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Phillip Tang on His Current Favorites

Welcome to Chef Faves, a new Eater Boston series where local chefs share some of their current favorite dishes, ingredients, and more. Here's Phillip Tang, chef/owner at East by Northeast.
[Photo: Phillip Tang/Katie Chudy]

What's your favorite dish currently in Boston?
I personally like comfort food, and I really like the pho at Pho Lemongrass on Beacon Street. I find that I go there pretty frequently — it's just really good, clean broth, and the flavors are always really nice. I don't really have the chance to go out all that often, but sometimes I have a little time to run out and grab a quick bite. It's always something satisfying like that, and that's definitely one of my favorites.

What's your current favorite ingredient to use?
My favorite ingredient definitely changes seasonally, but in the summertime, it's always about tomatoes and local ingredients. Recently, as we're getting into fall, there's a customer of ours that really likes our food, and he is also a forager. He's brought us some local maitake and chicken mushrooms that I'm really excited about. The chicken mushrooms are perfect — they're so young and tender, not tough and fibrous yet. To me, it's not necessarily one thing. Sometimes things just pop up, and it's just some of the best stuff.

Recently we had a neighbor of ours down on Norfolk Street who just came to the back door and said that he has a pear tree and doesn't have anything to do with all of them, and he asked if I wanted them. They were just these nice, small pears, and they literally came from around the corner. I just simply pan-roasted them and put a house-made lardo and a black vinegar reduction and peppercorn. It was just so simple, but it's those types of things that you don't see too often but are the most exciting times.

You know, sometimes you're working with a menu and you're using the same sort of ingredients over and over, but when something pops out of nowhere it's just really cool because it gets you out of your normal routine and gets you thinking about what you're going to do with the dish now. That to me is one of the most exciting things.

Where's your favorite place to go for food inspiration?
I tend to go back to more traditional Asian dishes, and then I work my way from there. Sometimes I will go out to eat, and I'll have something and think that it's just a really interesting idea, but I think for the most part, over the course of the years that we've been here, it's going back to looking at something that's more traditional and thinking about what we can do to change it a little bit and give a different take on it. Like right now, we're doing the stuffed littleneck clams with a kimchi relish, and the idea was a Korean kimchi stew with clams, some tofu, and kimchi broth. It was those flavors of the broth — the clams, the garlic, and kimchi. And we twisted it a bit to make it a little more New England-y, to have stuffed littleneck clams, but you still get all of those flavors.

For me, going back to traditional flavors is my main source of inspiration.
Also, my family owns some restaurants in DC and California, and that's where a lot of inspiration for the restaurant came from. It's a very traditional Chinese restaurant, but not in a wok and stir-fry kind of way, more like small plates and noodle dishes, little salads, and scallion pancakes. I find that when I'm running low on ideas, I think of my family's restaurant and the things that I grew up with to come up with ideas. I also like Fuchia Dunlop recipes. I think that her books are pretty true to tradition and really well-researched. She has a couple of books that I really like.

What is one of your favorite food memories?
I think a lot of it goes back to family and family meals at home. I don't think there's necessarily specific ones. Our parents were really good about exposing us to different types of food, but at the same time, we had a great aunt who lived with us when I was younger, and she was a really great cook. She'd do a really good braised pork belly and scallion pancakes and things like that. Things like that definitely shaped my eating habits very much. Although I like Western food, I aways go back to that homestyle Chinese food that is pretty important to what I do here.

I do have a hard time going to eat scallion pancakes anywhere else because I've been making them the same way for so long. I also loved the holidays; we'd have everyone come over and just make a ton of dumplings, and we'd sit around and talk and roll dumplings and boil them. We'd just sit there talking and eating, like, 20-30 dumplings. It's a nice communal family thing where everyone is involved. My grandfather would make the filling, and my grandmother would make the dough, and we'd just roll them out. That was always a lot of fun.

What are your favorite dishes currently on the menu, and what are you most looking forward to doing in the near future?
I like our creamed corn noodle right now. I feel like it's just a very good dish. It's definitely a very fusion-y type dish blending creamed corn and bacon, but it's flavored with XO sauce as well, so it gives it an extra seafood depth that you can't get elsewhere. I just really like the combination of the smoky pork and the rich seafood, and the cream ties it all together. Then there's a poached egg in there and pickled jalapenos on top for a little bit of acid. I just think it's a good dish.

What is your favorite thing to cook at home in your (limited) spare time?
Anything not Chinese! I actually really like to make things like chili. I get so much Asian food and have spent most of my career cooking non-Asian food, and I really enjoy it. There's a lot of techniques and flavors that I don't get to use because I can't really use them here. At home I can cook whatever I want, and I try to make dinner for the week for me and my wife, so I try to choose something that will last like a nice stew. But one of my favorites is definitely making chili from scratch. When I was living in DC, the chef there was very proud of his chili, and there were no short cuts — all of the meat was diced by hand, and all of the chilies were all toasted and ground. No pre-mixed anything. Everything was done by hand so that it didn't turn into this paste sort of thing, and instead you could taste all of the different elements, and they were treated right, which just makes for excellent chili.
Katie Chudy
· All coverage of Phillip Tang on Eater [~EBOS~]
· All coverage of East by Northeast on Eater [~EBOS~]

East by Northeast

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