Have a Very Eastie Christmas
It's the best time of the year... to celebrate an early Cena de Navidad in East Boston.
Going to East Boston and seeking out South American Christmas foods might seem like an odd assignment for a New England son of a rabbi. But I’ve never been good at turning down a challenge, so I did my homework and made a list of traditional Navidad fare, hoping to find some of the dishes at local restaurants. I carried the handwritten note on a sheet of unused resume paper with me: lechon, tamales, pavo relleno, pan de jamón, buñuelos, pan de pascua, rabanadas, natillas, rosca de reyes. It wasn’t like I’d be completely out of my element. I did take communion once in 1994 and dated a Honduran woman for a week in 2006, so I have some qualifications. My heart filled with good intentions, I got on the blue line and headed north to East Boston.
I reach Orient Heights at the tip of Eastie and start walking south along Bennington Street, sniffing out where to eat. I head to Peruvian restaurant, Rincon Limeno. The dining room is narrow, but I bet they can pack the place during rushes. I look around to see that every table has a pitcher of a violet beverage, a sweet non-alcoholic drink called chicha morado, made from purple corn. I order a glass and understand why everyone is drinking it in bulk.
There are two waitresses working the lunch shift and I try explaining my project to them. When I’m tired, I mumble, which makes me hard to understand—even if English is your native tongue. When I ask the women what they like to eat on Christmas, one thinks I’m requesting a passion fruit smoothie and the other begins listing the house tea selections. “No, no. I’m sorry,” I say slowly and clearly. “If it were Christmas and you were at home, would you eat anything here on the menu?”
They look at each other and tell me, “No, not really.” We laugh about it, even though it’s not the answer I’d hoped for. But I don’t let details get in the way of lunch, and order choros a la chalaca. Similar to ceviche, it consists of cooked, chilled mussels, served on the half-shell with diced red onion, spicy peppers and lime juice. I imagine myself chilling on a beach outside Lima, celebrating a summertime Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere and clinking birthday piña coladas with Jesus under a palm tree.
The next stop is Mi Pueblito, which serves Mexican, Salvadoran and Guatemalan food. It looks small from the facade, but is large and lively inside. I get a seat right before the place fills up with hungry diners. Latin music blares over the speakers as the restaurant buzzes. Families and friends dig into massive bowls of soup and enormous plates of roasted meat. Again, I ask the waitress if there’s anything on the menu here she’d eat for Christmas. Blushing, she says no. But there’s a flicker of hope. Tamales are on my approved list of Christmas delights so I order one filled with juicy dark chicken and a side of curtido. For good measure, I throw in a combination plate of tacos with rice and beans because it’s almost snow pants season.
While the food hits the spot, I can’t help feeling like I’m failing this assignment. As I do when I doubt myself, I think about dessert. So I wrap up at Mi Pueblito and head for La Sultana in Maverick Square. The Columbian bakery is a cozy space with a few communal tables on one side and a counter filled with breads, cakes and hot food on the other. This time around, I don’t bother the employees about their Christmas menus. Instead, I pass them my list of Yuletide desserts and ask if any are available. They point to a rosca de reyes on the bottom shelf. This ring-shaped cake originated in Spain and is usually ornately decorated with dried or candied fruit and sometimes a plastic baby Jesus baked into the dough. The cake I receive is unadorned and I wonder if maybe this is the weekday version. Honestly, I’m happy to forgo the fruitcake elements in favor of a simple sprinkle of sugar on top of the dense, semi-sweet cake. There’s no Jesus figurine inside but there is a textured layer of dark jam with flavors of fig and pear.
I grab a pan de queso for the train ride home because I’m still full of feelings and not entirely sure the trip has been a success. I’m happy to be in Eastie, but I feel like I’ve only begun discovering what the neighborhood offers foodwise (I see you Santarpio’s) and I haven’t checked enough items off my Christmas wish list. So if you’re listening Santa, and you’re willing to make an exception for me, all I want for Christmas is lechon, pavo relleno and natillas. Gracias Papá Noel!
Rincon Limeno – 409 Chelsea St., East Boston, 617.569.4942, rinconlimeno.com
Mi Pueblito Restaurant – 333 Border St., East Boston, 617.569.3787, mipueblitorestaurantboston.com
La Sultana Bakery – 40 Maverick Sq., East Boston, 617.568.9999, lasultanabakery.com