by Rachel Travers
No, this isn't the movie starring a young Cary Grant running terrorized through cornfields. It's the new Chinese restaurant in Inman Square starring a young chef, Phillip Tang, who prefers to run through local farmlands. And though most new restaurants aim for a short and pithy moniker, Tang went against current practice: "This name was long, but it said it all."
Tang runs counter to many current practices, especially for an ethnic restaurant. One visit to the new Inman Square address will help tell the tale.
The story is partially one of snout to tail, because the little Asian restaurant goes through an entire pig every two weeks. Tang butchers it immediately, then Cryovacs and freezes it to maintain utmost freshness. East by Northeast (EXNE, as it is commonly referred to) is exceptionally pork-centric, though beef and occasionally veal and lamb are used-all from a highly regarded co-op called Vermont Quality Meat. This is part of what Tang is all about, and what sets him apart from your basic Chinese restaurant. His menu is not cheap food with ingredients of questionable origin. Do not expect to find beef chow foon in a thick brown sauce.
But what you can expect is Asian-based cuisine that draws heavily on local sourcing and definitely on the local seasons. In addition to meat, Tang uses chicken that is hormone- and antibiotic-free from the local Mayflower Poultry, wild shrimp from New Deal FishMarket in Cambridge, and even his tofu has Cambridge origins from Chang Shing Tofu.
So, what's the big deal, you may wonder? Any shrimp used would be found ground and stuffed into a dumpling with multiple ingredients, hardly recognizable. And you might only find three pieces of tender beef in the noodles with beef shank, celery root and parsnip in spicy broth. But this is where you learn to understand that quality and careful sourcing yields the finest flavors. It also where you will learn that less is more.
Tang relies heavily on his expert Chinese/Taiwanese background to produce homemade noodles that anchor much of his menu. He makes two breads, two rice noodles dishes and three wheat noodle dishes. These are all handcrafted. You will not receive a quart-sized bowl of broth chockful with noodles. You will be served a small bowl of a broth-based noodle dish-and it's meant to be shared.
The short rice noodles are actually Tang's own invention, based on a Chinese sticky rice noodle from his past. There are thick-cut flour noodles fatter than fettucini, thinner than papardelle and long enough to get tangled. And the white mantou bread (which hides crispy pork belly) resembles a dim sum bun, but in shape only.
As a customer, you must remind yourself that there is a direct relationship between how delicious these products are and the labor-intensive effort that produces these artisanal dishes.
One night's special was smoked pork confit with thick-cut noodles, king oyster mushrooms and kale. What set this apart was a reduced pork stock, combined with a smoked stock made from house-smoked hocks, combined with bits of pork cooked in lard. OK, you are start ing to get the point. It's layer upon layer of flavors that we are accustomed to at very high-end, white tablecloth restaurants owned and manned by seasoned chefs.
Tang grew up in the Washington, DC, area with his Taiwanese mother, Chinese father and his aunt who barely spoke English. Cooking and restaurants are in the Tang family; a noodle shop in Taiwan and his uncle owns a restaurant in Los Angeles. His parents, who are both educators, also help manage two Taiwanese style restaurants in the DC area. This is where he learned the art of the noodle.
Tang attended the University of Virginia and majored in East Asian studies with a minor in studio art. But before the degree was in his hand, he knew he wanted to go to culinary school and followed college with a one-year program at L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
"Food is very personal to me," says Tang, "and this big mixture of influences have shaped me throughout my life and cooking career. I've taken bits and pieces of things that have surrounded me, and am now offering a personal expression of the food I like to eat myself." Working at Lumiere and Rialto and being sous chef for Tim Weichman at TWFoods has rounded out his education and encouraged his creative instincts.
Tiny things you taste but barely see put his food in a new light. Sautéed kale and garlic in oil seems pretty normal, but it's finished with a ground mix of pickled rutabaga, Dijon mustard and Chinese peppercorns that confounds the brain and delights the mouth. Chicken skin cracklings broken into small pieces tops the chicken short rice noodles, but all you are aware of is a tiny crunch. Tang tops his smoked tofu with a similar surprise: He boils rice then deep fries it and breaks it up for a crispy rice final sprinkle.
So what do these details tell us about an Asian chef who emphasizes local sourcing and local seasons? They hopefully explain why a young chef in a tiny Cambridge Chinese restaurant pays top price for his ingredients, then keeps the lid on his costs by offering a limited menu with dishes that hide plenty of secrets.
Even the fact that a chef who holds a full liquor license offers only four cocktails, two wines and seven beers explains Tang's sensibilities: Less is more and local is best.
East by Northeast
1128 Cambridge Street, Inman Square
Rachel Travers is a freelance food, travel and lifestyle writer who contributes regularly to the Boston Globe and Edible Boston, as well as many other regional, national and online venues. She can be reached at email@example.com.