Thursday, June 20, 2024

“Shadowless” fries at Shōjō in Cambridge’s Central Square. (Photo: Arun N. via Yelp)

Seems like Central Square had become the unofficial home to hip, haute Asian fusion with the likes of Pagu, Mâe Asian Eatery and Little Donkey, not to mention the nearby Cicada, which went from a Vietnamese coffee bar and pho shack to infinity and beyond. Now Shōjō, the upstart Chinatown evolution that has turned into something of an ever-expanding pan-Asian phenomenon, has a locale on Massachusetts Avenue right across from The Middle East nightclub complex. Brian Moy’s parents ran the popular dim sum eatery China Pearl in Chinatown; Moy opened the first Shōjō in 2012 just feet from Chinatown’s traditional styled gate, a vibrant, hip-hop infused spin on tradition and the cuisine Moy grew up with. 

Later came the rave downtown ramen place Ruckus and a Shōjō outpost at Terminal C in Logan Airport. Along with fried rice six ways to Monday, the Cambridge spot has a sprawling graffiti-art martial arts mural and everything Bruce Lee on the widescreen TV. It’s a zesty pop of ambience, to be sure. For similar vibes, think of Izakaya Ittoku in Porter or Bosso Ramen in Harvard, where the festive air is as essential to your experience as the food placed before you. All three spots are the merry embodiment of the Japanese concept of izakaya, which means stay, snack and drink – chill, nosh and swill. The name Shōjō embraces the concept, as it’s taken from Japanese lore about a red-faced sea spirit with a deep penchant for alcohol, and drinks are a fun centerpiece here: There’s Sapporo on tap and a selection of carefully curated cold sakes that come in a classic masu box, a flared sake glass in a small wooden box that is intentionally overpoured so you drink from the glass and then, if you want, from the box. Cambridge “exclusive” cocktails are basil-based: the Phoget About It with vodka, basil, starfruit and lemon; and That Green Drink, a highly basil-infused gin drink with green tea and chartreuse that is smooth, slightly syrupy and unique. 

And what of the food? It’s Asian gastropub fare with spicy spins, starting with “Shadowless” french fries with beef mapo tofu and “KimCheese” and scallions – call it poutine – and duck fat fries and the Shōjōnator, presumably a Terminator-styled burger with that KimCheese, Sriracha and your choice of add-ons such as fried egg or bacon on a bao-styled bun. Speaking of baos, you can get a pair of the soft Chinese tacos stuffed with lightly fried sesame tofu, pork belly (if you like yours with a nice crisp layer of fat, here you go) or a banging rib-eye (classic bulgogi style). 

A generously poured sake in a masu box at Shōjō. (Photo: Tom Meek)

You can also get kimchi fried rice topped with any of the bao proteins or lemongrass barbecue chicken. They’re serviceable bowls, not too spicy, and like the bao are more pan than Asian, but solid grub. Despite being on a recent chicken wing bender, I haven’t checked out the “monkey” barbecue chicken wings or the salt-and-pepper calamari, but they’re on my to-do list with a brothless beef ramen or mazemen.

The boast of the menu is the famous, pu pu-style Nhậu Platter, which comes with a center bowl brimming with perfectly roasted peanuts (skin on, not salted) dried squid, tangy (and sugary) beef jerky, lemongrass chicken jerky, dried shrimp with green mango and a two-tone sour fruit salt dip to sample it all with. Let me tell you, that dip on the sour side is hot – be careful. If you venture too much into the red side, make sure you have plenty of those peanuts and/or ice water or a soothing sake at your fingertips. 

Shōjō’s got a late-night aura to it even at its 5 p.m. opening time. It’s a fervent and festive invite, sure to delight. 

Shōjō (425 Massachusetts Ave., Unit 4B, Central Square, Cambridge)

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.