- Reservations: Yes
- Parking: Nearby private garages, limited street spaces
- Liquor: None