Malaysian in name, but all over the map
Bubor Cha Cha ranges far, has mild success
Bubor cha cha is a Malaysian dessert made from coconut milk, tapioca, and sweet potatoes. You might thus expect Chinatown’s new Bubor Cha Cha to be a Malaysian restaurant. Given both the breadth of that cuisine and the dearth of it in Boston, you might feel a certain amount of excitement at the prospect. Bubor Cha Cha is not the careful regional exploration you might hope for, however. If someone wants to open a restaurant that picks its way through the dishes of the many states, territories, and ethnic groups that make up that country, there is still room to do so. In the meantime, we have one that turns out competently but not dazzlingly executed Malaysian, Chinese, and Thai dishes, as well as some rather random creations (strawberry pork chop, lobster and pumpkin with cheese).
There is plenty to enjoy here. Roti telur is a fabulous snack - thin, elastic pancakes filled with egg, served with chicken curry sauce for dipping. (Sadly, there is no beer to drink with it; the restaurant is working on getting a license. It does, however, have WiFi.) Bubor Cha Cha’s version is very tasty, but you may experience a disconnect that will haunt you throughout your meal: Why is there a little chili icon on the menu next to this dish? It’s not spicy.
Still in pancake land, there is one available filled with durian, the stinky-delicious-stinky-again fruit that is beloved by some, reviled by others. The menu makes that clear by explaining that it is “a very aromatic dish for the more advanced palate.’’ The waiter may make it clear again. Bubor Cha Cha is serving food it’s afraid you won’t like, but it overestimates the provocation. The durian in the pancakes is mild and turmeric-hued, more fruity than stinky. This appetizer would be a good dessert. As the fruit cools, the odor intensifies, but this is still a mild durian experience.
Mild continues to be a theme with noodle soups, perhaps Bubor Cha Cha’s biggest disappointment. Whether creamy with coconut milk and scented with spices (curry mee) or tart and funky from tamarind and fish paste (asam laksa), Malaysian soups are eminently craveable. Here, though, the asam laksa broth is one-dimensional. Curry noodle soup seems thin and lacks the tofu puffs that are such an enjoyable part of this dish. The curry mee does get better and better as we eat, but there’s still a superior (albeit oilier) version a few blocks away at the Malaysian restaurant Penang. Bubor Cha Cha’s shrimp noodle soup, however, is thoroughly infused with the flavor of the crustaceans. All could be spicier.
Char mee is the house special, a savory medley of chewy egg noodles, pork, squid, and shrimp stir-fried in a soy-based sauce. Another specialty is sarang burong: shrimp, chicken, vegetables, and cashew nuts served in a basket made from fried taro root. Visually, it’s the Malaysian equivalent of chowder in a bread bowl. In terms of taste and emotional impact, it’s more like potpie, cozy and warm but not terribly interesting.
Hainanese chicken features steamed poultry full of flavor, if with slightly slimy skin. It comes with two sauces, soy and chili, for dipping. This dish tends to be more soothing than exciting, as is the case here. Beef rendang tastes wonderful, simmered in coconut milk and spices, but the meat is dry. It comes in large chunks with a spoon and a knife, challenging to serve and eat. Nasi lemak is a pleasing assemblage of coconut rice, chicken curry, hard-boiled eggs, and a pile of slightly pickled-tasting vegetables. The best part is the pile of sweet, chewy, chili-spiked anchovies, almost like tiny bits of fish jerky.
Two treatments of lobster, both appealing, land on opposite ends of the spectrum. One features a steamed lobster served atop sticky rice: simplicity itself. The other is chunks of pumpkin topped with a lobster, which in turn is topped with what appears to be melted Velveeta. Bizarre, ornate, bright orange, and just kind of wrong, it nonetheless manages to be pretty tasty. Who created this dish? I can only guess it was someone who, like me, was denied access to artificial cheese products as a child and thus takes a certain pleasure in them as an adult.
Bizarro lobster dish is more of a piece with Bubor Cha Cha’s general aesthetic than simple lobster dish. The brightly lit restaurant features a ceiling painted to look like a blue sky. Half of the room looks like an elaborate bamboo hut, a la Trader Vic’s; the other half is covered by a wooden structure hung with plastic fruit. The ceiling is strewn with assorted light fixtures - some, for instance, look like white nests filled with light-up eggs. The bathroom could have been designed by a Malaysian Liberace, with sparkly tile and bamboo on the walls. Above the open kitchen are three flat-screen televisions, sheltered from any potential rain by a sloped bamboo roof. It feels as if you’re eating inside a scorpion bowl.
Bubor Cha Cha is temperamental. Some nights the food is better than others. Some nights the service is better than others. They seem to go up and down in tandem, perhaps depending on who’s in charge. A waiter might introduce himself to you by name, shaking hands all around, talking sports, making menu recommendations. Another might glare at you, ignore you, rush you, or serve you with choppy, hostile gestures, your bubor cha cha slopping all over the table. (For the record: It’s soupy, with a mild coconut flavor, filled with tiny chunks of potato and sweet, chewy kernels of corn.) Why are you so mad at us for ordering food in your restaurant? One evening, a surly server delivers complimentary mini fruit tarts with the check; what should be a lovely gesture is marred by the fact that the fruit on top is desiccated in some parts, slimy in others, past its peak. Just. Don’t. Serve. It. We end a good meal with a bad taste in our mouths. Another night, the tarts are perfectly fresh and the staff perfectly friendly.
Will you enjoy Bubor Cha Cha? That may depend on your philosophy of travel. Dinner here is a bit like visiting Asia with a tour group: You see a lot of different countries, and the food is often adjusted for your palate, or someone else’s idea of it. If you prefer a more in-depth experience with riskier but more authentic meals, your taste buds may feel shortchanged.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.