One of the best clusters of no-frills finds in Cambridge is in the Porter Exchange Building's Japanese-themed mini-mall, which has its own Tokyo-style food court. The highlight here is Sapporo Ramen. We were sent there for the monster bowls of miso-butter ramen. Japanese servings of ramen-noodle soups are typically enormous; students often eat one as their daily meal in Japan. Sapporo's ramen is available with several different broths and with your choice of various Chinese vegetables and/or thick slices of succulent roast pork. These last ingredients add extra dimension to the mild, savory miso broth, which is further enriched with a big pat of butter. As the butter melts, it coats your palate and the noodles. On a cold day in Cambridge, and there are more than a few of them, there's no place you'd rather be, despite the bright lighting and the Tokyo-subway tightness of the seating. Upstairs, there is more to find, including the Japonaise Bakery, which produces some of the most perfect croissants and scones in New England as well as a red-bean-paste-filled doughnut that is like a Japanese version of a Krispy Kreme.

The man who recommended Sapporo Ramen to me deserves specialmention. Ming Tsai, the star of the Food Network's popularEast Meets West and the PBS TV seriesSimply Ming, is one of the few who canusually be found in the kitchen of their restaurants; Ming's isBlue Ginger, in Wellesley, a suburb of Boston. Wellesley is wellworth traveling to for Ming's cooking, which is balanced, delicate,and totally original. Blue Ginger is not so much a fusionrestaurant as it is a modern take on Asian cooking, filteredthrough Ming's sensibility, which is wide ranging and welltraveled. His tea-smoked salmon and beef carpaccio with freshwasabi emulsion is typical: There's nothing flashy about it, but itworks perfectly, quietly uniting two or three different traditionsin one elegant dish. In general, though, Boston isn't the city forhigh-end dining. So a better choice seemed to be to go in the exactopposite direction and head to Santarpio's Pizza, in East Boston, ablue-collar institution far from the linen tablecloths of the NorthEnd. East Boston, like Revere, is the Boston of run-down oldbuildings, Irish and Italian immigrant communities, and the kind ofEast Coast old-time culture that seems to get more rare each year.Santarpio's is essentially a tavern with booths. It's filled withold boxing pictures - and not the kind that someone decorates a barwith in order to give it a sporting motif. Each one looks like ithas been up forever, and so, too, does the long strip of bluecorrugated plastic that futilely tries to separate the bar from thebooths. Everything about the pizza at Santarpio's predates modernpizza conventions - the pies are served in brown paper bags whenyou get them to go, and they are much smaller, and cheaper, thanthe pies you could get in another section of town. And whileneither the crust nor the cheese is especially earthshaking, thesausage is made in-house, and it is fantastic. It's set beneath thecheese, and you can't really see it at first glance. But each bitehas a sweet and meaty undercurrent that goes perfectly with thesoul-warming spirit of the place. Although there are no doubtbetter pizzas in Boston, there's no place you would rather go tohave one, assuming your taste goes for this kind offlawed-but-enjoyable dive.