Question: When is a hidden gem not really a hidden gem? When one of the biggest food celebrities in America visits the place and posts about it, that's how. And such is the case with Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe, a unique dining spot that Alton Brown visited a few years ago while on a tour, going to the downtown Boston location on the recommendation of Rachel Blumenthal of Eater Boston. Brown apparently loved the place, and while the eatery gained some recognition as a result of his visit, the Bedford Street shop remains mostly under the radar these days. The focus of this review--the "other" Gene's in Woburn--is perhaps even lesser-known, which boggles the mind a bit because both the Boston and Woburn restaurants offer dishes that get consistently high marks from critics and customers alike, and some of the foods served here are among the best ever tried for this site.
Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe actually started out in Chelmsford, quickly gaining an almost cult-like following among locals and getting noticed by people in Boston to the point where some were known to rent cars just to head up there. That location closed down in June of 2014 approximately a year after its Boston location opened, and it turned out that the shutting down of the Chelmsford shop was more of a move, as it reopened in Woburn a few weeks later. (There is also one now in Westford.) The original location was a tiny spot with a little outdoor patio off to the side, and the Woburn outlet is similarly small--though with no patio--and it does much of its business via takeout though dining in is obviously preferred if you want to eat the food fresh, and the dining area to the left of the counter/ordering section is comfortable enough and without the harsh lighting of your basic sub shop/pizza joint. Because it is located in the heart of Woburn Center, street parking can be a bit of a struggle depending on when you go, but it usually isn't too difficult to find a spot nearby. Two important things to note about the Woburn location of Gene's--it is cash only and there are no public bathrooms, so keep both of these points in mind before heading over.
The food offered at Gene's tends to be similar to that found in Xi'an, a city in the central part of China, and it really doesn't have much representation in the Boston area. One of the highlights here--and one that definitely put the original Chelmsford location on the map--is the hand-pulled noodles, which are made by slapping the dough against a flat surface and stripping it into noodles that are relatively wide and flat. The "basic" hand-pulled noodle dish is something special, with lots of garlic mixed in along with chili, cumin, and veggies, while other versions of the dish include one with lamb along with a hot and sour hand-pulled noodle soup, a lamb soup with the noodles, an utterly fantastic (and very spicy) chilled noodle dish that is only available on weekends, a cold noodle dish that doesn't pack as much heat as the chilled version, and for those who are daring, a noodle soup with pork intestines. Options beyond noodle dishes include some wonderful lamb skewers that are seasoned with cumin and chili powder, a marvelous hot and sour dumpling soup, a lamb stew that--like many items here--comes with a substantial amount of garlic, and flatbreads, of course, which are tasty little sandwiches that can be ordered with pork or lamb. The menu items at Gene's are all quite reasonable, with most options being under $10.
When someone as well-respected as Alton Brown raves about a restaurant, you need to take notice. And indeed, Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe in Woburn (and Boston) is a place that should not be missed, especially since its signature dish is so incredibly great and also so difficult to find in the region. Woburn is suddenly a "hot" place for dining out, and one reason for this is certainly this humble little storefront in the downtown section of the city. [More on Alton Brown's visit to Gene's can be found on his blog page from 2014 as well as from an Eater Boston post.]
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