We were never big restaurant people during our time in Boston, so if you are looking for a fine-dining guide, this is definitely not it. What you will find on this list are some of the best places to find authentic local and ethnic food in often-unexpected nooks and crannies of the Boston area. There was no way for me to hit them all, so just enjoy this list for what it is: the first places that come to mind for a Boston-girl who is far, far away.
Rod Dee, 1671 Beacon St. Washington Square, Brookline:
I really cannot say enough good things about how much I love Rod Dee. I have been devoted to their delicious Thai food since my teen years when my then-boyfriend introduced me to the amazing world of Pad Thai, Spicy Basil Sauce, and Noodle Soup. Owned by a Thai woman and her Latin-American husband, Rod Dee makes the most flavorful, fresh, un-greasy Thai food I have ever tasted.
Cafe Zing, at Porter Square Books, Porter Square Cambridge:
There is good coffee, lovely pastries, tasty iced tea ,and great sandwiches at Cafe Zing, but every local knows the real reason to stop by the bookshop’s cafe (before 1pm) are the Vietnamese Fresh Rolls with Peanut Sauce. Raw veggies, tofu, basil and cilantro rolled into a fresh rice wrapper and served with sweet and tangy peanut sauce (3 for 5 bucks) regularly appear in my dreams now that we are thousands of miles away. Get there early, or you’ll have to settle for a Petsi Pie scone (not a bad thing) and a ginger lemonade on ice. Also, check out Zing Pizza, owned by the same folks, around the corner, for delicious gourmet slices and Indian wraps.
Darwin’s Ltd. 148 Mt. Auburn St and 1629 Cambridge St. Cambridge:
If you can get past the absurdly elitist hipster attitude of the folks behind the counter (try hard) you will get the best sandwich in Boston at Darwin’s. Expensive? Yes. Snooty? Check. Creatively and mouthwateringly delicious, with unexpected combinations that will have you moaning with pleasure as your sandwich fillings drip onto your jeans (you won’t care)? Absolutely. Also on the menu: fair trade coffee, locally made treats, and expensive, hand-crafted sodas.
Fugakyu, 1280 Beacon St. Brookline
Snooty in a whole different way than Darwin’s, Fugakyu is the Brookline sushi mecca of choice for good reason. If I were rich (in that Euro-trash, BMW-driving, Gucci-toting, Manolo-wearing way) I would eat at Fugakyu once a week. I would sit with my perfectly-coifed partner, in one of those private booths behind the rice-paper sliding doors, drinking very, very cold Japanese beer and eating spider maki. Oh, decadence.
Mr. Sushi, 691 Mass Ave, Arlington and 329 Harvard St, Brookline:
…but since I can’t afford to go to Fugakyu every week (or month, etc), I am glad there is Mr. Sushi, where in addition to moderately-priced miso soup, seaweed salad, great sushi and teriyaki, there is also hot and cold Korean bim bim bop.
Central Kitchen, 567 Mass Ave, Central Square, Cambridge
This is the place where Jeff finally understood what the whole foodie-thing was all about. For years, he’d been happily eating my home-cooked food, and had always been understanding and accommodating when it came to my obsession with recipes, food-culture, trying new eating-styles, holing up for hours with a pile of Gourmet Magazines, reading food memoir after food memoir and so forth. But when he sat at the bar in Central Kitchen’s narrow, dimly lit dining room, and took his first bite of Portuguese stew, washed down with a ridiculously amazing glass of tempranillo, a new light filled his eyes, he got it. Food could be love, it could be sex, it could be anything. He smiled, finished off his stew and ordered the crem brule. We walked home to Cambridgeport, through 3 feet of snow, stuffed and happy.
Ice Cream Shops and Cafes
Christina’s, 1255 Cambridge St. Inman Square Cambridge
There are different types of ice cream eaters in this world, and Boston has options for most of them. JPLicks is your typical ice cream parlor, with a few surprises and genuinely delicious flavors, like coffee oreo and watermelon sherbert. Toscanini’s is an old favorite for Cambridge-folk, but their small portions and high prices makes it seem like they are going out of their way to be exclusive. Christina’s is ice cream for adventurous eaters and food-lovers. Owned in conjunction with an impressive spice shop, Christina’s has exotic flavors like rose and cardamom, undeniably tempting ones such as cake batter and burnt sugar, and more standard choices, like chocolate and vanilla. Prices are very low for Boston and portions are generous. Enjoy a cone on a summer evening, while wandering the charming and less-frequented streets of Inman Square.
Although their baked goods are nothing special, these guys make one amazing latte. Hearts, swirls, and zig zags adorn your perfectly-frothed milk (soy too!) and the espresso is that rich, sweet variety. When you are paying upwards of 3 bucks for an 8 ounce cup of coffee, you want the barista to know what he/she is doing. Simon’s delivers.
Cafe Fixe, Washington Square, Brookline
Although a relatively new addition to Boston’s coffee culture, Cafe Fixe in Brookline quickly became a popular spot because it filled a desperate need for a small-scale local cafe where folks could get a great cup of coffee and a gourmet, locally-made pastry. Get to this small coffee shop early if you want to park at a table with your computer, since spots fill up quickly.
1369 Coffee House, 1369 Cambridge St. Inman Square and 757 Mass. Ave. Central Square, Cambridge
At times, the lattes can be hit or miss at this Cambridge coffee house. The decor is so hip, it veers on careless, with tables and chairs that teeter this way and that, and the staff appear a bit stoned or hung-over, but 1369 keeps trucking along. In the summer you can observe a classic example of Cambridge life at the cafe’s outdoor tables. Dreadlocked, tattooed, lanky art students sip their iced Americanos alongside disheveled young moms and dads and a couple local vagrants. Frustrated with the inconsistency of their espresso beverages, I gave up buying my caffeine at 1369 years ago, but in the heat of July there is nothing I crave like their White Iced Tea, or their Cranberry-Hibiscus Cooler — divine. They also feature some very good locally-baked treats and decent salads.
Supermarkets and Grocery Stores
Demoula’s Market Basket, 400 Somerville Ave, Somerville
There are two kinds of people in Boston; those who hate Market Basket (or have never heard of it) and those who love it. Either type will argue their case with astounding passion because this place, friends, is not for the faint of heart. The good news is, if you have ever braved the shuk on a Friday afternoon in Israel, run with the bulls in Spain, or shopped the outdoor markets of Marrakesh, you will be able to stand up to the chaos of the Market Basket parking lot, deli line and crowded aisles. For doing so, you will be greatly rewarded by the lowest prices on milk, eggs, cheese, tea, coffee, dry beans, and canned goods, as well as their bountiful produce selection, which includes exotic finds like banana leaves, yucca, chinese long beans, and plantains. Or you could just wimp out and hit your local Shaw’s for wide aisles, overpriced crap, and a shoddy produce section. The choice is yours.
Whole Foods, 15 Washington St. Brighton, 115 Prospect St. Cambridge, and multiple other locations throughout the Boston area.
Yes, I know it’s expensive, and Whole foods is not one-stop shopping for us, but I can’t help being impressed by their foodie-friendly atmosphere, their fantastic selection of healthy-baking supplies (whole wheat pastry flour! Earth Balance vegan margarine!). Whole Foods is the market I go to for things that I simply cannot find other places: fresh whole wheat pasta, Maine-grown organic baby greens, edible flowers, whole wheat filo dough, unsweetened rice milk, organic oats, etc. If you have the time to shop more than one market, it’s worth an extra trip.
Russo’s Market, 560 Pleasant St. Watertown
Providing wholesale produce to many of the area’s restaurants, the Russo family began their business 75 years ago by growing and selling tomatoes, lettuce and green beans to locals. Today Russo’s is the closest thing New England has to a shuk (Middle Eastern outdoor produce market), with low prices on a massively diverse selection of local and imported produce. Massachusetts-grown tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, squash, apples and pears can be found alongside bitter melon, baby bananas, galangal, chinese eggplant and Thai basil. Russo’s also has a lovely outdoor garden center and a gourmet prepared foods section.
Christina’s Spice Shop, 1255 Cambridge Street, Cambridge
Adjacent to Christina’s Ice Cream in Inman Square (and the secret to their ice-cream’s success), this little spice shop carries a fantastic variety of dried spices, teas, chocolates, syrups, and other goodies to help your ethnic home-cooking taste authentic and delicious. Aleppo pepper, smoked paprika, pickled lemons, gianduja chocolate, chai tea and lavender sea salt are just hints of the goodies that await you at Christina’s. Call ahead with questions or special orders of large quantities; I have found them happy to oblige.
Shalimar, 571 Mass. Ave, Central Square, Cambridge
With a very wide selection of whole and ground spices (not just Indian flavors), Shalimar is the place to shop for large bags of cinnamon, cumin, fennel and so forth (never spend 6 bucks on a 2-ounce jar of cinnamon at Whole Foods again!!!). There are also great all-natural jarred Indian sauces for dinner in a pinch and large bags of reasonably priced basmati rice. On your way out, stop by the cafe in back for some piping hot samosas with chutney.
Kotobukiya, in the Porter Exchange Building, Porter Square, Cambridge
Though there are a lot of Asian grocery stores in the Boston area, a number have closed in recent years. This one, located in the Porter Exchange Building in Porter Square, is convenient for Cambridge residents and Red Line subway riders. Although most of what they stock is Japanese, you can also find a few Korean and pan-Asian items here as well. Ask for the matcha green tea powder for baking — it’s in the freezer.
Arax Market, 585 Mt. Auburn St. Watertown
Don’t be put off by the open buckets of olives and pickled vegetables, the peeling wall paint, or the dusty cans. Just walk over to the prepared foods section and stock up on their homemade tabbouli, houmus, Turkish salad, rice with lentils, and tahina dip. Arax also stocks some fresh veggies, special pans, and coffee pots for all your Armenian cooking needs.