The city has one of the richest Chinatowns in America—and it too often goes underappreciated
At each of the spots Brian Moy manages in Boston’s Chinatown—Shojo, BLR and Ruckus—recipes and techniques from his childhood shine through the menu, from the suckling pig bao at Shojo to the crowd-pleasing fried drunken chicken wings at BLR that riff on his father’s original recipe.
Since the age of seven, Brian has been worked in his family’s kitchens across Chinatown. He started out at Ho Yuen Ting, which he preserved by turning it into BLR (Best Little Restaurant). “At Ho Yuen Ting, my father was the chef and the front of the house," he says. "My uncles, aunts and grandparents were all there in the early eighties.”
Hanging onto the space and bringing his penchant for modern interpretations of traditional Chinese food gave Brian the opportunity to breathe new life into a family heirloom (of which there are many—his family also owns China Pearl, Chinatown’s oldest restaurant). Having spent his entire childhood in Chinatown, only really leaving for a year of travel during his senior year at Boston University, Moy learned how to operate his own business not just from family but from others in the community. “Back when I was a kid, there were a lot more street vendors, like the fruit trucks," he says. "I became friendly with the guys who ran those, and they taught me how to pull in customers, how to connect with the older ladies and families who came in. Those guys were my mentors, in a sense."
The banging drums around Chinese New Year, coupled with children running around setting off firecrackers (including Moy himself), once electrified the small, tight-knit community. Those sounds have grown increasingly muted over the years, replaced by construction and developments that have gradually changed the face of Chinatown. “There have been a lot of luxury high-rises here in the last five to ten years, but the people who moved into those buildings were going to Cambridge or to the South End to eat," he says. "They weren’t really coming into Chinatown.”
Recognizing that there wasn’t enough in the neighborhood to draw in those new residents, May began to ideate around a way to connect with newcomers while still preserving Chinatown’s cuisine and rich culture. He served dishes like The Shojonater, a quarter pounder doused in kimchee and served on a steamed bun, and Japanese sweet potato tater tots meant for dipping in miso aioli—items with visible roots in traditional Chinese flavors, but twisted and turned to appeal to a broader audience. “When we opened Shojo, we used to tell people we were serving modern Asian cuisine. They’d always go, ‘Oh, sushi!’ because that was the only thing that seemed feasible to do,” he says.
Slowly, people who (embarrassedly) admitted that they had never been to Chinatown before began to trickle into Shojo. Moy and his team used their guests’ inexperience as an opportunity to serve as an informal guide to the neighborhood they knew inside and out. “We’d tell them where to get the best dumplings, who had the best wings and where to eat the best dim sum," Moy says. "Basically, we’d tell them where we went for specific food items, and they’d end up going to those places for dinner. They’d sometimes come back to us for a cocktail and tell us about the great experience they’d just had, and that felt like we were really giving back to our community.”
Now, with the opening of Ruckus—a noodle joint—Moy is trying his hand at fast-casual dining. It’s a space that embodies one of Shojo and BLR’s core tenants, which is offering patrons the ability to come as they are, relax and enjoy delicious food. “I was tired of having to dress up to go out to eat with my friends," he says. "Once, we got seated outside instead of an indoor table at one of our favorite restaurants because I wasn’t dressed the part.” Creating unpretentious and welcoming environments is clearly a priority for Moy—and it’s why his establishments continue to offering visitors the ideal way to experience Chinatown’s rich culture.