BY MARTHA JEONG
The most vibrant BYOB restaurant culture I have seen was on a trip to Montreal, where the Plateau area was sprinkled with BYOB eating establishments. In Duluth, Mt. Royal, and Prince Arthur, I saw numerous wine shops and foodies strolling the streets with a bagged wine in their hands, looking for the perfect restaurant to uncork their bottle.
My first night, as I was waiting in line to eat at a restaurant specializing in Reunion cuisine (a little known island east of Madagascar), I noticed I was one of the only people to arrive empty handed and the waiter seemed astonished I had not brought any wine. I even felt a little ashamed, as if I had turned up empty handed to a dinner party. By the next night, I had learned my lesson and made a pit stop at the liquor store before I lined up for dinner, joining the boisterous crowd of BYOB lovers in Montreal.
Finding a good BYOB restaurant, or even one at all, is not an easy task, and there is definitely no restaurant row dedicated to such restaurants in Boston. The www.byobguide.com has yet to post Boston on its website, where you can search for BYOB restaurants and resources. Unclear BYOB rules which differ by town in Massachusetts also tend to keep local patrons from dishing out their favorite BYOB spots on restaurant message boards such as Chowhound. One place I did discover is Zoe’s Chinese in Somerville.
I had read and heard wonders about the Sichuan style cuisine served at Zoe’s and two visits to the restaurant turned up two very different experiences. With about 10 tables total, I had heard it was a nightmare to show up with a large group, but my party of eight sat as comfortably as when I went later with only four. The menu is extensive, so a large party makes the experience more fun as you can try and share more dishes family style. From my two visits, I felt the dishes on their voluminous menu can be quite hit or miss, so I would especially recommend bringing many friends or a big appetite.
Some clear winners, especially among my vegetarian friends, included the Scallion pancakes ($3.75), Eggplant with Garlic sauce ($7.25), and the Steamed sweet red bean buns (4 for $3.50), which can be eaten as more of a dessert. The Dandan noodles with minced pork and vinaigrette ($3.75), which is listed in the appetizer section, is quite tasty, although the small pool of oil remaining after the noodles are all eaten up is somewhat disconcerting. The Double cooked pork ($7.75), one of their specialties, is made with fatty pork belly served with green peppers, which you cannot dismiss until you try. I was disappointed with the much touted Hot and sour sliced potato with chili peppers ($7.45) for its lack of promised fire, even when I ordered it extra spicy. In general, I have to say for Sichuan cuisine, none of the entrees packed much of a punch in terms of spiciness. Other favorites around the table included the Sichuan steamed spicy dumplings ($4.00) and the waitress’ recommendation of Tea smoked duck ($11.45).
Overall I have to say Zoe’s is a fun, cheap neighborhood spot close to campus ideal for groups who like to share, where you can bring a bottle of wine and enjoy it without a corkage fee. There’s even a liquor store across the street that has a decent variety of wine if you forget to bring one or, very likely, need to make a second run.
Zoe’s Chinese289 Beacon St, Somerville(617) 864-6265