Ask your typical Boston food geek to list her favorite world cuisines, and near the top of the list will be Chinese, likely the cuisines of Taiwan, Guangzhou, Sichuan or Shandong, the best-represented regions among our traditional Chinese restaurants. If you wanted to get said food geek’s attention, you might casually mention having recently tried dishes from the Henan, Shaanxi and Xinjiang provinces, a swath that stretches from central China to its rugged, remote northwest. And if you wanted to shock her, you could brag that you found these rare-in-Boston specialties at Chef Chang’s on Back Bay, right on Mass. Ave., in the food nerd’s least favorite Boston neighborhood.
The menu’s first item hints that you’re already far away from the greasy familiarities of American-Chinese fare: Xinjiang big plate chicken with noodles ($23), a bright-red stew of chicken, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, peppers, chilies and cumin, made substantial with the addition of wide, flat hand-pulled wheat noodles. It effectively combines the Central Asian accents of Uighur cuisine with Sichuan spice and heat, and it’s amazing. A cold appetizer of beef and tendon with chili sauce ($10) is actually the famous Sichuan dish fuqi feipian (don’t ask what that means). Chang’s uses shank and sometimes runs out of tendon. Even without offal, the result lands a ringing one-two punch with mala sauce, its fiery chilies and mentholated Sichuan peppercorns delivering an exhilarating numbing heat.
Many dishes here are from China’s cooler northern regions where wheat is the staple crop, hence the many noodles, dumplings and flatbreads. Typical is an order of Northern Chinese-style pan-fried buns ($8), four fluffy, bready, lightly bottom-browned dumplings with a little pork meatball inside, plus a side of soy-based dipping sauce: mild but hearty. More piquant and intriguing is the Shaanxi Chinese hamburger ($6 for two), a dense English-muffin-shaped flatbread filled with chopped braised pork in a sweet/tangy/spicy-hot sauce with cabbage, chilies and cilantro, like a brilliant Asian take on the sloppy Joe. Xinjiang sauteed special flat noodles ($13) benefit from the excellent al dente texture of hand-pulled noodles, reminiscent of fat fettuccine, but otherwise present a pedestrian admixture of stir-fried vegetables in a soy-based brown sauce.
Lamb with cumin sauce and Chinese pancake ($21) features tender squares of lamb with cabbage, cumin, cilantro, chilies and Sichuan peppercorns, served with a puffy steamed flatbread that you fold around spoonfuls of the dish like a taco. That same steamed bread shows up alongside braised pork Mao’s family style with Chinese pancake ($17), a generous heap of tender, mahogany-toned, skin-on pork belly chunks framed by jade-green baby bok choy. The bygone Chairman doubtless loved it for its Hunanese “red cooked” preparation—long braising with a gorgeously sweet/spicy sauce of caramelized sugar, star anise, cinnamon and chilies. Bashu flavored chicken ($17) is similarly attractive, a huge pile of dry-fried chunks of chicken and whole green capsicum chilies spilling cornucopia-like out of a conical wicker lattice. This dish is another knockout, boasting well-seasoned crispness without a thick batter coating and gaining additional power with that icy-hot combination of chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.
Seafood gets respectful treatment too, as in a country-style sliced fish soup ($13) with delicate white fish, tofu, scallions and glass noodles in a ginger-accented chicken broth. Meanwhile, some serious finesse shows up in sweet and sour Mandarin whole fish with handmade dragon whiskers noodles ($27). The whole tilapia is a marvel of deboning and stir-frying, with even the head and tail offering good eating. Prettily plated, it’s showered with slivered red pepper, sweet peas and fresh cilantro, its syrupy sauce nicely sopped up by a nest of lightly fried, gossamer-thin hand-pulled noodles.
Beverage options include a few food-friendly lagers like Tsingtao ($7.50), a passel of plonky wines by the glass ($7-12), fruit smoothies ($4) and sugary bubble teas ($4). The 30-seat basement space is modest by Back Bay standards, fancy by Chinatown’s (name another recent opening with white tablecloths), while the service is friendly and workmanlike, with adequate English. Ignore the menu’s token nods to American-Chinese for the timid, like crab Rangoon and General Gao’s chicken. Chef Chang’s on Back Bay is doing something far more interesting, taking on a dozen regional Chinese cuisines—including several little-seen ones with fascinating flavors—and justifying its higher-than-average prices with fine technique. You might want to get over there before the inevitable Chinese ex-pat and American food-nerd stampede.
– Shaanxi Chinese hamburger
– Xinjiang big plate chicken with noodles
– Braised pork Mao’s family style with Chinese pancake
– Bashu flavored chicken
– Sweet and sour Mandarin whole fish with handmade dragon whiskers noodles
Hours: Sun.-Thu., 11 am-10 pm; Fri.-Sat., 11 am-midnight
Liquor: Beer and wine
Chef Chang’s on Back Bay 30 Mass. Ave., Boston (617-236-1888) chefchangsonbackbay.com