Bostonís newest and largest Asian food court eclipses the varied offerings of the Chinatown Eating Place and the Japanese specialties of the Porter Exchange with eight stalls and a sit-down restaurant appealing to Asian students and youth, as well as immigrant families. Because the food court is part of the Super 88 Market, the stalls should have access to every kind of Asian ingredient. But in fact, the logic of capitalism prevails, meaning that many popular dishes are widely available and seasonal ingredients arenít featured.
Noodle soup is probably the common denominator of Asian fast food, so I tasted it in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese styles. Since Ajisen, the Japanese-based chain of ramen restaurants, inexplicably omits the popular udon noodles, they are sold with Chinese toppings at Kantin, and in soup by the Korean Misono stall. Since the milk teas with tapioca balls at Lollycup TeaZone are an international fad that has taken this company from Taiwan to more than 1000 outlets in five years, you can find similar drinks with gummy treats at the Vietnamese Sugar Bowl stall and at Tangís sit-down restaurant.
In addition to concentrating on generally available Asian fast foods, the Super 88 food court has some notable gaps. Tsunami, the intended sushi stall, hasnít been open for weeks, and no one else has taken up sushi, even though Misono makes excellent sushi at its West Roxbury restaurant. Although the Luu family, which owns the grocery store, operates such fine restaurants as the three Chau Chows and Eastern Pier, the Luus have apparently decided not to compete against their tenants here. So there are none of the kind of Southern Chinese dim sum and Hong Kong noodle soups you get in Chinatown. (Ironically, one of the first Luu enterprises was the Swatow stand in the Chinatown Eating Place.) The Luus immigrated from Vietnam by way of Malaysia, but thereís no Malaysian food, either.
The other and equally solvable problem of the Food Connection is that the converted auto showroom is subject to frequent cold drafts. One door opens to the street, the other to a frigid supermarket entryway, so thereís often a cold cross breeze. Even the separate sit-down restaurant, Tangís, is situated near the same two doors and thus subject to the same chill wind every few minutes.
But hereís the scorecard, in order of my personal preferences.
Sugar Bowl (617-254-8892; open daily, 10:30 a.m.Ėmidnight; MC, VI). Sugar Bowl has an extensive Vietnamese menu, but the crucial feature is that it has the best noodle soup in the league. Vietnamese pho is intrinsically the best noodle soup, but Sugar Bowl does quite a good job with it, starting with a broth that has an ideal balance of beefy and spicy flavors in which neither dominates. You can pick fillings, but I always have the five-way combination, Pho Dac Biet ($4.25/$5.25/$5.75). Even the smallest size is a daunting bowl filled with noodles and meat, including rare beef round, roast round, roast brisket, feathery tripe, and " tendon. " On the day I tried it, the stall may have been out of tripe, since my bowl had two thick slices of tendon, but I was not unhappy about it. The idea of eating gristle turns off many non-Asians, but I have come to love it cooked to a state where it is just slightly chewy, not unlike the tapioca balls in the desserts. The broth is improved with fresh chopped scallions, onion, and cilantro, and you can add bean sprouts and Asian basil. Sugar Bowl loses a few points for a mottled sprig of basil, no chili pepper, and a small cup of hoisin. But generally, this is the dish to have here. Sugar Bowl is located on the inside, away from the tables, so it sometimes looks deserted, but donít pass it by.
Lollycup TeaZone (no phone; no credit cards). Lollycup often has a line because the bubble tea served here is a huge fad across Asia, and well-known even in Southern California. You start with green or black iced tea (or a considerable number of fruit flavors), usually add condensed milk, and then choose either large or small tapioca balls. This gets shaken up, sealed with plastic on top, and issued with a large straw so you can suck up the large tapioca balls. (There are some reports of kids shooting the tapioca balls out of the straw, but I have not yet observed this in Allston.) The bubble part is not the head that forms after the shaking, but the tapioca balls. Apparently, " boba " is Taiwanese dialect for " king of the balls. " The tapioca balls are dark brown and flavored with tea. Lollycup has dominated this market by arriving first and having the best-textured tapioca balls, the most fruit flavors, and the best tea. Start with milk tea ($2.50) and large tapioca balls ($1.50) for the classic experience. Youíll be drinking sweet, milky ice tea and chewing on tea-flavored gum balls. It may have less caffeine than a Coke.
Mambo Café (617-254-0380; closed Mondays; no credit cards). Mambo Café is the odd standout, being under Venezuelan auspices. Its unique status enables it to provide such South American staples as sandwiches, hamburgers, and pizza, but also a variety of ethnic delights. In particular, yearnings for a familiar dessert can be answered here with something like a piece of tres leches cake ($2.75), a rich white cake soaked in three kinds of sweetened cream, or flan ($2.75). I also like the slice of the Spanish potato-omelet tortilla ($2.50). This looks like a wedge of pie, not a flat Mexican tortilla, and tastes like fried potatoes, fried onions, and eggs. For actual Venezuelan food, Mambo has stuffed arepas ($3.75) with your choice of roast pork (the classic), shredded beef (also very good), and chicken and avocado (yes). It also has fruit shakes to compete with the Vietnamese ones at Tangís.
Kantin (617-562-8388; no credit cards). Kantin is a Mandarin-Szechuan restaurant, or perhaps Taiwanese, but what caught my eye was Kun Pao Chicken ($5.25). My first bite took me right back to 1973, because Kantin serves the spiciest Szechuan food Iíve had in a long time. Its one-red-star rating is any other restaurantís three-chili-silhouettes hot. Whew! This is a dish to clean out the sinuses. It has cubes of tender chicken, water chestnuts, peanuts, carrots, celery, and red and green bell peppers, along with a good heap of aromatic rice. Order two drinks. It might be funny to watch suburban non-Asian teenagers come by and order the General Gauís Chicken, another one-star special.
Misono (no phone; no credit cards). Misono is Japanese and Korean, and I like this one somewhat better than the West Roxbury restaurant, perhaps because I had the broiled-eel rice plate ($7.95), which is like eating a dozen pieces of unagi sushi, plus bean sprouts, a gingery iceberg salad, and some fresh spicy kimchee. It also has fresh Korean pancakes, to which the seafood version ($3.95) adds phony crab to the scallions for something a little lighter and eggier than a scallion pancake. Mixed-seafood rice plate has excellent octopus, squid, a mussel, fish sausage, spinach, and a fried egg ó all in a light soy sauce with rice and Japanese pickles. I donít recommend the udon bowls unless youíre desperate for those thick rice noodles; the broth is thin (although it grows on you), and the vegetarian version ($5.95) includes two kinds of fish sausage and just a little shredded zucchini, Napa cabbage, lettuce, and mushroom.
Oubon (617-254-9188; MC, VI). Oubon has Thai food, some of it very good, but I found it notably slow. Mixed satay ($5.95) isnít heavily marinated but has some galangal flavor in both the beef and the chicken, with a nice peanut dip and a lively little salad dip. Oubon has a nice version of the sticky rice and mango dessert ($4.95), made with black rice that stews up to a nifty purple mound with a little coconut milk and a sliced-up (but pretty unripe) mango.
Rickshaw (617-787-5700; open 11 a.m.Ėmidnight, closed Mondays; no credit cards). Rickshaw is an Indian stand, with the usual North Indian meat dishes and five or six vegetarian possibilities. The action centers mostly on steam-table specials, available in various combinations. I had a vegetarian combination ($5.95), which brought the best portion of rice in the building, about three lunchesí worth of white basmati, a thick curry of chickpeas, potatoes, carrots, and squash, and a looser curry with gluten, peas, and chickpeas. You do want to stop here for mango lassi ($2.50), a refreshing drink, if you have anything spicy.
Ajisen Noodle (617-789-5559; open daily, 10:30 a.m.Ė11 p.m.; MC, VI). Ajisen Noodle is a Japanese-based chain of ramen shops, sort of Tampopo goes corporate. I had the eponymous Ajisen noodle ($5.50), a soup bowl of good, thin noodles in a milky pork broth, with four nice slices of roast loin, seaweed, half a preserved egg, and a few bean sprouts and scallions. It was good, but Tampopo used more-interesting vegetables.
Tangís Garden (617-787-1818/3888; open daily, 10 a.m.Ė11 p.m.; no credit cards). Tangís is a sit-down restaurant across the freezing corridor from the mall. The menu is Chinese and Vietnamese, with a nod toward the Vietnamese side. My impression is that Tangís is not taking advantage of the location to grab produce off the shelves of the grocery. Vietnamese spring rolls ($3.95) are the fresh (or summer) rolls, with translucent soft rice skins revealing the fillings of lettuce, noodles, pork, sliced shrimp, and a leaf of Asian basil. Vietnamese deep-fried spring rolls ($3.95) are the thin egg rolls, fried very crunchy, but the filling is uninteresting. Hot and spicy chicken wings ($5.95) arenít too spicy, but they are hard to eat because they arenít chopped into segments. The chicken with noodle soup ($5.50) isnít bad: real chicken broth, lots of stir-fried breast meat, lots of noodles. But itís very simple compared to pho. Ma po tofu plate with pork ($5.95) is spicy, but not with the traditional Szechuan peppercorns. I did like the black mushrooms in this sauce.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com