Good Swill Hunting
Eating and Drinking in Boston and BeyondBy Winnie Yang
First published last year, this recently updated guide is specially dedicated to the Class of 2006.
There are some that eat to live -- and then there are those of us that live to eat. Being notorious for a food obsession some might consider extreme, I am frequently mistaken for a food snob. Quite the contrary, in fact; I am the least picky eater I know. I’ll eat just about anything -- as long as it’s good. Unfortunately, there are those that would interject here, protesting that one can’t possibly eat well all the time, that one simply can’t afford to. Such people simply confuse Good Food with its very distant relative -- and only by marriage -- Fancy Food, or with the completely unrelated and often total stranger, Expensive Food. While I am not averse to ordering the pan-seared flank of wildebeest with osetra caviar-fennel pollen gelÉe and blood orange foam, sometimes there’s nothing better than Easy Cheese on Wheat Thins.
As a foodie, I often go to great lengths to find a good meal and I devote an inordinate amount of time and attention to what I eat (see my Web page for proof). Knowing this, many people often come to me for suggestions and recommendations, and nothing pleases me more than sharing my discoveries with others. That is, one of the few things possibly better than eating is telling other people what to eat.
In my years at MIT, I’ve managed to compile a sizeable list of favorites -- some close to home, others a bit out of the way. This is by no means a comprehensive list, as I’m still in the process of eating my way through the city. And by all means, if you feel I’ve missed something worth mentioning, send me an e-mail. In no particular order:
After a summer of working at Tosci’s, I’ve decided that the best flavors are peach sorbet, lime sorbet, cowboy cookie, cocoa pudding, and coffee ice cream sandwich. There are those proud and vocal members of the “burnt caramel” camp as well, but I remain steadfast.
#17 (small) and #31 (with beef and the flat rice noodles) at Pho Pasteur (Harvard Square location).
Wang’s Fast Food (Old Magoun Square, Somerville) has the best dumplings around (but still don’t hold a candle to my mom’s, natch). Stick to the “Northern Specialties” section in the menu and you can’t go wrong. The sautÉed pea pod stems are also excellent. They’ve got my glowing review plastered all over the premises (not that that influences me in any way, mind you).
The country-style pad thai at Brown Sugar CafÉ (Fenway) is peerless in this town. Khao Sarn (Brookline) is another worthy Thai establishment, and their miang kum is a heady and addicting combination of shrimp, coconut, and peanuts that you roll up in spinach leaves.
Chocolate chip scone at the MIT Coffeehouse.
The honey barbecue chicken sub with a slice of cheese and the BLT on wheat with mayo at LaVerde’s. Or do yourself a favor and skip the sandwich, run to the dairy aisle straightaway and get yourself a nice big tub of Kozy Shack Original Rice Pudding.
The Story, at Darwin’s (Harvard Square). A definitive sandwich best eaten perched on a stool at the butcher-block tables. Or in a window seat in the newly finished pastry/coffee section next door. The Mount Auburn with swiss comes in at a close second. Darwin’s also carries Kozy Shack Original Rice Pudding.
The foie gras and warm chocolate pudding at Clio (Back Bay). Both velvety and rich. Both revelatory.
The Miracle of Science does a mean veggie burger. Best doused with both the Inner Beauty Papaya Mustard and Real Hot Sauce and washed down with a Magic Hat No. 9.
Best sushi, hands-down: Oishii (Charlestown). Maybe twice the size of my dorm room senior year and sometimes a two-hour wait, but totally worth the trip. Skip the usual boring maki and try one of the specials. The sushi chef’s credentials are no less than a stint at New York’s famed Nobu.
On one side of Filene’s in Downtown Crossing, there’s a take-away counter that dishes out chacareros, the delectable Chilean sandwich of grilled meat (I prefer the steak to the chicken), avocado spread, sundry fresh vegetables, and sautÉed green beans (that would be the Chilean part, apparently), all on a large fluffy roll made in-house daily.
Octopus salad at Atasca (Kendall Square). Briny and tender, this is one tasty cephalopod.
The Jimmy Carter at The Wrap: a peanut butter, banana, and ice cream smoothie. Friendly, just like our former president.
Best all-around high-end restaurant: Radius. I’ve hung out in the kitchen for several months and seen first-hand their relentless pursuit of perfection in all aspects of the dining experience. The attention to detail is mind-boggling. If you ever eat a salad there, note how beautiful each leaf of lettuce is. Somewhere back in the bowels of the place, there’s someone who hunched over enough greens to sustain all the rabbits in Australia and painstakingly selected only those that are flawless and blemish-free. Yeah, I did that for four hours once. Needless to say, you better finish that salad.
Mashawna soup at The Helmand (East Cambridge). Hearty and spicy, this is perfect on a bitterly cold New England day.
In my exhaustive (and exhausting) search for the best blueberry pancakes ever, I’ve determined Johnny’s Luncheonette (Central/Harvard) to be the winner. Not too dense or too fluffy, these pancakes have nicely crisped edges and are loaded with berries.
Just about anything at Sultan’s Kitchen (Downtown/Financial District). All other Middle Eastern places pale in comparison to this Turkish gem.
Xiaolongbao at Taiwan CafÉ (Chinatown). I haven’t yet figured out how to eat these Shanghai-style soup dumplings without scalding myself or spilling half the contents onto my lap, but they keep me coming back to this little hole-in-the-wall. The oyster pancakes, though not like my mom’s, are not to be missed. Eggplant with basil is quite tasty as well.
The Il Panino panini at Il Panino Express (North End), like the Darwin’s Story, combines the holy trinity of prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and tomatoes, but stuffs generous amounts of everything into a foot-long crusty Italian loaf slathered with a fruity and robust extra virgin olive oil.
The Superburrito at Anna’s Taqueria. Apparently, some journalist for The New York Times took the four-hour Chinatown shuttle from Manhattan to Boston and back solely for one of these burritos. I personally find that completely ridiculous, but only because it’s hard to believe that there are no better burritos to be found in New York City. It is pretty damn good, though. And cheap.
CrÈme brÛlÉe at blu (Downtown Crossing).
Hiroshimayaki at Kiyoshi (Brookline): the proprietor’s version of that tasty Osakan specialty, okonomiyaki. The menu claims these pan-fried noodles are “healthy,” but somehow, the shiny slick coating on the noodles under that generous drizzling of mayonnaise leaves me thinking otherwise. The chicken skin and chicken bone yakitori are also not to be missed.
Speaking of Bertucci’s, do yourself a favor now and lose the fascination with their overrated pies. For fancy pizza, go to Emma’s (Kendall) or Figs (Beacon Hill & Charlestown). For real pizza, get thee to Santarpio’s in East Boston.
I salivate just thinking about the goat curry or the stewed oxtail at Rhythm & Spice. Get it with roti instead of rice and beans. And don’t forget the fried plantains (I usually prefer the green kind).
Best breakfast, part I: potato pancakes and banana-stuffed challah French toast at Zaftigs Delicatessen (Brookline). Everyone seems to offer a version of challah French toast, but none do it like the fat lady. Decent borscht as well.
Best breakfast, part II: Belgian waffle at Neighborhood Bakery and CafÉ (Union Square, Somerville). Comes with the most delicious bowl of Cream of Wheat you’ll ever taste.
Lemon and sugar crÉpes at Le Gamin (South End). The butter and sugar ones are also excellent. Less French ambience than in years past, but still a charming place. Good for a first date. Mr. CrÉpe (Davis Square) is cheaper and less charming, but a fierce contender.
Butternut squash soup at Salts (Kendall). None better.
N6 at Rod Dee II (Fenway): pan-fried rice noodles that are all greasy goodness. I’m also a big fan of the golden triangles here.
The mrouzia at Argana (East Cambridge) is one of the best braised lamb dishes in the city (Second only to Amanda Lydon’s much-lamented gigot À sept heures at Metro. She’s since left for bigger and better things, taking her tasty lamb with her). For lamb loin, there’s Radius (Downtown/Financial District). You can almost taste the sweetness of the grass the little fuzzy guys were raised on in each meltingly tender bite.
Some people go to Wuchon House (Union Square, Somerville) for their bulgogi or the kalbi; I’m there for the tofu chigae. You know Korean food’s good when the sweat starts pouring and your nose starts running.
“Regular, extra spicy,” is what one should request at the little kiosk in the corner of Thai Binh Supermarket (Chinatown). For a mere two dollars, you’ll get a sizeable bÁnh mÌ sandwich. Pronounced “bagne-mee,” where “bagne” is like the French pronunciation of “champagne,” this is one of the few miraculous results of colonialism: a Vietnamese sandwich that combines tangy pickled carrots and cucumbers with a rich pork pÂtÉ and slices of ham and other lunchmeats, all on a crusty, buttery, slightly toasted French baguettine (or mini-baguette). There are a multitude of versions, each with different fillings, but this is the standard.
Best Indian: Tanjore (Harvard Square) and Punjabi Dhaba (Inman Square).
There’s also the korma from Bombay CafÉ (Back Bay/Symphony). Be sure to specify “as hot as your grandma makes it.” Probably best to stick to delivery here.
The egg tart at Ho Yuen Bakery (Chinatown) has a tender, flaky crust and a silky custard filling with just a hint of sweetness. Yum.
Roti canai and kangkung belacan at Penang (Chinatown or Harvard). The first is an addictive, chewy fried bread, accompanied by a curry dipping sauce, while the other is sautÉed greens (water convolvulus) dosed with the distinctive, pungent Malaysian shrimp sauce.
Mango juice with lychee at the Chinatown Eatery. The counter here is bedecked with signs listing dozens of flavors of smoothies, juices and teas, some of which come with those gummy -- yet strangely appealing -- marble-sized tapioca balls. If you go for the more well-known pearl milk tea, the extra-wide straws serve particularly well for launching the balls at unsuspecting passers-by.
Best flan (and overall Mexican), Tu Y Yo (Powderhouse Square, in Somerville).
For those fortunate to have access to a kitchen and a serviceable knife and pot, I recommend that you leave The Joy of Cooking on your mother’s shelf and get a copy of Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and Cook’s Illustrated’s The Best Recipe.
Winnie Yang ’02 is heading off to New York City to pursue a career (and fame and fortune) as a food writer. More restaurant reviews and gastronomic tidbits can be found at her Web site: <http://www.thatswhatyouthink.com>.