The Congee Chronicles

Oh, gritty, greasy joys of Chinatown. There is nothing more exhilarating than shoving through a horde of protesting Taiwanese ex-pats

Oh, gritty, greasy joys of Chinatown. There is nothing more exhilarating than shoving through a horde of protesting Taiwanese ex-pats to claim your pineapple bun for mere change. Or finding deals on melons of questionable origin in a street stall. For the longest time, I thought only high-end restaurants broke the $10 ceiling on entrees.On Sundays, my parents would make a near-weekly trek from the Westchester suburbs to Flushing, Queens to purchase all their pickled, dried, hypertension-inducing spare animal and vegetable debris that would sit on our pantry shelves like lab specimens.So it was time to acquaint myself with Boston’s own den of all things cheap and Asian. I laced my sneakers and caught the temperamental T, dropping myself off in Chinatown on an unseasonably warm Saturday. After countless weekends of Manhattan’s and Queens’ Chinatowns, finally meeting Boston’s answer proved to be, well, a little disappointing.First of all, where were the crowds? In a recession, isn’t cheap food, in the vernacular of N. Gregory Mankiw, an inferior good? Visiting a Chinatown without the hordes is like visiting Paris in August, when all the French flee for the coastlines. Sure, the structures are there, but there’s no spirit.As I traipsed along deserted streets, I heard only a few snatches of Cantonese. There were a handful of cheap bakeries and frugal Vietnamese sandwich shops, but everything seemed restrained. Even the sight of a “cute cake” ($1.95) smothered in rainbow sprinkles and topped with frosting snowmen on top couldn’t cheer me up.The area reminded me of Cambridge in that Chinatown was also dealing with gentrification. Boston’s Chinatown was established in the late 1800’s by Chinese railroad workers seeking Boston’s many manufacturing jobs. Chinatown is sandwiched between the Theater District, the downtown shopping area, and South Station. Throughout its history, Chinatown has been competing for space with institutions such as Tufts, the New England Medical Center, and more broadly, the city of Boston itself. Today, Chinatown is one of the most densely populated districts in Boston, with a population that is 70% Asian and a median household income of less than $15,000.As I explored, I discovered a few standouts—New Saigon Sandwich Shop on Washington Street served up fantastic Vietnamese banh mi: sandwiches filled with anything from cold cuts to barbecue beef, served up with shredded cucumber, carrots, mayo, daikon, fish paste, and onions. Best of all? Sandwiches cost less than a tall Starbucks latte at $2.50. I ordered a frosty red bean bubble tea ($3) which proved vastly superior to any Boston Tea Stop confection. Another plus: a mere hop and skip away are two strip clubs, which solves the problem of no seating in New Saigon.A few doors down from New Saigon is Empire Garden (690-698 Washington St., 617-482-8898), which does a mean dim sum, reminiscent of that time in Hong Kong I failed at the same meal. (There is only one way to fail at doing dim sum: go by yourself.) Like most dim sum restaurants, it followed the general pattern of an campily grand foyer leading up a staircase to the main event: pushcarts of standbys like roast pork buns, dumplings, and beef short ribs.As I investigated China Pearl (9 Tyler St., 617-426-4338), which also serves a popular dim sum, I spotted Winsor Dim Sum Cafe (10 Tyler St., 617-338-1688) across the street with the word “congee” in the window. I knew what I had to do in the name of research.Congee, a savory rice porridge typically served with crullers for dipping, is a traditional Chinese breakfast food. The closest non-savory American equivalent is oatmeal. It’s boiled down to a creamy consistency and made with chicken or turkey stock for optimal deliciousness.I ordered the beef congee ($3.95), which came in a tureen that could feed three girls or one Lingbo. It was sprinkled with some scallions and a few tender strips of beef swam in its depths. I tasted a spoonful. Solid bliss: a decent, basic congee, with the hint of saltiness made even better with the addition of the chili flake-laced oil on my table. I sweated it out through the entire bowl.Also worth a stop was East Ocean City (25-29 Beach St., 617-542-2504), just to see the fish tanks in the window. There, I spotted thorny crustaceans that looked positively Mesozoic; they were big enough to eat a pesky toddler. Like any good tourist, I snapped photos.As night fell, I attempted to find a certain seafood market. It was closed. Still spooked by empty streets and darkening sky, I boarded the Orange Line amid a inebriated revelers. I may not have recreated my parents’ pantry, but at least I got my congee.