New dim sim joint where old dim sum joint used to be is worth a ride down the Red Line
Not too long ago, it appeared that Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood would expand much like that of the ever-growing Chinatown in Manhattan, especially with the disintegration of the old Combat Zone, which is now home to a number of Chinese (and other Asian) restaurants and shops. And while Chinatown has also expanded a bit into the Leather District to the east and, to a lesser extent, the Tufts Medical Center area to the south, the neighborhood now appears to be at risk because of development that now threatens some beloved spots including Hei La Moon, an enormous dim sum place and banquet hall that may ultimately be replaced by an office tower (because what Boston needs is more office towers).
Whether this ends up happening is anyone’s guess, but parts of Boston’s Chinatown certainly seem to be in some danger, and the closings of several of its best-known restaurants have certainly made people worry about the future of this historic neighborhood. At the same time, other “Chinatowns” are really starting to become established outside of the city, including in downtown Malden and two Quincy neighborhoods—Wollaston and North Quincy, with the latter having a treasure trove of Asian restaurants and food spots including a new dim sum house called East Ocean Restaurant that’s about as hidden a place as you’ll find (or not find). A recent look at this dining spot indicates that it has the potential to be a real gem—and maybe one that ultimately won’t be so hidden, especially as more and more diners start to help places like North Quincy become destination areas for food and drink.
East Ocean Restaurant resides in a space that had been home to another dim sum house called Grand Chinatown, and it’s located in a rather odd spot where Billings Road (which is a relatively busy street) crosses Hancock Street and basically peters out just above the commuter rail and Red Line tracks. Because of this, East Ocean and other businesses west of Hancock sit in a snug little corner of North Quincy with little traffic—foot and otherwise—and parking is relatively easy to find either on Billings or Holmes Street, which parallels the tracks. (For those without cars, by the way, the North Quincy T stop is only a few blocks to the north while the Wollaston stop is several blocks to the south.)
The space itself, while not nearly as big as the aforementioned Hei La Moon (which is so large it could almost double as a football stadium), is spacious and comfortable, with several large round tables for big groups and a number of other tables of various sizes, and it’s set up in a rather no-nonsense way to fit the maximum number of seats in without being uncomfortably tight. For those who haven’t done dim sum before, the dining process may seem a bit unusual, with plates and steamer baskets being brought out one by one so that as you finish a dish or two, another one or two appear, with that process continuing until all plates and baskets have come to the table. In other words, this place is all about shareable small plates rather than the appetizers and large plates often found at Chinese-American restaurants.
Speaking of Chinese-American restaurants, if you are looking for that, you might want to move on because East Ocean is not one of those places with both a Chinese-American menu and a more traditional Chinese menu; instead, you are limited to Cantonese and Szechuan options such as pork blood with chives, steamed beef tripe, spicy jellyfish, cold chicken feet, pork blood congee (a type of rice porridge), jellied tofu, and shark fin and pork dumplings. If you’re not quite so adventurous, however, the dim sum options here include some other dishes that might seem a bit more familiar, including pan-fried leek dumplings, spring rolls, pork belly with black pepper sauce, shrimp and asparagus dumplings, and stuffed eggplant.
No matter what you order, the items at East Ocean taste fresh and tend to have some interesting and often-unusual flavors, with a few highlights being steamed veggie rice rolls, which is probably a good option if you’re not all that adventurous; steamed spare rib rice rolls, although be forewarned that these are not the meaty spareribs found at your typical Chinese takeout spot, instead being quite fatty and on the bone—and delicious; similarly fatty (and on the bone) short ribs with a zingy black pepper sauce; pork and shrimp shumai, which are much larger than those you might find at a Thai or more Americanized Chinese restaurant; and huge steamed pork buns, which come in orders of three and which will fill you up very quickly so it’s best to stick to eating just one.
A pot of hot tea is brought over on request, and the leaves are loose, so you need to wait a bit to let the leaves sink to the bottom of the cup, that is, unless you happen to like to eat tea leaves (don’t do that). One note about East Ocean: There is a good chance that you’ll encounter a serious language barrier here unless you speak Chinese, so if you’re allergic to certain foods or just want to avoid certain ingredients that you might not like, be careful here, as some of the workers don’t seem to speak any English at all and the English translations of the dishes on the menu almost seem like an afterthought in some cases.
Going to places like East Ocean Restaurant can feel like a trip back in time, with their absurdly cheap prices, family-friendly atmosphere, lack of noise (a rarity among new spots these days), and serene and unpretentious atmosphere seeming like so many restaurants from way back when. And yes, this North Quincy eatery probably isn’t for everyone, and even seasoned food nerds may see some dishes on the menu that they haven’t seen before, but in the end, East Ocean is yet another reason to visit these developing Chinatown-type neighborhoods that continue to thrive and expand even as Boston’s Chinatown faces an uncertain future.
EAST OCEAN RESTAURANT. 21 BILLINGS RD., NORTH QUINCY.
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Marc is the founder of @hiddenboston, a textbook editor, a hike leader for @AppMtnClub, and a food and travel writer and commenter for DigBoston, NBC/NECN, WBZ, WMFO and indie617.