This new delivery service will bring Kowloon and other New England Chinese food to your door step

This new delivery service will bring Kowloon and other New England Chinese food to your door step

Food News

For those no longer living in Massachusetts, Jim Lawlor will help deliver Kowloon and other New England Chinese food to you.

For those no longer living in Massachusetts, Jim Lawlor will help get Kowloon and other New England Chinese food delivered to you. John Blanding/Boston Globe

Chinese food takeout and delivery is not new, in fact it’s maybe one of the most common forms of takeout. But if you could pay to eat Kowloon in California, would you? 

Weymouth resident Jim Lawlor asked this question last year to a Facebook group of Chinese food enthusiasts who either live in or are originally from Massachusetts. The answer he got back, at least from those who no longer resided in Massachusetts, was yes. 

And that’s because the nearly 19,000 members of Facebook’s New England Chinese Food Support Group share this opinion: they just don’t make Chinese food like they do here. 

Exterior of Kowloon, a Chinese restaurant in Saugus. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

“The food is important, the taste of the food is important, but besides the food that people miss, I hear so many stories about being a kid,” Lawlor said. “People equate this food with their childhood.”

Some of his most fond childhood memories were with family and takeout cartons of Chinese food. 

“One night my parents came home, and on the way they grabbed takeout Chinese food. They woke us up, we all set up little TV trays in their bedroom eating Chinese food with them.” 

It must have been the middle of the night, Lawlor went on. But it was worth being woken up for. 

That Chinese food he would eat with his family has a name: Boston, or New England, Chinese food, which is a very real, hyper-regional fusion take on American Chinese food. To some Bay Staters, this Chinese food is so special that they’re willing to pay hundreds of dollars to have it delivered across state lines, by way of Lawlor’s new business venture. 

What is New England Chinese food?

You can get American Chinese food anywhere, but not New England Chinese food, as Lawlor has heard many times from friends and family who had moved south. 

Mark Ross, who moved to Nevada 20 years ago and has run the New England Chinese Food Support Group Facebook page for around three years, learned this hard lesson quickly into his relocation.

“Day one, I missed it,” Ross said. “We kept trying place after place after place, and we couldn’t find one place that offered what I would call acceptable New England fare. It just doesn’t exist out here.”

From the buffet at China Blossom in North Andover: broccoli and fresh vegetables, egg foo young, chicken fingers, and peking ravioli. —Naomi Kooker for The Boston Globe

The differences between what Bay Staters consider Chinese food and what shows up on other menus can be traced back to the late 1800s, when Chinese immigrants moved to Boston and fed a working class of mostly Irish and Italian immigrants.

To accommodate their tastes, you saw hybrid items pop up on menus or side items served that one wouldn’t normally see at an American Chinese restaurant, said Corky White, an anthropology professor at Boston University whose areas of expertise include food studies.

“Chinese food in Boston at Chinese restaurants had to have white bread,” White said. “It just would automatically come to the table whenever a non-Chinese person would sit down.”

The late Joyce Chen, a Chinese-American chef and restauranteur, featured on a U.S. Postal Service stamp.

She notes other dishes — like the spare ribs — were authentically Boston but not authentically Chinese additions to menus. And then there’s the lobster sauce, which didn’t and has never included lobster, but did include molasses given the sugar trade that went through Boston. 

“The sugar trade made everything sweeter,” White said. “Boston fried rice is darker from the molasses. Duck sauce is sweeter.” 

An item that still shows up on menus is peking ravioli, which is a dumpling. White said legendary chef Joyce Chen invented the term in order to introduce her American audience to Chinese foods.

Also a part of the New England Chinese food phenomenon, White said, were highway palaces, which began popping up in the mid-20th century, like Kowloon. She described them as “quasi-Cantonese, quasi-tiki” and a special occasion destination compared to your typical go-to Chinese takeout restaurant. With a dish of chow mein, you could order a mai tai cocktail served in a tiki mug. And of course there’s the beloved pu-pu platter, which Thrillist describes as a “amalgam of Americanized Chinese food, Hawaiian tradition, and bar food.”

“[It was] more upscale, but still catering to local tastes rather than offering something you might think of as originally Chinese,” White said. “Those were extravaganzas.”

How does the delivery service work?

Lawlor and his wife, Carol, have been fine-tuning the process of getting that beloved pu-pu platter and lo mein from some of the iconic Massachusetts Chinese restaurants for a year now, using the Facebook group as a soft launch for his service called Bamboos Nation Interstate. As of March 1, it’s open to the public, allowing customers from any state — except Alaska and Hawaii — to make an order.

Customers can purchase one big package of food that includes a pu-pu platter for two, a choice of two additional appetizers (appetizers are the most important meal in a New England Chinese food diet, Lawlor said), any type of rice or lo mein, and two entrees. 

Kowloon isn’t the only place guests can order from, though the highway palace in Saugus is the most popular option (and most expensive at $219 before shipping and handling). Fans of Tahiti in Dedham, Fantasy Island in Salem, and Imperial Garden in Hanover can order food packages from these restaurants as well. 

Of course, it can’t come to you hot from that kind of distance, so Lawlor had to get certified in handling food, as well as hazmat certified to handle and ship dry ice through the airlines, he said.

Lawlor even tested which foods freeze well and if they reheated best in the air fryer versus the oven, instructions he includes in each package. Sometimes he throws in little treats, like packs of tea as a nod to the pot of tea some area Chinese restaurants used to bring to the table with the white bread. 

Bags of takeout food at Kowloon
Jim Lawlor’s business, Bamboos Nation Interstate, delivers New England Chinese food, like the pictured Kowloon, to customers across the U.S. —Courtesy Jim Lawlor – Courtesy Jim Lawlor

From ordering time to arrival at the customer’s house, it probably takes about three weeks, Lawlor said. It is a little pricey, given what all comes in the package and Lawlor’s time driving from the North Shore to the South Shore fulfilling orders, starting at $189.

Lawlor’s idea was met with mostly positive responses among the New England Chinese Food Support Group members, many excited to get a bite of home in lieu of what they considered inferior options in other states. Some were skeptical about the reheating process. 

“It certainly is not as fresh as hot from the restaurant served right to your table,” Lawlor said to the group. “But for those without access to that, we try to make it like the next best alternative.”

White, who has had an interest in this food phenomenon for decades, said nostalgia is a key component that keeps hyper-regional foods like Boston/New England Chinese cuisine alive. And at least according to Lawlor’s customers who have shared their orders online, a reheated spare ribs appetizer from Tahiti is better than the Chinese food they’ve found anywhere else.

“Living in Idaho, we do not have access to New England Style Chinese Food, short of a long plane ride,” one customer said in the Facebook group. “Jim’s new company … is nothing short of a fantasy, playing out in real life.”

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