When a friend asked me to recommend my five favorite Boston restaurants, I found it difficult to narrow down my list. In recent years, a culinary boom has hit my hometown and the choices for delicious eats are more than plenty—could I instead recommend fifty-five I asked? Knowing my friend would only be in town for a quick turnaround, I focused my appetite and recommended these five can’t-be-missed, knee-buckling good eats in Boston.
1. The Helmand
I try to pick a new dish every time I visit the Helmand—really, I do! But there’s something about old favorites at this warm, aromatic Afghani restaurant that brings me back to the Vegetarian Special entree every time. Perfect for gals who love to sample (like me!), this dish offers spiced pumpkin, baked eggplant, savory spinach, whole okra with spicy tomatoes, and a mound of pallow (cinnamon-infused rice with raisins) all on one plate. And I’m not even a vegetarian. I’m sure the other dishes are equally incredible—I’ve had tastes of lamb lawande (lamb with mushrooms, tomato, cilantro, garlic, and plenty of spices), aushak (Afghan ravioli filled with leeks, topped with either chickpeas or ground beef, yogurt sauce, and mint), and kebabs, all packed with flavor, all unforgettable.
Don’t let the restaurant’s nondescript, white-cement exterior turn you off. Inside lies a cozy haven, complete with an open-fire bread oven, comfy upholstered chairs, and soft lighting. Reservations are recommended on the weekends. If you like a bit of a quieter atmosphere, visit on the early or later side during the week.
For a while, I resisted visiting the much-lauded, universally loved Oleana. How could it be as incredible as everyone said? Well, after my first forkful, I quickly realized I had erred in delaying my visit. It really is that good.
Chef/owner Ana Sortun is dedicated to spices, many of Turkish origin, and her commitment shows in every dish. Subtle yet savory, pungent and mild—the joy here is in the surprise of blended flavors. Hot buttered hummus with tomato, whipped feta with sweet and hot peppers, Brie soup with fried oysters and sage are just a few of the options you may find on the seasonally changing menu. My favorite, however, is the ricotta-bread dumplings, served in a red wine sauce and porcini mushrooms. I wanted to pick up the empty plate and lick off every last dripping, so intense were the commingled rich tastes. And if you really want a decadent experience, order the vegetarian tasting menu to get treated to five small plates and dessert.
The restaurant is also known for its pastry chef, Maura Kilpatrick. Her baked Alaska is truly a work of art, and your taste buds will sing her glory long after you’ve licked the dessert spoon clean.
If you’re here during summer or early fall, try to get a seat on the patio—it’s been consistently rated among the best al fresco settings in the city. If you have to settle for the interior, though, you won’t be too shortchanged. I love the dining room’s neutral tones, sleek lines, and wood-burning stove.
Tucked among the North End’s bustling restaurants is Terramia, an authentic trattoria that reminds me of my time spent in Italy. The restaurant’s fresh pasta, succulent sauces, and impressive wine list make for a memorable evening meal. It’s small, and each of the ten to fifteen tables gets plenty of personal attention from the wait staff. If you want a truly intimate experience, visit on a weeknight (especially in winter) when the neighborhood is less busy.
My favorite dish is the gnocchi—it’s simply unlike any I’ve had elsewhere. Typically a heavy meal (due to its potato base), gnocchi at Terramia gets reinvented with a light, fluffy persona—think down pillows, rather than firm ones. Depending on the season, the gnocchi might be paired with pancetta, porcini mushrooms, or other savory complements. When I get a craving for these flavors, no other gnocchi substitute will do. Other classics include open-faced lobster ravioli, handmade papardelle Bolognese, and creamy polenta.
Unlike other North End restaurants, Terramia takes reservations every night of the week. Given the restaurant’s cozy atmosphere, I’d recommend booking in advance, especially on weekends.
4. Brown Sugar Cafe
Good sweet heat—that’s not just an apt description for Brown Sugar Cafe’s mango curry (my favorite), it’s a sum-up for the restaurant itself. Specializing in Thai cuisine, Brown Sugar’s chefs come up with dishes that stoke and tease the taste buds, alternating savory and sweet: cucumber egg drop soup, a cool twist on a traditional favorite; blazing-hot chili scallops; and the signature “seafood volcano”—mussels, salmon, scallops, shrimp, and squid in a spicy sauce with vegetables and lime leaves, served in a foil-created volcano shape. For dessert, I can never resist the fried ice cream, drizzled with honey and a smattering of sesame seeds. The green tea, ginger, and ogura (red bean) ice creams are just as delicious on their own, too.
Note: there are two locations in town, one near Fenway on Jersey Street, the other near Boston University on Commonwealth Avenue.
5. Pizzeria Regina
Every time my sisters come to visit, they request Regina’s pizza for their first meal. This is saying something, as they visit from New York City where there’s no shortage of great pizza options. There’s just something about the melanzane option—thinly-sliced eggplant, ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, wispy-thin red onions, and garlic-infused olive oil—that makes all of us weak-kneed. The traditional margherita—tomato sauce, mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, and plenty of fresh basil—is damn good, too. I choose Regina’s above all other pizzerias (and there are many other good ones in Boston) mainly for its crust. I’m a sucker for good bread, and their crust puts all others to shame—perfectly golden-brown, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. Get a pitcher of Peroni beer to round out the meal, forget about carbs or calorie counting, and enjoy!
One caveat: Should you visit the flagship North End location on Thacher Street, be prepared to wait in line, and, once seated, to be served by a salty, gruff waitstaff. Service with a smile is not part of the Regina’s tradition. Bring an empty stomach, and consider the attitude part of the experience. Bon appetit!
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