Under Ground in Chinatown

How a simple quest ended up deep below the streets of Chinatown.

When I go to big cities there are always a few things I like to check out.  I like to go to the biggest cathedral, the best public market, and when possible the Asian or Chinatown section of town. Usually I am only able to skim the surface of these places.

Working in Boston for the past fourteen years has given me the chance to really explore the city, far beyond what I can usually do in other places on a short visit. I particularly have tried to explore Boston's Chinatown.

My quest started with its restaurants, $4.99 lunch special type stuff. This covers everything from big bowls of Vietnamese soup to incredible chow mein in a place with about six tables in an old converted gas station from yesteryear. Next I moved on to dim sum, a style of dining that definitely has potential to be converted to more western food styles. You sit down and right away the waitresses bring the buffet to you on rolling carts. You point to what you want, they hand it to you and they stamp a card. Dim sum presents the dual excitement of having no idea what you are eating or what it will cost. Maybe that's not for everyone but for me it's always good and always reasonable.  One of the best places for dim sum in Chinatown is in a majestic old theatre with massive ceilings and a constant buzz of excitement from the local population.

Next I began bringing home brightly decorated treats from the Chinese bakeries and juicy items from the candy store. Still further I explored. I shopped in all of the trinket shops on Kneeland Street funding lucky bamboo plants, panda toys, and all kinds of Hello Kitty stuff for my kids.

After a few years of getting comfortable in the surroundings I was ready to take on the Asian grocery stores. Huge tanks of live fish, exotic vegetables, and many unusual items are all commingled among the items on my shopping list of teas, sauces, and dumplings.

At this point I felt as though I had eaten where the locals eat and shopped where the locals shopped and it was time to raise the stakes. I wanted to buy wholesale in bulk. I wanted to shop at the Chinatown version of Costco, if such a place existed. This would be sure validation of the true neighborhood expertise.

I started with the easy stuff, restaurant supply stores. If you need Thai chili sauce by the gallon or a box of 700 fortune cookies, then I'm your guy.

My ultimate challenge was to get deep into a noodle wholesale warehouse. I had my target all lined up, a nondescript distributor on Essex Street. I walked in pretending like I belonged (which clearly I didn't). There were about five gentlemen hanging around. No one was in any hurry to rush to my service so I suggested to the friendliest looking one in the group that I wanted to buy noodles. He pointed to a large bag and told me the price. I paid him and walked out with my noodles. It was kind of disappointing, a little too easy.

The noodles were great. I split up the bag, froze them, and we ate them in soup and stir fry over about a month. Something told me there was some unfinished business.

I went back again and this time was a little more confident and a little more insistent. The sign outside had two company names. I asked the guys out front if they had any other types of noodles. They showed me a couple of different but similar styles. I asked if they had rice noodles, they said no. I asked about the second company, and they said it was downstairs but they were sold out. Now we were getting somewhere...

I asked if I could go down and get information so I could get there in time before they sold out next time. They shrugged their shoulders and pointed to a dark stairway toward the back of the warehouse.

By taking an extra step with each visit to Chinatown I now found myself about to descend into a creepy old cellar deep within the neighborhood. There was an old mechanical ramp to my right. Excited and nervous I clutched the makeshift handrail to my left.

I reached the bottom, turned the corner and the cramped space was packed with cases and cartons. There was an older gentlemen in an office chair near a small desk. He took off his glasses and confirmed what the men upstairs already said, he was sold out. It didn't exactly look sold out but I really was in no position to question anyone about anything. As I was about to leave unfulfilled, a voice emerged from even deeper in the shadows.

A kindly looking woman, quite obviously the co-owner of the enterprise asked her husband/partner what was going on. They bickered in their native tongue for what seemed an eternity and then she turned to me and asked me what I wanted.

I didn't even know what they sold. I blurted out the only thing I could think of, "one small please." She nodded and went back in the shadows.

At this point I could barely imagine what she might come back with. Am I going to need the rickety ramp for my purchase of a "small" case of who knows what?  She reappeared a few moments later with a plastic package of rice noodles that very much resembled a package of white American cheese from the supermarket. It cost me less than $5. I was very happy and very much relieved.

The rice noodles were delicious but only stayed fresh for about a day or two. Since the package is about a two week supply I really don’t think I will need to venture downstairs in the warehouse anymore. But my curiosity was more than satisfied as I ate my noodle soup that night and told the family my tale of adventure.

I still go to Chinatown quite frequently including the noodle shop but I don't go much further than the front hallway for my purchase of yellow noodles. Something tells me there are still some interesting places and some more secrets to discover in the narrow streets of Chinatown but for me buying that small package of rice noodles in the underground warehouse was as far into the maze as I care to venture. 

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