Food geeks know that the best way to experience foreign cuisines without traveling abroad is to seek out restaurants in which ex-pat chefs are cooking for other immigrants, where the food hasn’t been dumbed down for Americans or undergone a century of local adaptation. If you don’t believe that Hyphenate-American cuisine is a different animal, take a visitor from Italy to a North End red-sauce place and watch their bemusement. The converse, our dishes filtered through another culture’s sensibilities, is harder to come by. But you can experience exactly that at Double Chin, a new restaurant in Chinatown that reincarnates the Hong Kong cha chaan teng, or tea restaurant.
The cha chaan teng is a popular format that dates to Hong Kong’s mid-century British Colonial period: an inexpensive diner/cafe serving lots of caffeinated drinks, local dishes at all hours, sugary treats and the exotic fusion cuisine that is Cantonese-Western fare. Think greasy spoon plus Dunkin’ Donuts plus an American-Chinese eggroll/General Gau’s joint, but flipped to a Hong Kong perspective. Instead of a sugary, creamy Dunks coffee regular, here you get Hong Kong-style milk tea ($2.50 small, $3.25 large), black tea with sweetened condensed milk, available hot or iced, and yin yang ($3/$3.75), which adds coffee to milk tea. There’s also a short selection of bottled beers like Tsingtao ($4), plonky wines by the glass ($7), bottles of modest sake, sparkling sake and soju ($15), and a few candy-flavored, low-proof cocktails ($10).
Double Chin also features a long list of humble Cantonese dishes like cart noodles, a bowl of soup ($6) with your choice of noodles and a variety of meat, seafood and vegetable adornments (most 75 cents to $1.25). The broth is basic (tasting of chicken soup base), the noodles passable, some toppings better than others (spiced brisket offering more joy than bland pork dumplings), but it’s cheap, fast and filling. Chicken skewers ($6) with a side of satay sauce (probably from a jar) are serviceable, though tofu zucchini skewers ($6) flop hard, the squash nearly raw, the fried tofu cold. Pan-fried seafood noodles ($10) boast nicely crisped noodles, but the shrimp, squid and crab stick have a mushy texture that suggests prior freezing. Sweet-glazed cola wings ($7) and pan-fried pork dumplings ($6) are much better-executed. Roast duck ($15 half, $27 whole) is straightforward, fatty, crisp-skinned and delicious. Think diner fare, and expect some shortcuts.
Where Double Chin gets more interesting is in the Canto-Western dishes. Poutine Your Mouth ($7) glosses Quebecois gravy fries by topping waffle fries with kimchi-flavored cheese, Sriracha mayo and seafood seasoning. Spam and taro fries ($7) are deep-fried strips of Spam and taro winsomely served in a Spam tin with dips of ketchup and mayo, not so odd and very good. Curry fishballs ($4) offers boiled rubbery balls of surimi fish in a simple sauce based on British yellow curry powder: passable but unlikely to wow connoisseurs. Few customers will carp about the terrific Double Chinwich ($11): char-siu pork, cucumber, crunchy slaw and honey hoisin sauce wrapped in a thick scallion pancake. Crunchy ramen salad ($9) is another winner, featuring crisp shredded vegetables topped with crushed, raw instant-ramen noodles in a citrus/sesame dressing; excellent sliced pork katsu is a worthy addition for a mere $2. Portuguese chicken rice ($12) is a generous bowl of shredded chicken in a creamy, Macanese-style coconut-milk curry and turmeric cheese on rice: rich and very satisfying. Baked spaghetti Bolognese ($10) looks familiar, with tomato sauce and ground pork served atop pasta, but the weirdness to the Western palate of that ragù, with its notes of ketchup, is worth remembering the next time you order American-Chinese beef and broccoli and your friend from Guangzhou wrinkles her nose.
That mix of strangeness and familiarity also appears in super-sweet dishes like Hong Kong-style French toast ($6), a thick slice of brioche stuffed with peanut butter, fried in egg batter and topped with sweet red beans and a dollop of syrupy condensed milk. It verges on insanity in desserts like muddy madness cube toast ($13), a hollowed-out half-loaf of brioche, toasted and overstuffed like a cornucopia with brioche cubes, chocolate ice cream, fresh berries and chocolate sauce, then showered with chewy mochi balls, M&Ms and sweet-glazed cornflakes. Bring a few friends to help, and extra insulin.
With its bright lighting, tiled surfaces, laminate tables and ceilings painted in Necco-wafer pastels, Double Chin again echoes the diner aesthetic, down to the friendly, workmanlike service with good English. Ask for a table in the back if you don’t like the strong-scented soy candles burning near the entrance. The early crowds are a mix of families and big groups of friends with roots or relatives in Hong Kong, seeking to scratch a hard-to-reach nostalgia itch. With its hearty plates of comfort food and promised later hours, it’s easy to imagine Double Chin becoming a magnet for Asian-American kids spilling out of the nearby Theater District nightclubs. For the rest of us, there are better traditional Hong Kong and Cantonese restaurants nearby, but if you are ready to see familiar Western dishes through a very different lens, there’s no place like it.
– Cola wings
– Double Chinwich
– Crunchy ramen salad with pork katsu
– Roast duck
– Portuguese chicken rice
– Cube toast
Hours: 11 am-11 pm daily Reservations: Yes Parking: Metered street parking, nearby private garages Liquor: Beer, wine, sake and soju
Double Chin 86 Harrison Ave., Boston (617-482-0682) doublechinbos.com