Apr 18, 2014 Updated: 2:18 PM
By Laura Carlo | Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Monday, December 24, 2012
By Val Wang | Friday, July 6, 2012
July 9, 2012
BOSTON — When Lisa Li moved in with her sister’s family in Boston 4 years ago, the job prospects were dismal, especially for someone who didn’t speak English. What she did have was 15 years of experience running Chinese restaurants in Colombia.
“When we watched the news or read the paper, we saw that so many Americans didn’t have jobs. So we said, ‘Let’s work together to open a restaurant!'” she said.
She and her family set out to buy the perfect takeout. One in Somerville was too small; another in Walpole was too far away from the home they share in Malden. In March, they found something promising in the Savin Hill section of Dorchester, called Hong Kong Chef.
“We were here scouting the place for a good week and we saw that it does have really good business,” said Li's niece Mei Chen. “So we came and we were training with the owner for about a month, just seeing how things work and his interactions with his customers. And we kind of fell in love with this place because it’s spacious, there’s room to grow. It’s a packed neighborhood, so we figured that, why not? Give it a try.”
A neighborhood institution
By April the Dorchester takeout was theirs. After 5 years, the previous owner had become tired of the long hours and was moving on to run a laundry.
And even before him, Hong Kong Chef had been a neighborhood institution. Crystal Stanish, 28, remembered it well.
“It’s been a neighborhood place," she said. "It’s been here since I’ve grown up, since I was a kid. We always have it. I don’t live around here anymore so we make a habit, when we come to visit the parents, we come in and get it and have it for dinner. It’s just good, and it’s home.”
What really makes it home is the deliveryman.
“He knows my mom, he knows the family, he knows our address and it’s always right there really fast. And he’s so funny and he comes in," Stanish said. "It’s neighborhood, it’s the same people. There’s not a high turnover. You recognize people. I like that about it — and I like the food.”
Turning a customer into a regular
What the Li family has been finding out is that food quality can sometimes be secondary to the relationships with customers.
Chen said that since they’ve taken over, the flow of customers has slowed. She suspected it was because people miss the old owner and don’t trust the new owners yet. It couldn’t be the food, since the chefs are the same, as is the menu, for the most part. They’ve even added a few new dishes — like fried plantains, which some customers had asked for — and tweaked the recipe for others like chicken wings and crab Rangoon.
Chen had paid attention to the previous owner’s interactions with his customers.
“The customers would come in or even call and he would recognize their voice and he would say, ‘Oh do you want a D25 or a D2? Oh, no onion in your fried rice.' Something like that. He would just know from looking at them or just hearing their voice. That’s great. That’s something that we want to accomplish as well, because it seems like it’s one of the things that really brings customers back into the restaurant,” she said.
Ted, who declined to give his last name, has lived in the neighborhood his whole life and remembered the old owner fondly. “He was just genuine and kind and the whole family seems to be — the whole group just seemed to work together so well,” he said.
For Li, running the takeout has become a family affair too: Her nephew runs the counter several days a week and Chen works there when she’s not working as a nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Her mom helps out after her job at a dollar store. And they both pick up produce by hand several times a week.
While Ted isn’t quite sure about the new staff, he said he was willing to give them a chance: “Let’s see how the food is, how the comfortability factor is, and go from there.”
When I told regular customer Crystal Stanish that the takeout had changed hands, she said she'd noticed having a harder time ordering on the phone. But she said the food hadn’t changed and most importantly, neither had the deliveryman.
“He’s a great, fun guy and he literally has been delivering since I can remember. He’s been here forever, so hopefully they keep him,” she said.
Can the takeout evolve?
But is it any easier to start a takeout from scratch? I went to Wok N Talk on the border of Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain to find out. It doesn’t look like a traditional takeout: The walls are painted a cheerful lime green and orange, and udon noodles and pad Thai sit alongside lo mein on the menu.
Owner Nathan Long and his business partner borrowed $300,000 from relatives 2 years ago to set it up. They didn’t want to open just another run-of-the-mill Chinese takeout.
“You go to a traditional one, and you usually see hundreds and hundreds of items. I go to there and I have a headache ordering,” Long said.
So Long and his partner stripped down the menu. Only five appetizers. The main dish was stir-fried noodles: Customers could choose their noodle, their sauce and their meat, and it would be cooked up right in front of them.
But customers found the menu too sparse and business suffered. So crab Rangoon, chicken wings, boneless spareribs and around 20 other takeout standbys reluctantly went back onto the menu.
Still, Long didn't include any "very traditional" dishes like egg foo young. "Because I think the way people are eating, they’re already slowly, slowly changing,” he said.
A new generation with old tastes
Long hopes Wok N Talk is welcoming to busy young professionals in the neighborhood. He's hired non-Chinese waitstaff and installed a comments box, which overflows with tiny pieces of paper.
Some the comments affirm that Wok N Talk is fulfilling one of the basic functions of the traditional Chinese takeout: supplying the neighborhood with greasy food until 3 a.m. One customer wrote, “Late-night food is essential to the functioning of a proper society and you, you provide this — be proud!”
Wok N Talk has also found itself part of the gentrification of the neighborhood.
“Some people tell us, before, at nighttime, [the neighborhood] was quite scary. So I think that as we come in, as more and more businesses come in, and the community does more work at this, to keep the place clean, it will change the neighborhood. It will change the neighborhood,” said Long.
Where are you a regular?
We want to hear your side of the story. What’s your relationship with your local takeout? Do they know your order when you walk in the door? Do you know your deliveryman? Is Chinese food a late-night indulgence for you?
To tell your story, call 617-477-8688, or go to the Planet Takeout website to leave a story or upload photos. And stay tuned for the next installment of Planet Takeout, where we’ll explore more deeply the tensions between takeouts and the neighborhoods they’re in.
By Cristina Quinn | Tuesday, June 5, 2012
June 6, 2012
BOSTON — Food trucks have come to Paris and they've come to Boston. Next up? If Paris wasn't unexpected enough, the food world's hottest phenomenon is moving into the suburbs.
A trend in the city
Stroll through the Financial District, Kendall Square or Cleveland Circle at lunchtime and you will see long lines forming around trucks pulled up to the curbs. The queue of people reflects the diverse, multi-ethnic menus scrawled on the chalkboards. Suits stand behind foreign students in well-worn T-shirts and moms balance their takeout containers on the hoods of strollers while fishing for change.
“I love them," said one customer. "There used to be the fear of the 'roach coach' but these places are really high-quality and they’re also generally cheaper than any of the offerings around here.”
On any given day food trucks line up on city streets, offering a bold variety that competes with brick-and-mortar counterparts. At one truck, for $5, you can get Sichuan asparagus with a slow-poached egg. At another truck, for $3, you can chow down on a taco filled with Chinese sausage, fried rice and black bean mayo.
Yes, gourmet cuisine has gone mobile — and now other cities and towns in Massachusetts want a bite. The Town of Brookline just launched a pilot program for food trucks offering more lunchtime options for workers and residents, and if all goes well, food trucks will shift into park permanently.
“I think the public is fascinated by food trucks,” said Anne-Marie Aigner. So fascinated that it’s going above and beyond the city limits.
Truckin' past the city line
Aigner is the founder of the Food Truck Festivals of New England. A couple of years ago, she saw how the food truck phenomenon was barreling its way over from Los Angeles and thought: Why not make a destination event out of it? Instead of having food trucks pulled up at events like the Head of the Charles or outdoor concerts, you could flip that around and make the food trucks the main event. That means a caravan of food trucks will amble their way to towns like Framingham, Falmouth, Salem, N.H., and Newport, R.I.
“People are interested in the fact that you don’t have to go into a restaurant and sit down to have a good bite," said Aigner.
People like Rick Rushton.
A plan in central Mass.
“I look at what’s happened over the past 4 to 5 years with urban cuisine on the go — to the desktop, to the laptop and now to the iPad. And people’s accessibility to food, and to good food, has really transformed itself,” he said.
Rushton is a Worcester city councilor. In this city, food trucks were banned a few years ago, after a heated battle between the brick-and-mortar restaurant and food truck industries resulted in a 6-5 City Council vote that left food trucks packing. Rushton is hoping that by bringing the Food Truck Festival to Worcester on July 14, fellow councilors will warm up to the idea of getting rid of the ban.
“I’m hoping that most of the city councilors are going to head down to the festival, see where the food truck revolution has gone," he said.
If you can't beat them …
Tension between food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants is nothing new. Some restaurants see food trucks as a threat, especially if they’re parked a little too close by for comfort. But one Somerville restaurant saw the competition as an opportunity.
“My initial take was hey, we want to get in on that action," said Rob Gregory, co-owner of the landmark barbecue restaurant Redbones in Davis Square. Redbones wheeled out its own truck when Gregory saw that this was not just a flash in the pan.
“Competition is good," Gregory said. "It keeps us all on our toes and keeps the quality of food up and quality of service for the customer. It’s all about trying to have something that people want. This is one of the most exciting times for experiments in the food service business. You can innovate and if it doesn’t work, you can try something else.”
Other restaurants are hitting the pavement as well. Even fast food chains like Burger King have launched their own fleets of trucks across the country.
“The word is getting out," Aigner said. "It’s becoming increasingly popular with existing brick-and-mortar restaurants, and the flip of that is it’s a great entry point for somebody who’s interested in getting into the restaurant business, but can’t afford $300,000 – $400,000 to build a restaurant." It takes more like $25,000 – $50,000 to start a restaurant on wheels.
Starting from the street up
Mei Li of Mei Mei Street Kitchen agreed. "The idea is to start small with the food truck and experiment with the different ingredients and have a rotating menu so we try lots of new things and let our customers try new food," she said.
Mei and her siblings Andy and Irene bought their truck this spring as their first entrepreneurial step into the food service business. The Mei Mei Street Kitchen menu exemplifies the diverse palate of second-generation Asian Americans with items like a scallion pancake sandwich with braised beef and blue cheese. She even joked about their food being Chinese food with cheese.
“We think that it’s a unique opportunity to be able to bring real food to areas that sometimes don’t often offer that for people who work everyday and are faced with the same choices," Li said. "If you’ve got a different food truck every day in front of your office, you get to try new things and have real food brought to your doorstep. We think that’s really cool.”
Other cities and towns think it’s cool, too. And they’ll get a taste of the food truck experience en masse throughout the summer in various towns and cities in the New England area. For a $30 entry ticket, people will be able to eat from over 20 trucks.
“Somebody out west of Worcester called and yelled at us," Aigner said. "We get calls every day. Why did you stop in Worcester? How come you didn’t come to Springfield? What about the Berkshires? How about West Hartford?”
The downside of success is that everyone wants a piece of it … or a plate.
There are 10 food truck festivals scheduled for this year, starting with an event at the UMass Boston campus on Sunday, June 10. Get the complete list.
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
By Jordan Weinstein | Tuesday, April 10, 2012
April 10, 2012
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — I arranged to meet Helen Bryant at the 1369 Coffee House in Central Square, an independent business in a neighborhood that’s arguably one of the last traces of Cambridge’s less-prosperous past.
A tale of two cities ... in one neighborhood
Sandwiched between the Sublime Salon and the Hair Collage on Massachusetts Avenue, the coffee shop is just a few doorways away from Pill Hardware with its flaking and peeling red storefront. Rodney’s used bookstore, ABC Pizza and the divey Cantab Lounge are across the street. On the next block west toward upscale Harvard Square is City Hall, the Cambridge Senior Center and the central post office and Y. East about a block toward the Massachusetts Institute of Technology you’ll run into Starbucks, a café that provoked outcry when it arrived in the mid-90s, and that now seems an early indicator of the changes on the way.
The 1369 Coffee House is crowded with students and neighborhood locals. Helen is an attorney in private practice, mostly children and family law. Over a cup of strong coffee, she tells me she was born in Cambridge like her three brothers and her father and, except for college, she’s lived here all her life.
“When I was growing up Central Square was just a square full of little shops that you walked through," Bryant said. She remembers Woolworth’s, and the Harvard Doughnut Shop where Starbucks is. "You knew who would be in these places. You knew who worked there. It was either your friends' parents worked there, or you knew who’d be sitting at the counter at the Harvard Doughnut Shop."
That was the story, Bryant said, until the 1990s. Then, "these little family-owned businesses started to disappear and were replaced not with another family-owned business but more likely a big chain.”
The downside of the old community
While the small shops and friendly neighbors made growing up here a pleasure, the Square of the past also had a dark side. Minka vanBeuzekom is a newly elected member of the Cambridge City Council.
“When I moved into Central Square in 1990 I was walking down the street and I heard a voice behind me say ‘Get out of the way, lady,'“ she recalled. "I turned around and this guy was coming toward me with a gun drawn and there were three policemen chasing after him."
Over the 20 years she's lived in the neighborhood, she's had police in her backyard looking for weapons, and known of "shootings and stabbings and lots of not very nice things," she said. But "that activity’s really plummeted.”
For vanBeuzekom, the promise of Central Square renewal is long overdue. After all, the square is where the seat of city government lies. It’s a major transportation hub, not just for Cambridge but for the whole metro Boston area. And it’s an astonishing center of activity.
“Those are all the pluses," vanBeuzekom said. "And then, if you actually walk around and you see the condition of some of the buildings, the condition of the sidewalks, the condition of the public spaces, how some of the streetscape is being handled, how vital or not vital it is — that’s where the disconnect lies.”
A moment of change
Efforts to revitalize Central Square have gone on for decades — and failed. But for vanBeuzekom, the urban renewal stars are aligned as they’ve never been before, thanks to big pharma.
“There’s much more of an urgency because of what’s going on at the eastern end of Mass. Ave., closer to MIT where Novartis is expanding," vanBeuzekom said. "It’s going to be a breathtaking building but mind-boggling development that’s happening — especially when you couple that with Pfizer, which is just on the back side of almost that same block, which will be another large building. So I think there’s a new urgency to solve the Central Square problem.”
That urgency is being driven by massive new development projects already begun just blocks away. A quarter-mile east down Mass. Ave., Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis has already broken ground on a Maya Lin–designed park and tower complex. And right across the street, the two blocks of small shops, restaurants and apartments will be replaced by a 240,000-square-foot MIT research facility.
City officials and other community interests see the resulting property tax revenues as a historic opportunity to accomplish what others have chronically failed to achieve in the past.
"The solutions that came out of the Red Ribbon Commission were middle-income housing, [a] day care center, public space that could be a year-round arts and crafts or farmers market," vanBeuzekom explained."There’s also an effort led by urban planners who helped with the East Cambridge planning team for Kendall Square. And then there’s a third effort going on simultaneously by Community Development, they’re calling that K2C2. So that’s why it seems like we’re going to solve it this time.”
But area residents and small shop owners who have already seen stores and neighbors pushed out by high-tech expansion don’t have much faith in the good will of institutional encroachers or city planners. They’ve formed coalitions and committees to make sure their interests are heard. And while most would like to see the neglect apparent in some parts of Central Square remedied, there’s deep concern that gentrification pressures will drive poor and middle-class residents out of a once affordable neighborhood.
Tim Love is associate professor at Northeastern University’s School of Architecture and a founder of a firm specializing in complex urban projects. “It’ll be interesting to see how those real estate pressures effect both the mix of people and the kinds of businesses that survive maybe as rents go up," he said. "That’s the big question.”
In an area as unique as Central Square, institutional neighbors, he told me, have a particular obligation. Universities have a different kind of responsibility when they’re building on a public street like Mass. Ave. As a positive example, he cited the MIT Broad Center, which has a gallery on the ground floor that mimics the typical Central Square scale.
"I think there are ways to mitigate between the needs of life science companies that need big buildings, and the need for those institutions, of companies, to make and contribute to a kind of healthy sidewalk life, which is what Central Square is about," Love said. "It’s one of the most vital, healthy, interesting, active, sidewalk kind of urban environments in the Boston area.”
Forces that keep organizations in the square
Beyond institutional goodwill and efforts to hold MIT and big pharma in check, vanBeuzekom believed the organizations that own property in Central Square, like the YMCA and YWCA, will likely moderate the worst of the gentrification pressures.
“The YWCA is just embarking on a big expansion project to increase the number of single residency occupant units. And the YMCA is also going to be improving the housing that they have right there," she said.
In addition, the Salvation Army has a shelter that provides services to a low-income population, and many social service organizations own their buildings and thus can't be pushed out by rent pressures. "So I think it’s going to be a very interesting juxtaposition of the eastern end of the Avenue that will have the highest high-tech that you can possibly imagine right next to these service industries that are helping the poor and the disenfranchised,” vanBeuzekom said.
A tale of two cities ... in harmony
Time will tell. But the promise of a uniquely Central Square solution that serves the needs of industry and the people is an enticing aspiration.
"We’re going to have the 99-cent McDonald’s and we’ll have the $5.99 carrot-beet juice with boosters from Life Alive. Both of those things will co-exist in Central Square," vanBeuzekom said, laughing.