Category Archives: On the cheap

Semi-recent restaurants around Central Square

Ugh. I’ve been having a hard time getting out of the house, but now that the weather is warmer hopefully I’ll be able to post more regularly. In the meantime, we’ll just have to make do with some quick reviews of places around Central Square (and its environs), in particular, places that have opened relatively recently. It’s surprising but, of course, gratifying that there have been quite a few new, and more importantly, worthwhile places. Here’s a quick rundown:

Leapfrogging its way to the top of my list is actually the most recent opening, Thelonious Monkfish on Mass Ave. Being Asian, Asian eateries are always more than welcome. Despite a somewhat silly name, it’s a pretty solid pan-Asian place (although it seems to be trying to bill itself as an “Asian fusion” restaurant), offering renditions of Chinese, Thai, and Japanese food. I’ve gone twice so far. The first time the pad thai I ordered was completely mediocre. However, the second time I had a tofu katsu with curry that, despite the curry being way more soup-like than any I’ve ever encountered, was quite tasty, and a red curry that, although Americanized, still had a hearty flavor. A friend says that one of their specials was a quite good pad thai with bacon (I suppose this is where the “fusion” side comes in), but their regular menu should keep me occupied for quite some time. [Quick edit: Have been back several times since, and their menu has been a bit hit or miss. In particular the bf tried the sushi and the fish was far from fresh, so you might want to avoid that part of their menu or try it at your own risk.]

Although Monkfish comes nowhere near the level of the king of the area, the Buddhist temple, which features a sublime lunch special consisting of rice and four vegetarian dishes that more than one of my Chinese friends has said “tastes just like my mom’s cooking”, it easily holds its own against the remainder of the area’s direct competition which includes, in rough order of preference: Mary Chung, a neighborhood institution and a much better than average Chinese place that includes dim sum; Beijing Tokyo, another relatively new pan-Asian place that is a decent option but with much more proletariat aspirations; Pepper Sky’s: A Thai Sensation, which has completely Americanized Thai food but still keeps some of the flavor intact; Thailand Cafe, closer to MIT and featuring bland Americanized Thai food and a much more authentic Chinese menu; and Pu Pu Hot Pot, which is good if you’re craving completely greasy and Americanized Chinese takeout.

Going back to semi-recent openings, Life Alive right across from City Hall, is a welcome newcomer, with its green and earthy dishes. Its San Francisco, west coast decor and vibe fit well with its central Central Square location. The originally South End bakery Flour has opened a new location close to MIT which I have yet to visit because I always found their food to be incredibly heavy, but apparently I’m not missing much because reports indicate that it’s pretty much exactly the same as it’s always been. If I’m jonesing for brunch around Central Square, S&S and Tosci’s are still my first picks (although the latter only offer it on Saturdays nowadays).

Another semi-recent opening is Viva Cafe, next to the decidedly mediocre Zoe’s and close to Harvard. Viva Cafe is a Middle Eastern place where the food in general borders on being too bland, but their red lentil soup is fantastic and there are highlights among the rest of the menu as well. A stone’s throw away is Harvest of India, which we tried for lunch buffet a couple of weeks ago and was left decidedly unimpressed. My pick for best Indian buffet remains Shalimar in Central Square, the most savory of the bunch and which has been including dosas for a while now and varies the rest of their dishes regularly. My second pick would be Tanjore in Harvard Square, although the flavors are less robust and it’s pricier and always feels somewhat cramped (although they have the added advantage of gulab jamuns, mmm). While on the subject of Indian food, I have to squeeze in a shout-out to Chutney’s in Harvard Square. They’ve taken an Anna’s-like approach to wraps, where you choose an Indian bread (paratha or various naans), an inside (e.g. saag paneer), and a chutney to go with it, and they combine it with fresh lettuce and tomatoes. It’s quick, easy, and absolutely bloody brilliant, and if there were one near my work I would seriously go there every day. I suppose it’s lucky for my waistline that there isn’t, but as it is I try to find excuses to be there around lunch time whenever possible, which unfortunately isn’t enough!

One more quick comment: Although it’s in Kendall, I also have to give one quick mention to Za, a great new pizza place that outshines Cambridge 1 and that I had a great meal at last week. I’d gotten completely bored with Cambridge 1’s static menu, so I’m really looking forward to checking out all the variety that Za offers.

Phew. I think that’s the news from around Central Square. Next up for food reviews, some more off-the-beaten track places hopefully. Eventually!

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Lunchin’ around Fresh Pond

I’ve been meaning to post about food places in Cambridge for quite some time. I suppose I should do this in sections since there are so many distinct areas, so to start off with I thought I’d mention a few places near Fresh Pond, which is where I work.

At the top of my list is a place that I’m betting few people know about, which is the Cafe at 10 Fawcett St, run by AJ Culinary. On the surface this looks like a nondescript corporate cafe offering at best cold premade subs and salads, but in fact it’s a completely worthwhile locally owned and operated cafe. Most of its clientele come from the surrounding businesses, but if this were located just a few blocks away it would reach a much broader audience. Given their scope their selection isn’t extensive, but to supplement the daily soup and the daily hot entree (a vegetarian version is often available and all entrees can come in half sizes or with a salad) are a complete range of sandwiches and wraps created on the spot. Roasted vegetables are a common sight on the menu, whether it be with pasta or in a lasagna, but hot entrees also include such things as quesadillas, Asian noodles, and beef brisket. Soups are uniformly good, such as carrot ginger soup, as are the sandwiches. It can get a bit heavy at times, but given the other options in the area this is a clear winner.

A couple of blocks away are the Whole Foods on Alewife Brook Parkway, a Trader Joe’s, a relatively new Chipotle’s, and a second location of Genki Ya, a Japanese organic sushi place that I’ve tried once so far and was fine, although nothing special and quite pricey.

Down Fawcett St about a 10-minute walk from Concord Ave is another tucked-away spot, Iggy’s Bread. Boston shoppers are no doubt familiar with their breads from seeing them in local grocery stores, but their store also includes gourmet pizza by the slice, sandwiches, and of course a host of sweets to look forward to including some nice jam cookies and a memorable plum cake. Not necessarily worth a special trip, but if you’re in the area it definitely beats most of the other nearby offerings.

So that’s the news from Fresh Pond. Next up, Central Square. Eventually!

Brunch in Central Square

I’ve been meaning to write up a post on brunches for awhile now. A is a big fan of brunch, so even though I’m not really into it (given the limited vegetarian options) we’ve checked out a lot of different places. Here’s a quick run-down of some places worth mentioning (in approximate order of preference).

At the top of the list for A (and not far from the top of my list either) is Tosci’s in Central Square (899 Main St.), yes the ice cream place. Although brunch is a small operation mostly focused on sandwiches, eggs, and pastries, the food is solid and they always have some version of pancakes for me which are actually some of the most enjoyable I’ve had as they’re not too heavy. The wait is generally not long because (for now) it’s still a lesser-known secret, although be forewarned that on holiday weekends brunch usually isn’t served. Also, although I don’t think I’ve mentioned it already, Tosci’s is by far my favorite ice cream place in Boston. Or anywhere for that matter. Here’s an interesting post about some of their more-unique flavors, from their website.

Next up, and just down the street, is Craigie on Main (853 Main Street). Craigie is much more of the complete brunch, and although it has a high standard, the two times we’ve been the presentation was a bit better than the actual food which didn’t quite achieve greatness. We both really appreciate its move to Central Square, and A finally made it over there for dinner and it was apparently just as good as we had hoped (although he went without me the jerk and I still haven’t been yet. 😦 So sad.) It gets crowded, but they take reservations.

Onto the second tier. Among the places that are perfectly serviceable but not really standouts is Plough & Stars (912 Mass Ave., between Harvard and Central Squares). We actually just checked it out for the first time last week, and although they didn’t have much in the way of vegetarian/vegan options the food was still pretty good.

Another place we checked out recently is S&S in Inman Square (1334 Cambridge St.). This place really feels like a well-oiled institution, and in that sense reminded me of Katz’s Deli in New York. The food is hearty; the waitresses are diner efficient; and the place is huge.

Cafe Luna (403 Mass Ave.), just up the street from Tosci’s, is another viable brunch alternative. They always seem to be packed when we walk by, and in the summer there were a lot of people sitting at the tables outside. The couple of times I’ve been they had musicians on Sundays, which made the small space even more cramped. I’m not a fan of live music for brunch, but it’s a nice alternative and I appreciate that its popularity keeps Tosci’s from getting crowded, haha. πŸ˜‰

Brookline Lunch (in Central, 9 Brookline St., a few steps away from The Middle East) is kind of dark inside and definitely on the slower, greasier side of food life, but it’s another viable brunch alternative.

At the bottom of the barrel of course there’s the afore-mentioned Miracle of Service (i.e. Miracle of Science). I’m also going to have to include Sunny’s Diner (7 Landsdowne St.). Although W has praised them on several occasions, the two times A and I tried to go we waited for more than 10 minutes without any acknowledgement that we were ever going to get even a coffee so we just gave up and left. Although brunch is a leisurely meal, there’s a difference between leisurely and complete lack of service, particularly when a place isn’t even busy.

And to wrap up, some places where the food is edible but why go there when you can go somewhere much better are Mass Avenue Restaurant (906 Mass Ave.), a greasy-spoon-type eatery, and Zoe’s (1105 Mass Ave.), which is less greasy and definitely better overall, but still hasn’t been worth a second trip for us. Both are in between Harvard and Central.

Looking over the lists of brunch places in Cambridge there are still a lot of places I haven’t been or haven’t been in a long time, so at some point I may make a sequel to this post. Reader, beware …

Thumbs up: Cambridge 1, The Red House, and Centre Street Cafe

Since it seems like all I’ve been doing lately is complain about restaurants, I thought I’d just throw together a quick post about some places that we’ve actually had good experiences at.

In contrast to the dismal service at Chris Lutes’ Miracle of Science (as recounted in the immediately preceding post), the service at Cambridge 1 (27 Church Street, Cambridge) in Harvard Square has always been friendly and attentive. The food is also quite commendable: a small menu featuring pizzas with robust flavors. The casual ambience (the back overlooks the peaceful Cambridge Cemetery) tops it off to make us happy to be regulars there. [Actually I just noticed that they opened a second location in the Fenway (1381 Boylston St, Boston) in August of 2007. The review in The Globe of the new location isn’t too complimentary, although I agree somewhat that the quality of the food in the original location has gone down some since it first opened in 2002; but certainly not enough to put us off from going there.]

Last week was a week of exploring, and we hit up The Red House (98 Winthrop St, Cambridge), also in Harvard Square, for the first time. We went on a whim for lunch one weekday not expecting much, and we were pleasantly surprised. The food was much better than average: I had the artichoke pasta, which was surprisingly flavorful, and A had the “breadless club sandwich”, which turned out to be the insides of a club sandwich on four skewers. The service was great, and the dessert turned out to be a real find. We were torn between the tiramisu and the cake-like dessert with berries and red currants (and Chantilly cream?), but we chose the latter and it was easily one of the best desserts I’ve had in Boston in a very long time. We’ll definitely be making a trip back just for that. The reviews on Yelp are less encouraging and may indicate a lack of consistency, but we’re keeping our hopes up.

Lastly, A and I happened to eat at Centre Street Cafe (669A Centre Street, Jamaica Plain) two days in a row, once for brunch and once for dinner. The place is a small, casual, neighborhood restaurant that is completely unassuming but serves honest and unfussy food with friendly service. Such a place should be far more common than it is, and we were won over. If we lived in JP this would be a great place for a laid-back meal.

Just a sampling of some good meals recently. This post serves as a good reminder to myself that yes, there are still good dining experiences to be had in Boston, both old and new.

Late to the party at All Star Sandwich Bar, or “Disappointment between two slices of whole wheat”

In a renewed quest for new eateries the bf and I hit up All Star Sandwich Bar (1245 Cambridge St) in Inman next to Christina’s. Sadly, apparently we were somewhat late to the party on this one. The original incarnation, which opened in the fall of 2007, seems to have gotten pretty good reviews, but its owner, Chris Schlesinger of East Coast Grill fame, sold it last year. Perusing the reviews on ye olde Yelp it seems the food didn’t completely survive the transition. From my experience I can say that the veggie sandwich was easily the blandest, most tasteless (as in “lacking in taste”, although I suppose that as an affront to my delicate vegetarian sensibilities the latter sense applies as well) sandwich I’ve had in a very long while (although in all fairness I should point out that Nadeau’s original review in The Phoenix does note the mediocre vegetarian offerings). A’s chili wasn’t nearly as spicy as advertised and really more like a beef stew (not to mention served nice and cold), and it was accompanied by some lovely slightly stale cornbread, note the double shot o’ sarcasm.

But worse than that the service was lousy, lousy, lousy. Not only was one of the waiters snippy to us, but our waiter took the orders of two couples who came in after us which made the long wait for our food even longer; he completely forgot our side order as well. We didn’t have the heart to explain the poor tip we left since we’re not planning on going back there ever again, but it is somewhat reassuring to read that lackadaisical service also seems to be a common theme pre- and post-Schlesinger (more post) according to the collective consciousness that is the reviewers on Yelp.

The sad thing about the place is that on first glance it has a New York sort of feel (quickly dispelled, however, on closer acquaintance) which got our hopes up. My cynicism regarding restaurants in Boston seems to be growing daily …

Korean restaurants in Somerville (and Boston)

I have a load of restaurant reviews that I’ll probably never catch up on, but here’s an attempt to start a dent in the pile. I don’t make it out to Buk Kyung (290 Somerville Ave) or Wu Chon (9 Union Square), two Korean restaurants pretty much next door to each other in Union Square, all that often because I’m too lazy to take the bus out there and neither offers up food that’s distinctive enough to make a special trip. But I happened to revisit both recently when relatives were in town, so I thought I’d offer up a quick recap.

Wu Chon is more of the typical Korean restaurant, and it does a fairly serviceable job. Nothing too special, but it does have the famous Korean barbeque as a point of focus, and the prices are better than the nearby (and now much sleeker than before due to renovation) Koreana (158 Prospect St).

In contrast, Buk Kyung specializes in more Chinese-derived dishes, especially the black bean noodles called jja jang myeon which are not often found in Korean restaurants in the States. Online there’s more information about their second location, Buk Kyung II in Allston (151 Brighton Ave), e.g. here’s a good review of BKII from a Boston blogger. I’ve been to that location as well and, as you’d expect, the food is pretty much the same and the newer location has a much shinier decor. The original Buk Kyung has a more hole-in-the-wall feel, which also gives it a more intimate, homier feeling which is nice. Similarly the food at the original location has a more homier feel than other places, and depending on what you’re used to you may find you prefer food from other restaurants that is a bit more Americanized (e.g. a bit sweeter or has less-traditional ingredients added in, like watercress).

To wrap up, I suppose I should add some info about my personal favorites in Boston. Being Korean-American I’ve pretty much tried them all many, many times, and my favorite for a long time was Suishaya in Chinatown (2 Tyler St). But they changed management, and although the food survived the transition decently well (although far from completely unscathed), there was a sudden huge drop in the quality of the service. Perusing the reviews on Yelp it seems I definitely wasn’t the only one who noticed the change, and the bf and I had so many mediocre-to-downright-lousy waiters in a row that, combined with the lesser-quality food, we ended up pretty much giving up on it. Too bad.

So what does that leave? On the cheap the Korean place in Super 88 in Boston (1095 Commonwealth Avenue) is definitely worth checking out. I end up going to Shilla in Harvard Square (57 JFK St) a lot because it’s convenient and not too pricey, and on average the food is pretty good (although their chigaes, while flavorful, are watery and not at all hearty like the traditional Korean style).

But the surprise winner for the moment for when I need a dose of Korean food is actually Chocho’s in the Porter Exchange (1815 Massachusetts Ave). It’s a surprise for several reasons, the main one being that their menu includes many non-Korean dishes including pad thai and udon. The Pan-Asian approach is usually a bad sign when it comes to finding good authentic Asian food, but Chocho’s’ Korean dishes are great and their non-Korean dishes have been highly enjoyable as well. They take a sort of middle-of-the-road approach in terms of hewing to the traditional styles, but they succeed in providing the heart of each dish without adding unnecessary frills. The service is always good (although being a small staff they do get busy), and their consistency is fantastic, something I’ve really come to value in all my years of eating out. I can honestly say I’ve never ever had a bad meal there, or even one I didn’t enjoy, which is no small thing. Aack! Now I’m totally jonesin’ for some BBB from Chocho’s. Even though I was just there this weekend, after writing this post I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up back there next weekend as well. Or sooner! πŸ˜‰

Gourmet Dumpling House in Chinatown

Quick restaurant review. Happened to go to the Gourmet Dumpling House in Chinatown (52 Beach St.) twice in two weeks. The first time I had the Ma Po Tofu, which was nice and spicy and also I think used soybean paste which I like, along with the Vegetable Steamed “Ravioli” (i.e. dumplings) which although not as good as Wang’s Fast Food in Somerville were still quite good and way better than the usual Chinese restaurant. A had a pork dish and the pork dumplings, and he enjoyed both as well. The second time I went I came away less impressed. The “Home Style Bean Curd” I had was in a greasier brown sauce and unfortunately had chicken in it, and the Steamed Vegetable Buns had a good filling but they were more bready than doughy, i.e. on the heavy side. D’s chicken entree was likewise on the heavy side. All in all, though, it’s still definitely one of the better Chinese places I’ve eaten at in Boston. And someone on Chowhound has kindly scanned the menu , which is handy if you’re a compulsive checklist-ticker-offer like I am. πŸ˜‰ Their menu’s pretty big, though, so it’ll keep you (i.e. me) busy for a while.