You think Boston can't satisfy the foodie in you? Maybe you don't know where to look. We'll help you out.
Boston is a lot of things to America: the Cradle of Liberty, Boston Brahmins and Harvard Yard, Cheers, and the Curse of the Bambino. But one thing it isn't is a restaurant mecca. Except for its uneven cluster of Italian restaurants in the North End, Boston is surprisingly thin as a restaurant city. At least, that's how it seems at first glance.
Look a little closer, though, and you'll find hidden gems, the city's secret treasures. Boston doesn't have a very pronounced food culture; people there don't spend as much time talking about food as do citizens of New Orleans, New York, and even Philadelphia. But get to know the city, and you can eat here as well as you can anywhere in America.
First, you'll have to leave the North End. (But before you do that, indulge at Neptune Oyster, the city's best raw bar and easily the best place for oysters.) Boston is a spread-out city of working-class neighborhoods, and while you can and will eat well in its tourist sections, a truly special feed requires getting out and about. It's rare that tourists visit Revere Beach, for instance, but when they do, they're rewarded with the Floating Rock, one of the country's best Cambodian restaurants. It's a tiny place, with a kitchen approximately the size of a Honda Civic's interior. But the food is eye-openingly vivid and fresh and extraordinary. Tiger Tears - a salad of tender beef strips, fresh basil and mint, thinly sliced lemongrass, and a fragrantly dressed mix of chiles, red peppers, and onion - is a blast of summer from the street markets of Southeast Asia. The pork with hot chiles is likewise transporting. A whole fried fish with pork-and-ginger sauce is completely brown and crispy outside, so much so that even the rich sauce can't soften it; the utter white moistness of the fish beneath, then, is equally surprising. There are a few disappointments on the Floating Rock menu - dishes that are resolutely authentic but no more likable for it. That said, the place is so affordable, and the rewards are so great, it's worth ordering more than you would normally eat.
Authenticity is less prominent in Chinatown's Lucky House Seafood Restaurant. The owners' intention was to create a Cantonese restaurant that serves the best seafood dishes anywhere, from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. They've done this, and when looking for lobster, you can hardly do better than to go with their specialty: two medium-size fresh lobsters, stir-fried with ginger and scallion (but just enough to highlight the flavor of the delicate meat within).
Good fish in Boston isn't something you can always take for granted; far more fish come out of freezers here than come out of the harbor. But when it's really fresh, the fish in Boston trumps almost every other city's. At the No-Name Restaurant on the harbor, the decor leans toward life preservers and anchors, and the menu consists entirely of fried and broiled seafood. The view, such as it is, is that of obese seagulls wandering listlessly around on a gray concrete dock. But this is the restaurant where I ate what was far and away the best piece of swordfish I've ever had - a thick steak from a catch brought in from the North Atlantic that day. It had all the weight and flavor of swordfish, but, miraculously, it was as soft and flaky as a fillet of sole.
Just across the Charles River from Boston is Cambridge, home to MIT, Harvard, and some of the area's best food. Ethnic eats are the name of the game here, although usually they have a certain urbane twist. The Forest Café, for example, is basically a Mexican bar and grill. But imaginative, intense dishes like smoked pork chops in chorizo gravy and chicken served with the mole sauce of the week make a trip there far more worthwhile than one to most of Cambridge's upscale restaurants.