Eleven Cambridge restaurants serving Asian food authentic enough for expats
Each year, thousands of Asian students make their home in Cambridge, happily discovering it’s not hard to find authentic restaurants where they can go for a taste of home.
When talking about Asia, you are actually talking about 30 percent of the land on the earth, giving birth to many diverse cultures, customs and food. In China alone, for example, there are eight different culinary traditions across the country, with different preference from noodles to rice, meat to fish, spicy to sour, sweet to salty. To discover and experience them, it’s best to forget those bad flavored so-called Asian cuisines of broccoli and meat that are the same no matter where you go. Try these instead:
Opened just two months ago, Dumpling House near Central Square is owned by the same people who own the Gourmet Dumpling House restaurant in Chinatown. Compared with the one in Chinatown, the new Dumpling House is big and clean, without a crazy wait for food.
Dumpling House is famous for its seafood specials, and its Fried Twin Lobster with Ginger and Scallion is a must to try. Instead of steamed or boiled, the lobsters are well cut and fried with a rich flavor. If you are a spicy food lover, you don’t want to miss the Sliced Fish Szechuan Style. The fish slices are immersed in bright, oily – but not greasy – broth, with vegetables such as green onions and bean sprouts at the bottom.
Good news for people working near Central Square: Dumpling House offers 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. lunch specials at $8.50 per entrée.
Mulan is a Taiwanese-style restaurant, meaning the food is less salty and spicy than most dishes from Mainland China and more about the freshness of the ingredients.
The Smoked Pork with Leek is a must-have at Mulan, and Salted Crispy Chicken is also ordered a lot by customers. If you like the flavor of basil, Eggplant with Basil is another don’t-miss.
In general, Mulan is a good place if you prefer healthy food to oily cuisines.
Those small Chinatown restaurants filled with hurry-scurry hostesses and loud talking can hardly be a good place for a romantic meal. If you love Chinese food but want a more elegant setting, you’ll like East by Northeast. Even more special: East by Northeast offers Chinese food in the French style, with delicate dishes and desserts on small plates. Crispy Mantou Bread, Crispy Pork Belly and Scallion Pancake are most recommended by the chef.
Another highlight for East by Northeast is the Chef’s Choice Menu, an uncommon approach for Asian restaurants. If you have no idea what or how many of a dish to order, you can leave it to the chef to decide your eight-course seasonal menu ($45 per person) or five-course fixed-price menu ($35 per person), a good combination of Chinese food and Western service.
Boston Magazine has named it the best Indian food in Greater Boston, but more importantly, Indians vouch for its authenticity.
The place is fast-food style and cash only. You order over the counter and get your food on a tray, but the food is made with no short cuts. The naan bread is served incredibly fresh, and fans swear by the Chicken Tikka Masala and Chicken Korma. For those who cannot get enough chili, the kitchen will give you whatever level of spice you wish.
Cafe Sushi – easy to find inside a two-level strip mall near Harvard Square – is the perfect combination of fresh sashimi and great low prices. Staff is friendly and helpful, like the menu, which explains your options (Hosomaki has seaweed outside, uramaki has rice outside). The sashimi is flavorful, cut in thick slices and comes at an unbeatable price: $1.75 to $3.25 each. Its udon also has a well-deserved good reputation.
It’s a small place, so a reservation is necessary if you don’t want to spend too much time waiting.
To many people’s surprise, the food court of a mall that shares space with Lesley University actually is packed with authentic Japanese restaurants. Have a seat and you’ll find yourself surrounded by people speaking Japanese – and among all those restaurants, you’ll find Cafe Mami most crammed with customers.
This place is cash only, but cheap enough to be a big delight. The lunch special rice or soup noodles is $5 (tax excluded), including salad and miso soup. Each main course is below $10 and of good quantity, but consider adding a Green Tea Milkshake, a great summer drink.
Cafe Mami is small and there are not many seats available, so be prepared to share a table with strangers. The price and quality make it perfect takeout food.
Koreana is a great place for Korean barbecue and hot pot – the Seafood Delight Hot Pot is especially good, with its sour and spicy flavor – but you should also try ordering Sang Galbi or Bulgogi, which you can spice as you like by adding sauce.
If you want to dine at Koreana, make sure you make a reservation or arrive early, because this place will be filled with people at around 6 p.m. Koreana has a small bar where you can order a drink while waiting.
Bon Chon attracts hundreds of people every day with its famous crispy, spicy garlic soy chicken wings, and they are are so good they are a must to order for almost every table. But the menu is full of other things to try. Start with the Shrimp Shumai and Seafood Scallion Pancake. A spicy food lover might want to try Buldak chicken as well.
A little tip: Make a reservation, and arrive on time. You might not get the table if more than half of your group are still on their way.
You might be familiar with tom yum or pad thai, but those dishes are just the start of the options at Pepper Sky’s. Located on Pearl Street near Central Square, the restaurant is good for either rushed work lunches or leisurely gatherings with family and friends.
Apart from common Thai dishes, a new menu of more creative courses is available, including spicy dishes with chicken and seafood and some served in a half pineapple with rice and salad.
You cannot call yourself a fan of Asian food if you have never tried Vietnamese Pho, a noodle soup topped with meat or seafood and with vegetables and other flavorings including bean sprouts, limes and basil. And Le’s just has the best Pho in Cambridge. Le’s Pho is nicely made – a rich, fragrant soup. (If you prefer a quick meal, be warned: You may have to wait for the Pho.)
Located inside the Garage Mall in Harvard Square, Le’s has a slightly more sophisticated dining environment compared with the many more utilitarian Pho restaurants scattered around the region. And the place is big, so people don’t usually wait for tables.
Food truck visits The Plaza, 1 Oxford St., in front of the Harvard Science Center near Harvard Yard (serving 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays; and from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays); bricks-and-mortar restaurant is at 1 Kendall Square. Call 617-989-9804 or click here.
Great food does not appear only in restaurants; Bon Me is a food truck that offers amazing meals: noodle salads, sandwiches, rice bowls and noodle soups served with sides that include barbecue or coconut braised chicken and Miso-Braised Pulled Pork. Its food is served in good quantity and quality at a lovely price: $6 to $7. And unlike some other food trucks, credit cards are acceptable at Bon Me.
Dian Zhang is a native of Chengdu, birthplace of Sichuan cuisine, and a graduate student in business and economics at the College of Communication at Boston University.