I bring my sense of food adventure with me on the road, searching for the most authentic, iconic, and delicious dishes of a different region…
I knew I’d have my fair share of seafood in Boston, but I didn’t realize it would practically be my entire diet for a week. I like to eat the local, iconic food in a city and what else is there really to eat in Boston?
That was my dilemma when researching the possibility of filming an Eat This episode in Beantown (the episode launches tomorrow). Not to bring up a sore subject, but New York has very obvious iconic food. Boston? Not so much. Even when I asked people from Boston what “the food” of that city is, it took some serious thinking to come up with an answer. Chowder, roast beef, Italian food, what?
Two other dishes that come to mind are baked beans and Boston cream pie. Both have an historic tie to the country’s most historic city, but neither are really eaten on a regular basis. So that just leaves us with seafood. Lots and lots of seafood. And I was happy to oblige. But before I get into the seafood, I did have some dishes not from the water.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at restaurant menus today, but Boston is called Beantown because baked beans were a traditional New England dish. Yet the nickname never really stuck with the locals. Even historically, Beantown is what Boston was called by sailors and traders visiting Boston, not residents living there. And they might have tasted the popular dish (now quite difficult to find) at a place like Durgin Park.
Durgin Park itself has been in the Fanueil Hall area since before the old meeting hall was transformed into a huge commercial tourist destination. The restaurant has been serving “Yankee” cooking since 1827. In addition to pot roast, broiled meat, and lots of seafood, the restaurant is also known for the baked beans. And after trying them here, it’s a shame other Boston restaurants aren’t trying their hands at them. I’m generally not a fan of baked beans, but these were mighty tasty. The rich brown sauce is kissed with molasses, salty bacon, and tangy mustard. These sweet-savory beans were gone in a flash.
Boston Cream Pie
I really wanted to go to where it all began to try the world’s first Boston Cream Pie (well, not the very first one since I’d probably get sick from century old pie, but the first recipe) at Omni Parker House. This hotel is also where Parker rolls were first created. But unfortunately, the bar at the restaurant did not open until 5pm every night. And we had bigger plans for dinner.
Instead, I got a taste of the infamous pie at a more modern bakery called Flour. Anybody who lives in Boston knows of Joanne Chang’s multi-store bakery and sandwich shop. We got some tasty and seasonal sandwiches at the vibrant Seaport location, not to mention a massive slice of the cream pie.
I’ve housed my share of the doughnut variety, but I’m not sure I had actually ever tasted Boston cream in pie form. The rectangular slice looked like an overgrown napoleon, with layers of sponge cake and pastry cream. On top sat a firm layer of chocolate, which gave the pastry its only significant texture change. Each bite of the cool and sweet pie was tasty, creamy, and decadent. It’s a dessert Boston should be mighty proud of.
Pizza and Cannoli
Walking around the North End, I realized when it comes to Italian neighborhoods, Boston has New York beat by a longshot. Any New Yorker will tell you Little Italy is a joke and Arthur Avenue is authentic and all, but it’s really just a block or two. In Boston, real Italians live in the quaint neighborhood of the North End and have for ages. Even with the influx of hipsters clamoring to the neighborhood, the Italian culture and flavor is still fully authentic.
We flocked to Regina Pizzeria (the original location), since it’s a Boston institution. The thin-crust pizza was decent, but it doesn’t rival the slices of New York. The tomato sauce and cheese were good here, but the dry dough just didn’t stand a chance. It didn’t have the complexity and flavor of a great NY slice. Could it really be the water?
However, Boston has whips us in the Italian pastry department. It seems there is a war going on when it comes to cannoli. Mike’s is where the tourists (and lots of them) go,
but Modern Pastry is where the locals go. So we had to go to both.
We enjoyed both cannolis, but might have to give Modern the slight edge. It was the lighter of the two with a very tender pastry and a light airy ricotta filling. The cannoli was just the right level of sweetness and it was difficult to reserve some room for our second tasting.
Mike’s Pastry offered a lot more of unusual cannoli fillings (peanut butter?) and felt a bit more like a scene. The cannoli was much larger with a sweet, denser filling and a slightly greasy shell. It also tasted pretty good, but I prefered the slight refinement of Modern.
Kelly’s Roast Beef in Revere (just north of Boston) claims to have invented the modern day roast beef sandwich when they opened their doors in 1951. Whether it’s true or not, Bostonians certainly have a thing for roast beef sandwiches. It’s a surprising iconic dish that most people outside the city don’t immediately associate with Boston, but they are just about everywhere.
And if I had more time in Boston, I would have explored more versions of this local sandwich. Forced to choose just one, I probably picked the most over-hyped of all the roast beef palaces. Kelly’s has turned into a regional chain, but we hit the original on the working class beach front of Revere (the last two letters are not pronounced). Their surf and turf came with both a small roast beef sandwich and a separate mini-lobster roll. The lobster roll has become equally as famous from this seaside stand.
The overwhelming flavor of both sandwiches was butter. The roast beef needed some barbecue sauce, which you have to ask for, to liven it up and give it much flavor outside of saturated fat. The meat was tender and fatty, but got lost in the large buttered bun. The lobster roll faired better with the heavy handed butter and I was impressed with the quality of the meat, considering the affordable price of $13.95 for both sandwiches together.
I had no idea there was such a large Portuguese community in the Boston area. But it makes sense considering the area was historically an important one for the fishing and whaling industry. Since there are very few Portuguese restaurants in NYC (although you could hit the jackpot in Newark), this is a cuisine that I am less familiar with. So I would love to explore it some more. Unfortunately, I only had time to taste two dishes.
Both were out on the Cape during our day-trip. At a local seafood joint in Wellfleet strangely called Bookstore, we ordered the traditional Portuguese kale soup. Full of garlic and pepper flavors, this hearty soup was in the world of a minestrone but loaded with salty linguica (cured pork sausage), earthy kale, potatoes, and kidney beans. It was a nice change of pace from all the chowdah in these parts.
We also sampled our second malasada ever. Basically a Portuguese-version of a yeast doughnut, these sweet fried fritters are usually covered with sugar. We decided to try it for breakfast.
Provincetown Portuguese Bakery had plenty to offer, but the malassadas (spelled with a double “s” here) were certainly advertised the loudest. Compared to the one from Leonard’s in Hawaii, this one was a bit greasy and slightly more dense. We still enjoyed it, but it got cold quickly and will not live in our minds the same way they did on the islands.
Many of the highest rated restaurants in the Boston-area are in Cambridge. Just a train ride away, Cambridge sort of reminded me of Brooklyn. And just like King’s county and Manhattan, many northerners like to argue which area is better between Cambridge and Boston.
The only real dining experience we had in Cambridge was at Oleana, a Middle Eastern restaurant on a residental block which gets much love from the food world. Perhaps we’re spoiled in New York, but I wasn’t terribly impressed with the food. Maybe we came on an off-night.
Since I recently embarked on my falafel journey, I was most disappointed with the spinach falafel here. Three fancy balls toppd with tahini and sitting on a unique beet-yogurt should not cost $12. That’s $4 a falafel! My whole sandwich in New York would cost that!
I could forgive the price if the falafel were good. I’m clearly in the minority here judging from their positive reviews, but there was not a hint of crunch. And the inside of the falafel were light, sure, but they were undercooked. They were mushy and mealy – rather unpleasant. In fact, we didn’t even eat the third falafel. And that’s $4 uneaten!!
Unfortunately, a cold and mushy chickpea terrine suffered from similar texture issues and was bland to boot.
Thankfully, we did find two stellar dishes. The Sultan’s delight featured an incredibly tender block of tamarind-glazed beef short rib. The richness from the earthy meat was balanced by the side of smoky eggplant pureé. If my blog officially focused on the Boston food scene, this would definitely be a Dish of the Week.
The humongous Baked Alaska was also a stand-out with a dramatic presentation and some wonderful flavors of coconut ice cream and passionfruit caramel hiding around the perfectly browned meringue.
Over in Boston proper, we got to eat at two of the city’s hottest restaurants, each represented by two top Boston restaurateur. Coppa is co-owned by Ken Oringer, who also has a hit on his hands with Toro. Since Toro opened a second location in NYC, we decided to try out one of his other spots.
Coppa focuses on Italian-style meat-heavy small plates. We ordered light since we were heading to the theater, but I was disappointed with the tiny portions put in front of us. The flavors were bold, but certain dishes were quite small and aggressively salty, like a pesto pasta.
I quite enjoyed the flavors of the teeny tiny (although it is tough to tell from the above photo) uni panino. The crisp bread gave way to decadent and rich sea urchin flavors. I’ve had a similar dish at NYC’s El Qunito Pino and actually thought this one was better despite the size.
Coppa also served up some hearty and flavorful meatballs with a rich tomato gracy
and a nice kampachi crudo with briney olives and crispy radishes.
We also couldn’t leave Boston without visiting one of Barbara Lynch’s eight restaurants. And that finally officially brings us to seafood. In the hipster neighborhood of the South End, Chef Lynch has two very different restaurants across the street from each other.
The Butcher Shop on one side of the street focuses on crued meats and wine, while B&G Oysters is a seafood-heavy restaurant. If we didn’t have a show to see, we would have dined at both. But seafood wins out up here in Boston.
B&G’s vibe is lively, clean, and refined. But that doesn’t mean the food is sterile. They served a beautiful plate of local raw oysters and an excellent (although a bit pricey) lobster roll.
Speaking of fish, we had a pretty interesting sushi dinner at Oishii in the neighborhood of Chestnut Hill. This is the original and more casual outpost of a scenier restaurant in the South End. Chowhounders swear the portions are larger, the prices cheaper, and the quality pristine. We were coming off a very exciting sushi experience at Ichimura in Manhattan, so my sushi expectations were high.
The sushi was mostly very good. Beautiful presentations and pristine fish. They have lots of speciality rolls and some beautiful prepared sushi appetizers, like a mold of beautiful white tuna topped with caviar and an umami-laced sauce. They did serve some uni that I found to be a little off. Perhaps I’m used to getting sushi in New York from a certain region. This one had a bit more funk and not nearly as much smooth luxuriousness as I’m accustomed to.
I’m extraordinarily jealous of Massachusetts. We killed off all our local oysters in NYC, but up in the Commonwealth state they have dozens of different varieties. And they come right from their own healthy water system.
B&G Oysters served us pritine bivalves from all over the east coast. Served with a classic horseradish spiked cocktail sauce and a mignonette, they were simple, clean, and delicious.
A little north of the South End, in the Fenway Park area, is Island Creek Oysters. The fashionable, cavernous restaurant specializes in high end seafood and also serves oysters from their very own oyster farm in Duxbury.
They also serve their oysters in an unexpected way – breaded and fried. The oyster slider is perhaps their most famous dish and very iconic to the modern Boston dining scene. I don’t love oyster sliders because I feel the bread often takes over and I lose the flavor of the oyster. These were nicely done with a bright lime chili aoli, but I still thought the crispy oyster sadly played second fiddle to the sweet brioche bun.
We also had to get our fill of salty, but smooth Wellfleet Oysters. These are perhaps the most famous variety in the state. And we decided what better place to taste them then from Wellfleet itself. The town is a bit sleepy, but charming.
Luckily, Winslow’s Tavern was just beginning their daily oyster happy hour when we stopped by for a half dozen. With a bracing Pernod mignonette and the usual cocktail sauce, these oysters were as fresh as you can get and I could have easily gone for six more.
My most disappointing experience with oysters was at tourist central Union Oyster House. I sat at the old-timey bar and was handed a plate of six oysters. That’s it. Just oysters on a plate with some over-ripe lemons. No ice, no sauce, nothing.
I don’t need any fancy accoutrements, but the local oysters themselves were terribly bland and lemon was not a strong enough flavor to help out.
I ultimately did film a webisode in Boston and it was all about creamy, sweet New England clam chowdah (the e and the r don’t exist in Boston). Of course, I had to do a bit of research which means I ate as much chowder as possible in just three days.
My journey began at the aforementioned Union Oyster House, which just so happens to be the oldest restaurant in the city (some say the oldest in America).
While the experience was historic and fun, the clam chowder itself was pretty bad. It reminded me of the gloopy white stuff I’d eat at casual chain restaurants in the mall in South Florida. The bland soup was loaded down with potatoes and I unearthed perhaps a sliver of a piece of clam.
I was hoping for a better chowder experience nearby at Durgin Park, another old-school spot. Clearly, chowder is not their strong point either. I did love all the other food I tried at Durgin Park, but this chowder was just slightly more flavorful. It at least had some seasonings and herbs, but again it was a bit too thick and potato heavy with fewer clams then I expect.
My experiences got better as I visited more modern restaurants that take their food very seriously. I was blown away with the chowder at Turner Fisheries, which is unfortunately now closed. Looking at the cheesy dated (circa 1970’s) dining room with blue walls, I expected something much more generic than what I got.
This soup was fantastic with the right balance of chopped clams to potatoes and spices. It was creamy and rich without being gloppy and thick. It’s a real shame that the restaurant closed after thirty years in business.
Island Creek Oyster also served a nice clam chowder. This one had a bit more smoke and salt to it thanks to the addition of aggressive house-cured bacon. I also found this version to be a lot heartier with bacon and buttermilk croutons playing equal ratio to the chopped clams.
I was shocked that No Name Restaurant (a very no-frills old school spot in South Boston) didn’t serve a traditional clam chowder. It was nowhere on their menu. Instead, they offered up what they call seafood chowder.
Considering all the negative reviews surrounding this place, I was surprisingly impressed with their chowder. There were no clams in sight, but the buttery soup was loaded with tender chunks of haddock and halibut. I detected no fillers of potato or vegetables, just butter, milk, a hint of paprika, and lots of seafood.
The two seafood restaurants I visit on my upcoming webisode were Yankee Lobster and B&G Oyster Company. I’ll save the details of their superb clam chowders for the premiere of the video.
In Boston, you could pick up the pescatarian diet very easily and live on the freshest seafood and richest chowder you’ve ever had. As much as I love fish, I’m glad to have my meat and know that I can take the short bus ride up to Boston for my fill of local oysters and chowdah.