The 10 Meals You Need to Eat in Boston Right Now

March 18, 2016

It's easy to get stuck in a restaurant rut. To shake things up, we went on a city-wide sampling tour — stopping at institutions and new restaurants alike — to find the food you should be sinking your teeth into.

By 
Lisa Robin Benson
  • The croissant toad in the hole at Alden & Harlow in Harvard Square brings bacon jam and a decadent creation called "croissant bread" together on one delicious plate. (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson) | WGBH | Craving Boston
    The croissant toad in the hole at Alden & Harlow in Harvard Square brings bacon jam and a decadent creation called "croissant bread" together on one delicious plate. (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson)
  • The variety plates at El Oriental de Cuba in Jamaica Plain showcase the best of homestyle Cuban cooking. (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson) | WGBH | Craving Boston
    The variety plates at El Oriental de Cuba in Jamaica Plain showcase the best of homestyle Cuban cooking. (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson)
  • The Christopher Robin sandwich at Fiore's Bakery in Jamaica Plain marries sweet and savory with thinly sliced ham, peppery greens, pears and swiss, with honey-walnut spread on fresh-baked whole wheat bread. (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson) | WGBH | Craving Boston
    The Christopher Robin sandwich at Fiore's Bakery in Jamaica Plain marries sweet and savory with thinly sliced ham, peppery greens, pears and swiss, with honey-walnut spread on fresh-baked whole wheat bread. (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson)
  • The tsel momo ar House of Tibet in Teele Square are a vegetarian dumpling delight. (Photo: Lisa Benson) | WGBH| Craving Boston
    The tsel momo ar House of Tibet in Teele Square are a vegetarian dumpling delight. (Photo: Lisa Benson)
  • You can cheers to an historic establishment while you nosh on this flavorful sausage dish. No wonder this fun beer hall has been around since 1868. (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson)
    You can cheers to an historic establishment while you nosh on this flavorful sausage dish. No wonder this fun beer hall has been around since 1868. (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson)
  • The freshest fish makes for the most delicious chowder at James Hook & Co. (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson) | WGBH| Craving Boston
    The freshest fish makes for the most delicious chowder at James Hook & Co. (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson)
  • The Mystic Mountain salad at Life Alive makes plant-based eating appealing to the masses. (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson) |WGBH| Craving Boston
    The mystic mountain salad at Life Alive makes plant-based eating appealing to the masses. (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson)
  • The Mike's Pastry cannoli is a North End classic (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson) | WGBH | Craving Boston
    The Mike's Pastry cannoli is a North End classic (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson)
  • A timely burger: "the next president" at Mr. Bartley's Gourmet Burgers in Cambridge. (Photo: Lisa Benson) | WGBH | Craving Boston
    A timely burger: "the next president" at Mr. Bartley's Gourmet Burgers in Cambridge. (Photo: Lisa Benson)
  • A perfectly blistered sausage, mushroom and pepper pie from Santarpio's in Eastie. (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson) | WGBH | Craving Boston
    A perfectly blistered sausage, mushroom and pepper pie from Santarpio's in Eastie. (Photo: Lisa Robin Benson)

Whether you're craving Boston's best slice of pizza (let the debate begin) a classic cannoli, or a super-healthy salad, we've rounded up a list of 10 neighborhood dishes that satisfy. Each is a shining example of some of the best grub typical of that corner of town.

Is this an exhaustive list? In a food-city this grand? Of course not! But we think it's a pretty great place to start. Feel free to add your faves in the comments section.
 

1. The Italian cheese, sausage, mushroom, and pepper at Santarpio's

If you haven’t been to East Boston and sunk your teeth into a Santarpio’s pie before, you will fall fork over knife in love with your first bite. The pizza features a crisp-chewy crust with slightly sweet sauce, and toppings tucked under a blanket of gooey mozzerella. The sausage is homemade and handformed into succulent patties, adding savory depth. People come for the pie, not the décor, which hasn’t changed much since the 1970s, though the old jukebox machine was replaced with a shiny new model that accepts credit cards. Servers will tell you matter-of-factly what’s good on the menu; on my visit, one server discouraged a guest’s wine selection, saying customers always send that one back. If you haven’t been here, go now. And if you have, give ol’ Santarpio’s a call again.

Santarpio’s Pizza – East Boston, 111 Chelsea St.,sister location in Peabody, 617.567.9871, santarpiospizza.com

 

 

The 10 Meals You Need to Eat in Boston Right Now | WGBH | Craving Boston2. The "mystic mountain" salad at Life Alive

Life Alive in Central Square greets you with a psychedelic swirl of color, the bright, crisp scent of juiced ginger and wheatgrass, and plenty of new age verbiage plastered on on their menu display that promises to"renew your energy & connection to life by soulfully serving you the most fantastic, vibrant organic therapeutic whole food you could ever imagine." I'm just happy to see healthy plant-based food in such tasty form. And I'm not the only one; the place is always packed. Try the mystic mountain, a salad that features a “mountain” formed by three balls of earthy, house-made hummus atop a field of greens, sour apples, sweet corn, and crunchy cashews. The light lemon-vitality vinaigrette, made with honey and citrus, makes the melange of fresh veggies really pop.

Life Alive – Central Square, 765 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, sister locations in Lowell and Salem, 617.354.5433, lifealive.com

 

 

The 10 Meals You Need to Eat in Boston Right Now | WGBH | Craving Boston3. The Florentine cannoli at Mike’s Pastry

One true test of great pastry is whether the crust is worthy of the filling. When it comes to pie, Oreos, and the Tardis, the inside is often the best part, but at Mike's Pastry in the North End, where cannoli is king, the Florentine-cookie shell is at least as delicious as the velvety ricotta, chocolate chip-studded center. We're talking a sweet crunch with zero sogginess. It was ranked the number two cannoli at Mike's in 2015 by BDCwire, second only to the espresso cannoli, but I prefer to leave the coffee in the cup. It’s a good thing I took it to go, or I may have eaten half a dozen of these rich desserts.

Mike’s Pastry – North End, 300 Hanover St, sister location in Harvard Square, 617.742.3050, mikespastry.com

 

 

The 10 Meals You Need to Eat in Boston Right Now | WGBH | Craving Boston4. The tsel mo-mo at House of Tibet Kitchen

Tibetan food seems to be having a moment, with mo-mos — the popular savory little dumplings of the regions —  popping up all over town. House of Tibet in Teele Square is my top choice. This mom and pop joint welcomes you with cozy rug-lined booths in an intimate room festooned with Tibetan prayer flags and art. There are plenty of delicious options for both the meat-lover and the vegetarian. The tsel momo follows a traditional Tibetan recipe, but comes with a tomato and vegetable-based salsa that's an original House of Tibet recipe. The sauce adds a unique sweet flavor that works well with the punchy garlic and ginger spices of the momo. They come steamed or fried, but I suggest getting the latter because nothing beats that crispy shell wrapped around the wholesome creamy potato and veggie filling.

House of Tibet Kitchen – Teele Square, 235 Holland St, Somerville, 617.629.7567

 

 

The 10 Meals You Need to Eat in Boston Right Now | WGBH | Craving Boston5. The "croissant toad in the hole" at Alden and Harlow

The food, atmosphere and service at Alden and Harlow in Harvard Square have the distinctly hip handprints of chef/owner Michael Scelfo all over it. A rustic industrial/modern feel with elements like wood-beamed ceilings, exposed brick, and a living wall in their "greenhouse" invite you into the subterranean dining area. Jars of spices and house-made preserves line the bar, ready to make their way into creative cocktails like the bee sting, with gin and honey, or the almada spice, with smoked celery and habanero, both available at brunch.

The "croissant toad in the hole" is a perfect example of why this is the place to enjoy a leisurely mid-morning meal; Scelfo takes breakfast classics and brings them to another level. He uses a slice from their homemade loaf of soft, buttery croissant bread, a poached egg over Benton’s jam (yes, that's bacon jam!), and savory redeye gravy. It’s garnished with a fresh piece of kale, which adds just enough bitter green to balance out the rich flavors below. If you’re dragging along a dining companion who's ready for lunch, point him or her towards the classic secret burger on the brunch menu. Neither of you will be dissapointed.

Alden and Harlow – Harvard Square, 40 Brattle St, Cambridge, 617.864.2100, aldenharlow.com

 

 

The 10 Meals You Need to Eat in Boston Right Now | WGBH | Craving Boston6. "Jake’s special" at Jacob Wirth Restaurant

A narrow bar at Jacob Wirth in the Theater District opens to a large dining area with high ceilings that bring to mind the mead hall from Beowolf. Draft beer tap handles decorate dark wood panel walls, and the patrons are liable to burst into song and merriment at any moment — not just on piano nights.

The atmosphere gets me into an authentic German mood so I have "Jake’s special," bratwurst and knockwurst, served over a mustard-spiked smooth potato salad and tangy sauerkraut. The two tender, beer-steamed sausages are savory and smoky, smothered in a house-made beer sauce with sweet onion. But if you’re not into wurst or sauerkraut, no worries — try the classic sauerbraten, a sweet and sour braised beef with ginger snap gravy. A brew recommendation comes with most entrees, so raise a glass of bier and prost!

Jacob Wirth Restaurant – Theater District, 31 Stuart St, 617.338.8586, jacobwirth.com

 

 

The 10 Meals You Need to Eat in Boston Right Now | WGBH | Craving Boston7. The "Fish Chowda" at James Hook & Co

I’ve been on a lifelong hunt for the best chowder, and I think I’ve found it. At James Hook & Co in the Seaport District, they get their seafood fresh every morning, so the chowder's ingredients depend on the day’s catch. The selection on my visit featured large chunks of Faroe Island salmon, delicate Atlantic tuna, and flaky Maine haddock in a creamy broth with potatoes cooked fork tender. It’s served up in a friendly atmosphere inside the shanty or out by the water (it's great to have the choice in fickle spring weather). If you need more to fill your belly, try the much-raved about lobster roll, a dish so popular that their lobster is shipped (live!) around the world.  

James Hook & Co – Seaport District, 15 Northern Ave, 617.423.5501, jameshooklobster.com

 

 

The 10 Meals You Need to Eat in Boston Right Now | WGBH | Craving Boston8. The shredded beef variety plate at El Oriental de Cuba

El Oriental de Cuba in Jamaica Plain greets you like a member of the family; regulars and staff know each other’s names, and pictures of staff with spouses and kids decorate the walls. El Oriental was destroyed by arson in 2005, and community support helped reopen this beloved eatery with a ribbon cutting by Mayor Menino himself a year later.

The variety plates are the best way to get a sampling of what’s on offer at this spot, which serves homestyle Cuban cuisine. The shredded beef might be my favorite, with stewed pieces of meat served in a light and savory tomato-based sauce sautéed with onions and peppers, and spiked with a touch of sazon and adobo spices, which give it an aroma of garlic and oregano. The rice, beans, and plantains are a homey accompaniment, perfect for soaking up every last bit of the addictive sauce. 

El Oriental De Cuba – 416 Centre St, Jamaica Plain, 617.524.6464, elorientaldecuba.net

 

 

The 10 Meals You Need to Eat in Boston Right Now | WGBH | Craving Boston9. The "Christopher Robin" sandwich at Fiores Bakery

This isn’t the bologna and American cheese our moms packed in paper bags. With careful attention to the interplay of taste and texture, every element of the "Christopher Robin" sandwich at Fiores Bakery in Jamaica Plain is crafted in-house, from the bread to the condiments. Thinly sliced ham meets peppery greens, the subtle bite of Swiss, juicy pears, and a nutty honey-walnut spread. The flavorful foundation is a wholesome fresh baked wheat bread. The shop has many worthy sandwiches: the footlight club, for example, with turkey and bacon features a perfectly shaped toasted Pullman loaf (a white French style bread), with juicy tomatoes and smooth avocado. Those staying away from meat and dairy, will be glad to know that the ingenuity spills over to almost as many vegan options as carnivorous ones – including a vegan cashew cheese melt or the fancy lass, a bagel from Kupels Bakery piled with the vegan proteins seitan and Tofutti, plus capers and hot sauce.

Fiores Bakery – 55 South St, Jamaica Plain, 617.524.9200, fioresbakery.com

 

 

The 10 Meals You Need to Eat in Boston Right Now | WGBH | Craving Boston10. The "next president god help us" burger at Mr. Bartley's

Mr. Bartley's, across the street from Harvard, has a full menu page of burgers named after current celebrities that rotate periodically. Formerly known as the "Tom Brady," the next president god help us" burger features a thick, mouth-watering all beef patty (veggie and other meat options also available), lightly charred on the outside, with smooth, melted cheddar and creamy guacamole. The fresh ground beef is un-spiced, and an old-school machine forms the patties so the meat doesn't get over-handled or packed too firmly. The homemade guacamole isn’t heavy on the citrus or cilantro; instead, finely chopped tomatoes and onions add a juicy texture and slight bite, and it spills out the sides as you dig in (you’ll want extra napkins for this order). If you sit at the long communal table at the room's center and find yourself in a debate (or food fight) with a stranger, heed the wisdom of one of the many humorous signs that decorate the walls, which reads: “It isn’t smart to argue with a fool. Listeners can’t tell which is which.”

Mr. Bartley's – Harvard Square, 1246 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, 617.354.6559, mrbartley.com

 

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  • March 16, 2016