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Almost as good as its name

Chinese dishes, including salted chicken, Kung Pao chicken, and braised mushrooms and tofu at The Best Little Restaurant. Chinese dishes, including salted chicken, Kung Pao chicken, and braised mushrooms and tofu at The Best Little Restaurant. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Ike DeLorenzo
Globe Correspondent / March 9, 2011

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The three Chinese characters that form the name of the Best Little Restaurant in Chinatown translate to “Definitely good.’’ And the food certainly is. As for the restaurant interior, let’s just say sparsely furnished, half-underground, unrelenting white. Successive aluminum doors clatter as guests come in. Waiters are clad in tuxedos that look to be made of papier-mache. Not a great place for a first date. But if you can eat upstairs, do. There’s so much here to enjoy if you can just concentrate.

New England has a unique tradition of Chinese cuisine. The dishes in Boston’s small, family-run restaurants are different from those found on the West Coast, and certainly China. The fiery spice of Sichuan and Hunan cuisines may rule San Francisco, but Bay State eateries, like this one, are dominated by the milder, more savory/sweet flavors of Cantonese cuisine. Both are Americanized. There’s much more meat on the plate, vegetables are fewer and firmer, and, of course, Western ingredients (onion, carrot), replace unfamiliar ones (offal, bitter gourd).

As she opens the menu, one of my dining companions, whose mother is Chinese, is immediately skeptical. “General Gau’s chicken?’’ Eyes roll. “Come on.’’ It’s good here. The popular dish was probably developed by Chinese immigrants to the Northeast in the 1970s (claims abound). Dark meat is chopped to pieces, fried just crisp, then drenched in a bright, sticky, tangy sauce of scallions, ginger, garlic, sesame, and a bit of chili. Best Little Restaurant’s rendition ($9.95) is surrounded by firm florets of steamed American broccoli.

The waiters here will politely serve you such familiar menu items without comment. But if you choose right, you earn a broad smile, and praise (for the dish and for you). Order jumbo shrimp with walnuts in creamy sauce ($14.95) and you get the pink crustaceans tossed in a light mayonnaise sauce, with whole candied walnuts, served on a bed of steamed broccoli and carrots. It sounds odd but looks beautiful, and the taste is a surprise. There’s a spectrum of textures (meaty, firm, creamy, crunchy), which offer an array of effects on your tongue (salty, sweet, milky, cool, warm) that are all pleasurable. “It’s always been my favorite, since I was a kid,’’ another dining companion, Phil Lee, tells me between bites. Lee has enjoyed the dish at Chinatown restaurants over the past 30 years. “Theirs is very good.’’

Best Little Restaurant is a retirement project for owner Frank Wong, a founder of the Chinatown dim sum institution China Pearl some 20 years ago. Many dishes here demonstrate that experience and expertise.

Among my favorites: brilliantly fresh pea shoots sauteed simply in garlic ($8); braised-then-deep-fried pork ribs ($10.50), both tender and somehow light; subtly curried Singapore-style rice noodles with shrimp, scallion, and a wonderful aroma ($6.95); hon sue bean curd ($9.95), a deeply savory hot pot tofu seasoned with ground pork and mushrooms (sorry, vegetarians).

With 181 dishes on the menu, and as many stories behind them, it’s a good addition to that short list of Chinatown restaurants where, with some advice from the wait staff, dinner will definitely be good. Best to get on their good side. You want their smile of approval when you order well.

Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at ike@theideassection.com.

THE BEST LITTLE RESTAURANT

13A Hudson St., Chinatown, Boston, 617-338-4988. Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express. Not wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $5.95-$10.95. Entrees $6.50-$18.95. Desserts (none).

Hours Sun-Thu 11:30 a.m.- 9:30 p.m.; Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.

Liquor Beer only.

May we suggest Jumbo shrimp with walnuts in creamy sauce, stir-fried pea pod stems, braised fried spare ribs, Singapore-style rice noodles.

Ratings

  • 4 Stars Extraordinary
  • 3 Stars Excellent
  • 2 Stars Good
  • 1 Star Fair
  • No Stars Poor