West Roxbury’s Food Scene Is All Grown Up
We returned to find much more than the chicken parm subs of our youth in a Boston neighborhood we left behind.
When I was a teenager, my family moved from the backwoods of New Hampshire to the, um, whatever West Roxbury is. Also known as Westie — or the more formal "Westie, kid" — it may come as a surprise that the proudly parochial neighborhood is actually part of Boston.
Not born and bred in this insular community, I felt like an outsider. I did my best to assimilate, taking jobs at the YMCA and the local newspaper. I faintly dropped my Rs and greeted everyone with the customary “howaya?”
This was the late ‘90s, the Bledsoe years, before the city was flooded with capital and quality restaurants. The food scene in West Roxbury was particularly limited. There was Friendly’s for frappes, Steve Slyne's for an Italian sub, and, when I got older, the West Roxbury Bar and Restaurant for corned beef and a Guinness with the lights turned up.
For an old fashioned neighborhood like Westie, this was just fine. But creep-de-cuisine is a powerful force. The past few years have seen many restaurants openings, introducing new culinary flavors and innovations to my old hometown.
On Monday, I took the bus to the corner of Belgrade and Centre Streets by the 7-Eleven that used to be a White Hen Pantry. I know my first stop will be for a banh mi ($5.50) from Banh Mi Ngon. This unassuming takeout counter has a couple of seats by the window and little in the way of ambiance. But that’s not the point here. The focus is on the traditional Vietnamese sandwich served on a warm baguette with ham, pork meatloaf and paté. Pickled vegetables, fresh cilantro and hot sauce make the sandwich pop. But more than anything, the novelty of eating a banh mi in West Roxbury — where I’ve consumed my weight in chicken parm subs and roast beef sandwiches — is a fun departure.
Next up, I head to Porter Café, a cozy gastropub for Buffalo fried cauliflower ($8). Paul Murphy, who owns the restaurant with Dermot Loftus, likes being part of West Roxbury’s culinary and economic resurgence. “It’s a great little neighborhood,” he says. “People care about each other. There’s always a fundraiser for someone not well, or a hockey team. It has that small town feel. And it’s becoming more diverse. It’s not all just white Irish-American people anymore. There’s a gay presence, it’s more multi-cultural. These are all positive things.”
Though Murphy admits Westie is still a “meat and potatoes type of neighborhood,” he doesn’t think it limits his menus. “We’re far more adventurous when it comes to food. We still sell a lot of burgers but we also sell Asian dishes, Spanish dishes. We’re happy to push the boundaries.”
I stay within the same block for my next meal at The Red Eyed Pig for barbecue. The restaurant is another small spot focused on takeout. The menu is written in chalk up the wall at the entrance, laying out all the usual barbecue suspects.
Never one to pass up ribs, I order a half-rack, St. Louis style ($16). The order comes out bigger than my face and I rip into it, dipping large fatty chunks of pork into spicy barbecue sauce. I cut the grease with bites of coleslaw and collards and try to keep my shirt clean.
I’ve covered about half a block and I’m already stuffed, so I decide it best to take a walk and check out my old haunts. I stroll along Centre Street getting the sense things are going well. There was a point, while I was in university, when empty storefronts proliferated, filled by banks and big box pharmacies. But now it looks like there’s a healthy influx of small businesses.
I walk for about a mile and a half to where Centre Street turns into Spring and stumble on a sweet little bakery called BakerBaker, close to the Dedham line. As I walk in, the counterwoman is starting to pack up the muffins and pastries for the day. She’s a Dedham native. We compare notes on growing up around here as she helps me pick out my dessert, a German chocolate square ($2.95), loaded with coconut, pecans and chocolate shortbread.
Fran Kolenik and Beth McNichols own the shop and make everything here from scratch. The former neighbors had long considered opening a bakery together, testing the concept at the long-standing Spring Street Cafe, also owned by McNichols.
“We always talked about opening up a bakery,” Kolenik says. “[Beth] had the restaurant and I worked there. We tried it out, testing it on our customers. It’s all home cooked and fresh made. A lot of it is our mother’s recipes transformed.”
About West Roxbury’s newfound food scene Kolenik says, “There’s a lot more growth now. It’s definitely up and coming.”
My family and I don’t live in West Roxbury anymore, and to paraphrase the great Ben Affleck, I put this whole town in my rearview. I no longer drop my Rs. I can’t remember my last howaya. But I’m still attached to Westie and excited about the trickling culinary culture shift. And while I’m happy about all the new options, I’ll be back soon for a proper Irish corned beef.
Banh Mi Ngon – 1759 Centre St., West Roxbury, 617.325.0946
Porter Café – 1723 Centre St., West Roxbury, 617.942.2579, portercafe.com
The Red Eyed Pig – 1753 Centre St., West Roxbury, 617.325.1700, redeyedpigma.com
BakerBaker – 168 Spring St., West Roxbury, 617.325.2253, bakerbaker.co