Dim sum in the suburbs
Long before the cuisine of far-flung places crept beyond the borders of the city and into the suburbs, before Thai, Japanese, and Indian showed up on main streets, Chinese restaurants were there. And yet, for all the fake Asian palaces that have risen beside the American golden arches, finding dim sum outside Chinatown has always been an elusive proposition.
So when New China Pearl in Woburn began serving dim sum every day, we really wanted to like it. Unlike some dim sum outposts, where dumplings and buns can be ordered off the menu, New China Pearl is the real thing, with waitresses pushing around metal carts of food. On weekdays, the offerings are more basic, but on the weekends, dozens of dishes fly past the tables, including some for more adventuresome palates, from bowls of snails to chicken feet.
New China Pearl sits along busy Mishawum Road, past Market Basket and the Woburn Mall, and from the front, the building looks almost deserted. On a weekend, though, the parking lot in back is packed. Stepping over a broken beer bottle near the main entrance doesn’t fill us with warm feelings. But inside, the building is expansive and fun to explore, with a fat, golden Buddha at the entrance to the dining room. The long mirrored hallway leading into it creates a fun illusion, painted bamboo trees and mirrors that make the forest seem deep.
The main dining room lies beneath a high, octagonal ceiling, where painted figures gaze down at diners. The restaurant, which also serves dozens of Chinese dishes off the menu for lunch and dinner, was once a sister restaurant of China Pearl in Chinatown. Now the Woburn spot is independent.
We love shu mai ($2.90), shrimp and pork dumplings with unusually large pieces of shrimp. Barbecued pork buns ($2.90), both baked and steamed varieties, are another hit, slightly sweet dough wrapped around meat in a savory sauce. Chicken feet ($2.90) are full of flavor and cooked until the scant meat falls easily off the bones.
But some of the dishes are disappointing, including gelatinous meats that offer no hints about their animal of origin. Rice soup ($3.70) is as tasteless as it is colorless, utterly bland beyond the croutons and scallions floating on top. The only good thing we can say about sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf ($3.70) is that the giant leaf is fun to behold and unwrap. The rice is gummy and the sausage tastes tinny.
New China Pearl, with its easy location and big parking lot, might have made a Boston dim sum run superfluous. But for all its messy traffic and long lines, we’ll still take Chinatown.