Cold weather always turns my thoughts to Chinese hot pots. The one on offer here has boney chunks of chicken, a few slices of ham for flavor, bamboo shoots, and a thin broth. It improved with the addition of rice, and so it might be even better as a congee.

The tea was so weak I could not identify it — though perhaps for this reason it goes better with food than more distinctive tea. Water was refilled rapidly. The only dessert was a complimentary bowl of sweetened bean and barley soup.

The service at Mu Lan is a hallmark: most plates are delivered quickly, by rapidly moving young women. It's fast, pretty accurate even under pressure, and informative. If you want authentic recommendations, ask about pig ear (a Taiwanese classic not on this menu) and a few of the stop-sign items. Not everything listed was in stock, so servers steered us to substitutes, and I liked the substitutes very much.

The décor is nicer than it looks from outside — walls are an unconventional pastel pink, lavender, and near-aqua — and there's minimal kitsch, other than some leftover Chinese New Year decorations hanging from the ceiling. The Friday-night crowd suggests that this is the number-one hangout for Taiwanese students from MIT and elsewhere. Knowledgeable customers always keep a restaurant in line.

Primo pizza
Barry Popik, a tireless student of American popular culture and a contributing editor to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, has dated the first American reference to pizza to 1903, and the reference is to Boston's own North End!

The cite for "pizza" was found in an October 4 edition of the Boston Journal, in a long story titled " 'Hot Cakes' in North Street; Toothsome Dainties, Favorites with Neopolitan Palates, are Pizze Cavuie and Tarluccio." (Tarluccio, by the way, are O-shaped cookies still sold on Hanover Street. "Pizze Cavuie" seems to have been the dialect term for hot flatbreads.) North Street, where the Paul Revere House stands, was then the Italian section nearest the working docks. (The North End north of Hanover Street, which is now the less gentrified and more Italian part, was then a Jewish neighborhood.) Amazingly, the Boston Journal story predates by two full years Popik's previous earliest cite for New York City (also for "pizza") on Spring Street, in New York's Little Italy. Eat your heart out, Yankee fans.

The Santarpio family, now proprietors of an excellent pizza and barbecue restaurant in East Boston, ran a bakery in 1903, but there is no hard evidence of their having served pizza prior to 1933. So they're likely not the makers of the first American pie. It will be interesting to check old Boston street guides for what establishments existed on North Street at the time, in order to narrow down the site of the primal flatbread. Maybe we can even get up a bronze plaque before Popik finds another digitized run of old newspapers and shifts the first American pie to Philadelphia or back to New York.

Popik, a New Yorker, has now relocated to Austin, Texas, by the way, to avoid retaliation and to work on early chili con carne references. No present-day restaurants on North Street are more than a few decades old.

Robert Nadeau can be reached

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