Neither has its restaurant community. Asia Mei, chef-owner of Moonshine 152 in South Boston, says she felt the climate grow more threatening last year around St. Patrick’s Day. “We were starting to get a lot of racist, threatening, xenophobic calls; [comments on] Facebook and community bulletin boards; things from strangers; things from people honestly you would have never thought would have said something like that. At the base of my heart, I know it’s fear and misunderstanding. I can take it because I’m tough, but at the same time, it doesn’t make it right,” she says. “It seems shocking that we aren’t more vigilant of how to empathize with each other, how to look out for each other.”
Mei is part of a long tradition of strong, successful Asian women chefs and restaurateurs in the Boston area, dating back at least as far as 1958, when Joyce Chen served Peking ravioli and other Chinese dishes at her namesake Cambridge restaurant. Now is a particularly good time to highlight, celebrate, and support their businesses. To get you started, here are eight excellent area restaurants helmed by women of Asian descent.
BANH MI BA LE
Jennifer Nguyen has owned this Dorchester landmark for 20 years, and there are good reasons for its longevity. Banh Mi Ba Le is beloved by the community for its Vietnamese groceries and prepared foods, baked goods and other desserts, and fresh-made smoothies — but above all for its namesake sandwiches. Crackling baguettes smeared with house-made mayo and piled high with crunchy pickled vegetables, pork, barbecue chicken, tofu, and more, the banh mi here are some of the best around.
1052 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester, 617-265-7171, www.balebanhmiboston.com
Bess Lee worked in retail before opening this sweet little Brookline restaurant with the strong dumpling game. Bess’s Café serves homey food made with local ingredients: dan dan noodles, pork belly noodle soup, scallion wraps filled with beef, and crispy chicken buns. But those handmade dumplings are the highlight, toothsome, carefully pleated wrappers filled with shrimp, pork and chive, and more.
224 Cypress St., Brookline, 617-879-0993, www.besscafe.com
CHA YEN THAI COOKERY
Manita Bunnagitkarn’s Watertown restaurant receives rapturous praise from all who visit. The food is just so fresh and flavorful — from grilled, housemade Thai sausage to fragrant curries to see ew, chewy flat rice noodles stir-fried with egg and Chinese broccoli. I’d come back every week for the spicy larb, a salad of ground meat or mushrooms flush with fresh herbs, spiked with chile, and crunchy with toasted rice powder. The restaurant also makes its own ice cream, in flavors like coconut, Thai tea, and rum raisin. Bunnagitkarn also operates Kala Thai Cookery in downtown Boston.
613 Mt. Auburn St., Watertown, 617-393-0031, www.chayenthaicookery.com
Stacey Zhang’s Malden restaurant sucks you in with its “Famous XXL Soup Dumpling,” aptly named. It’s so ginormous you need a straw to sip the scalding broth before biting into the ginger-laced filling. But it’s just the start. All of the (standard-size) dumplings here are good — from pork and cabbage Mama Dumplings made with a recipe from Jianchun Zhang, Stacey’s mother, to a specialty of hometown Qingdao, cuttlefish dumplings in a striking black-ink skin. Sample them all, then branch out to a substantial menu of dan dan noodles, beef skewers, meatball soup, seafood specialties, and much more.
2 Florence St., Malden, 781-480-3113, www.district-kitchen.com
Is there a better, more perfectly punny and funny restaurant name around? At this Chinatown restaurant, sisters Gloria and Emily Chin serve up an array of classic dishes and clever, delicious twists. The gateway offering is the cube toast, in flavors like Muddy Madness, Taste the Rainbow, and Matcha Ma Call It. This is indeed a cube of French toast; innards removed, cut into batons, and replaced; and topped with a wild array of ice cream, mochi, fruit, sugar cereal, Pocky, and chocolate sauce. Just as much fun are dishes like Hong Kong hot chicken, pesto rice cakes, mac ‘n’ cheese made with chow fun, and the Double Chinwich, on scallion pancakes. There are also cocktails served in Capri Sun-style pouches; Double Chin was ahead of the curve on that one. Also on Harrison Avenue, Bao Bao Bakery is the sisters’ sister business.
86 Harrison Ave., Chinatown, 617-482-0682, www.doublechinbos.com
LIN’S LITTLE KITCHEN
Linda Theth opened her Newburyport restaurant during the pandemic. The Southeast Asian restaurant hasn’t just survived but thrived. Theth, who has roots in Laos and Cambodia, serves dishes she grew up on alongside innovations prepared with local ingredients: soy-glazed pig feet from New Hampshire’s Kellie Brook Farm; khao poon, a red curry noodle dish made with shiitakes from Dunk’s Mushrooms; snacks like Momma’s Egg Rolls and Laotian-style beef jerky; along with tacos, banh mi, pho, cocktails, and kiddie plates. There’s truly something for everyone.
24 Pleasant St., Newburyport, 978-255-7326, www.linslittlekitchen.com
Asia Mei opened this welcoming community mainstay in 2015, choosing South Boston for its history, tenacity, and appreciation of hard work. The pandemic was a grueling time for business, but things are looking brighter with the return of patio season. “We would not still be here if it wasn’t for the love and support the community has shown us,” she says. On the menu, Mei channels her life experiences — growing up in California, eating tacos and her mother’s fried rice; cooking in New England everywhere from Hamersley’s Bistro to Whole Foods. What you’ll find: rangoons with real crab-jalapeno filling, “party tots” smothered in kimchi butter, Korean BBQ tacos, a veggie mushroom-tofu burger, Mama Mei’s Famous Dirty Fried Rice, butterscotch pudding, multiple nods to the show “Parks and Recreation,” hospitality, and a spirit of fun.
152 Dorchester Ave., South Boston, 617-752-4191, www.moonshine152.com
Tracy Chang has always been an industry leader and particularly throughout the pandemic, helping to start Off Their Plate and Project Restore Us to feed front-line workers and provide for communities and workers in need. She has also pivoted and pivoted again at her restaurant, Pagu. The food is as delicious as ever, whether it’s one of the restaurant’s suburban pickups, a meal kit, or market provisions like house-made hot sauce and kabocha hummus. Happily, Pagu classics like squid ink bao and the cheesy wafflato are still available to go, along with ramen survival kits, matcha cookie dough, and cocktails. And as a woman restaurateur, Chang continues a family tradition: She grew up making Shirley Temples at Tokyo, the Japanese restaurant on Fresh Pond Parkway that was owned by her Taiwanese grandmother.
310 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge, 617-945-9290, www.gopagu.com