Where Sushi meets Southie

From Boston Global on February 05, 2004

By Sacha Pfeiffer

A sushi bar in Southie? As someone with relatives who were born, raised, and still live in South Boston, I’ve watched in awe as Southie’s star has risen in recent years. It wasn’t long ago that the neighborhood was a proudly insular place with an eating scene that consisted mainly of sub shops and Amrheins.

Today, South Boston boasts an upscale dog-grooming parlor, an art gallery, and several nice, casual restaurants. There’s even a monthly poetry slam, for heaven’s sake. But sushi verges on revolutionary. In the old Southie, if you hankered for Asian take-out, you settled for greasy fried rice served in Styrofoam. Teriyaki House has changed that, offering Chinese and Japanese food that’s fresh, made to order, and loaded with crisp vegetables.

The restaurant, which opened in November, is across from the Broadway stop on the Red Line on lower West Broadway — not spiffed-up East Broadway, where cute java shops thrive. The streetscape is, shall we say, gritty; the Gillette factory and an MBTA train yard are around the corner, so Teriyaki House’s vibrant yellow facade practically glows. It’s run by Jennifer and Kenny Lai, a husband-wife duo who have lived in this neighborhood for more than 20 years. The Lais are Chinese, but they learned Japanese cooking while working for Sarku Japan, which operates Japanese restaurants in malls across the country. It took them nine months to renovate, and the results are fantastic. What was once a grungy Irish bakery is now a serene dining room with an open kitchen and a Zen feel: minimalist decor, ceramic Asian plateware, decorative wood slats overhead.

A six-seat sushi bar separates the eating area from the kitchen, but sushi represents only part of the menu. There’s also a wide range of soups, salads, rices, noodles, meats, and seafoods. Most foods are wok-cooked, grilled, or steamed, so service is very fast, and veggies in particular are expertly prepared. They’re steamed just enough to soften them, and their variety is impressive. There’s a short beer and wine list, too, including hot and cold sake, as well as trendy bubble teas.

Miso soup ($2) is simple but satisfying, with shreds of seaweed and tiny tofu cubes clustered at the bottom. Minced chicken ($6.25) is an appetizer but contains enough meat to be a main dish, and it’s one of the best items we tried. The chicken is diced, dusted with white pepper, and doused in sweet hoisin-teriyaki sauce. To eat it, you scoop it into wide leaves of iceberg lettuce. Vegetable tempura ($4.50) can be heavy and oily, but Teriyaki House’s version — broccoli, carrots, portobello mushrooms, and zucchini fried in the lightest of batters — is wonderful and virtually greaseless.

Beef udon ($6) has lots of lean, thinly sliced beef and a nice balance of noodles to veggies. Mildly spicy Szechwan chicken with lots of peanuts ($6.75) is tossed in oyster, soy, and mushroom sauces, a tasty trio. The excellent coconut-curry chicken ($6.50) is spicy without being overbearing — “not a clear-your-sinuses curry,” a companion said. Crunchy broccoli with garlic sauce ($6.25) is flecked with visible specks of minced garlic. Bourbon chicken ($6.50) isn’t really made with bourbon; its sweet coating is a blend of oyster sauce, teriyaki sauce, and brown sugar. Shrimp soba ($6.50) has an ideal mix of tiny shrimp, vegetables, and slender noodles. The salmon teriyaki bowl ($6) — rice, broccoli, and a grilled salmon filet — is a light, healthy, no-frills meal.

Other dishes need work. Spring rolls ($2) are too oily, the vegetable fried rice ($4.50) dull and dry. Chicken-noodle soup ($4.50) is lovely to behold, with its ropy udon noodles, carrot slivers, and bright-green snow peas. But it’s deathly bland. Pork lo mein ($5) is greasy and boring, with dried-up sparerib meat passing for pork. Several of our meals weren’t very warm, but we blame the haywire heating system, which was actually blowing cold air on the two frigid evenings we visited, making the place positively arctic.

The sushi (starting at $1.20) is a mixed bag. In a combination plate of tuna, salmon, tamago, and shrimp nigiri, plus saba (mackerel), unagi (eel), ikura (salmon roe), and kappa (cucumber roll), the salmon, mackerel, and eel tasted straight from the ocean. But others seemed not as fresh, and the rice was overcooked. It’s fair-to-middling sushi, but Southie’s gotta start somewhere.

There are no desserts yet, but ginger and green-tea ice cream may be on the way. For now, sweetened bubble teas ($2.85-$3.25) will have to suffice. They’re made with milk or fruit juice and served in tall, colorful glasses with wide plastic straws for slurping down the gummy tapioca pearls at the bottom — a little silly, but lots of fun.