Dish: Chinatown Chic

Shojo steps up the game for modern Asian cuisine in Boston
a pho soup
Just one of the many options: Shabu Pho, complete with a tableside pour of pork broth. Photo: Alonso Nichols
March 7, 2013

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This is part of an occasional series about eating establishments in neighborhoods near Tufts’ three campuses. Have a suggestion for a place for our roving diners to explore? Email us at now@tufts.edu. You can also follow Dish on Foursquare.

Restaurant patrons heading for Chinatown usually have a pretty good idea what’s in store. Still, when seeking out recommendations, you’ll probably end up with a range of choices, because Chinese cuisines and their assorted renditions can be all over the map.

Enter Shojo, with a sophisticated update that could be a game changer in this neighborhood. Its opening on Tyler Street last year attracted a lot of attention, in part for breaking the mold of what a Chinatown restaurant could be. Everything is kicked up a notch and then some, from its original take on Pan-Asian (hold your fire, please) to eye-catching presentations and ambitious bar offerings, all cocooned in urban-chic surroundings.

Sensible minds do well to presume that most attempts at fusion dining are never as good as the individual cuisines being slapped together. With often calamitous results, the trend persists as an undesirable mutation that elevates concept above quality. Then a place like Shojo crops up and makes a case for how it can be done.

If you can’t determine what nationality of food you’re looking at when you scan a menu, a rational response would be to solicit some information about the chef. I do this all the time. The talent in Shojo’s kitchen happens to be Thai: Nick Lee, whose resume includes a significant stint at Franklin Café in the South End. The bar manager, Marcus Yao, hails from Basho and Changsho. Brother owners Brian and Brendan Moy cut their teeth at their family’s dim sum hall-of-famer China Pearl. Having summed there on numerous happy occasions, I was pretty confident I’d be in good hands.

The Szechuan pork-stuffed calamari’s tomato-based sauce is spiked with ginger, cilantro and soy. Photo: Alonso NicholsWhere to begin? The more unusual the menu, the higher the stakes. Fried oysters always appeal and seldom disappoint. Shojo’s refined version arrives in a sweet kimchi glaze with radish, scallion and smoked paprika. Another appetizer, Szechuan pork-stuffed calamari, visually mirrors an Italian preparation, but its tomato-based sauce is spiked with ginger, cilantro and soy. The squid is impressively tender, as is the sausagey filling.

A signature dish called Damn! Damn!! Noodles!!! is an update of the soundalike favorite, egg noodles with ground pork, bean sprouts, egg and Szechuan peppercorn (also available vegetarian). Another featured item is the Shabu Pho, a bowl of Thai basil, toasted garlic and noodles to which is added a tableside pour of pork broth and a layer of beef carpaccio. But better to tour the byways of the menu than detain yourself here.

The attention lavished on two side dishes sealed my respect for the kitchen. Innocuously named but impressively executed, the ginger rice was declared “my new favorite thing” by one of our dining party. And the XO native corn, prepared with a homemade sauce made from dried scallops, ham, bacon, chili flakes, black pepper and cilantro, exceeded expectations. Although it was described on the menu as spicy, levels of heat at Shojo are conservatively assigned—no surprise to anyone who eats out in Boston.

The Moys have a personal connection with the neighborhood, and to them that means a commitment to attract new clientele and younger palates. Their intention with Shojo is to create a venue that’s fun and different: the eclectic music feed and moody environment rely on a distinctive coolness factor rather than Chinatown ambiance to make an impression.

Brian was a business major whose interest in fashion spawned a line of clothing. That background is reflected in the attractively designed interior space. Screen lighting is highly placed, its geometrical patterns repeated in the front windows facing the street. The striking bar is made of wood reclaimed from the floor of the Hyde Park Boys and Girls Club. All elements, except the obligatory TV, contribute to an atmosphere that’s stylish and warm.

My research revealed “shojo” to be a telekinetic female sea spirit with long claws for disemboweling and a fondness for alcohol. The restaurant’s stunning logo pictures the besotted monkey-man creature associated with a more ancient meaning of the word. Either way, I’m impressed.

Shojo, 9A Tyler St., Boston, is open for lunch Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–3 p.m. and dinner Mon.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m. 617.423.7888. For more information, go to http://shojoboston.com.

Fred Kalil can be reached at frederick.kalil@tufts.edu.

Read earlier reviews on the Dish series page.

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