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The Most Authentic Restaurants

Indian, Greek, Mexican, Thai, Italian, and more


(Globe Staff Photo / Wendy Maeda)

With the city awash in ethnic eateries, we set out to discover who really cooks it up right - whose shepherd's pie tastes straight from an Irish farmhouse kitchen, whose shredded pork in garlic sauce captures the genuine flavors of Shanghai, whose salmon tagine mimics true Moroccan cooking, whose tomato sauce is spot-on Sardinian, whose brown bread and baked beans would make longtime New Englanders proud. Hit these 29 restaurants, and take a virtual trip around the world.

Italian, Northern and Southern

Purists argue there is no true northern or southern Italian cuisine, only regional cuisine. Still, some generalizations can be made: Fare from the north favors rich cream sauces; the south tends to tomato-based toppings. Mamma Maria in the North End eschews red sauce, so we're calling it our northern Italian pick. It excels in offering traditional dishes. The elegantly decorated dining rooms, including one with space for just one table, cover two floors of a brick row house. Standouts include a perfect plate of salumi (cured meats) topped with delicious bread salad, a traditionally Tuscan dish of rabbit and hand-cut pappardelle, and osso buco with Milanese-style saffron risotto. The chocolate torte with mint gelato is a transcendent finish. Don't shy away from the schlocky name; Mamma Maria is as close as you'll get to northern Italian cooking the way it's meant to be done.

A wonderful example of southern Italian cooking (really, southwestern, specifically Sardinian) can be found at Maurizio's, a North End restaurant with dining on two floors. You'll find ingredients native to Sardinia, like the pecorino Sardo, a sheep's milk cheese. Tilapia is served the Sardinian way, baked with Parmesan cheese on top. A pasta dish features a delicious combination of ground beef, lamb, and veal in a red-wine-and-tomato sauce with malloreddus - a small gnocchilike shell-shaped pasta made here with a saffron flavoring; the wonderful osso buco is served with lentils (saffron and lentils both are compliments of Sardinia's Arab invaders). The dolci list is short and honey-sweet, as it would be back on the sensible little island that inspired it.

Mamma Maria, 3 North Square, Boston, 617-523-0077, mammamaria.com; Maurizio's, 364 Hanover Street, Boston, 617-367-1123

Indian, Northern and Southern

Indian cooking differs radically from region to region: Northern India is famous for its tandoori dishes, tomatoey curries, and flat-breads like nan and paratha; southern Indian food is mostly vegetarian, with creamy, often coconut-based sauces and condiments, and is usually served with some form of rice. Almost all of the Indian restaurants in the Boston area offer northern Indian food, with a few regional dishes thrown in. A great choice is Cafe of India in Harvard Square, where the tandoori chicken is succulent and done to a turn - no easy feat. Its saucy, mostly northern Indian curries are also quite good: the chicken tikka masala is tangy and complex, and the lamb dishes, like the rogan josh, are meltingly tender and flavorful.

In Billerica, Masalaa Boston offers vegetarian dishes from the entire subcontinent but has plenty of south Indian options. Everything we've tried at this unassuming eatery has been fabulous, and the banana leaf-lined plates are a charming touch. The south Indian fare includes silky vegetable chetti-nadu curry, masala dosas (crispy crepes made of rice and lentil flour, stuffed with chunks of spicy potatoes), and fried idly (steamed rice patties sauteed with onions and spices). Other clear winners are the palak paneer (verdant, smoky with cumin, and studded with chunks of farmers' cheese) and malai kofta curry (tender vegetable dumplings bathed in a rich cream-and-cashew sauce).

Cafe of India, 52A Brattle Street, Cambridge, 617-661-0683, cafeofindia.com; Masalaa Boston, 786 Boston Road/Route 3A, Billerica, 978-667-3443

New England

To qualify as offering the area's most authentic New England cuisine, a restaurant must use typical regional ingredients - cranberries, squash, maple syrup, corn - prepared in ways instantly recognizable as ours. The Fireplace, with owner and Brooklyn native Jim Solomon tending the hearth, is such a place. True, it's not a bastion of history like those other restaurants whose names are part of the city's culinary lore, but its menu is rife with New England classics. Here you can find squash bisque with leeks, grilled-chicken-and-corn chowder, roast turkey with mushroom bread pudding, maple-glazed pork ribs, and apple-cranberry crisp. Add a wood-burning fireplace in the dining room, with fire-roasted meats to boot, and that's good enough for us.

The Fireplace, 1634 Beacon Street, Brookline, 617-975-1900, fireplacerest.com

Mexican

Tu y Yo outside Somerville's Davis Square is where transplants from Mexico come to get their fix. This colorful family-style restaurant, called a fonda in Mexico, is where you'll find such delicacies as cuitlacoche, the addictively earthy corn fungus sometimes described as a Mexican truffle. It's where you'll find a deep, rich, complex mole verde, proving that in true Mexican cooking, mole doesn't necessarily include chocolate. This is not where you'll find a burrito, a strictly-for-the-gringos invention. The entrees fall under the heading "Mom's Cuisine," and next to each dish is the name of the recipe author and year. The presence of cuitlacoche depends on the owners' sources in Mexico, so it's not always available, but when it is, a must-try is the pollo Yunkaax (the Aztec god of maize), chicken stuffed with the corn fungus and covered in spinach sauce.

Tu y Yo, 858 Broadway, Somerville, 617-623-5411, tuyyomexicanfonda.com

Moroccan

As soon as you enter Tangierino, you feel transported. Gauzy curtains divide the restaurant into sections, with seating available on couches and chairs, lighting provided by candles and decidedly dim (which makes menu reading a challenge), and Moroccan music playing in the background (and sometimes the foreground). Complimentary homemade Moroccan bread - chewy and soft-crusted, seasoned with fennel seeds - whets your appetite, along with light, lemony hummus and an olive puree. Authentic appetizers include harira, a chickpea-and-lentil soup tangy with lemon, tomatoes, parsley, and cilantro; it's served with a carved wooden spoon "like my grandmother had," claims a Moroccan native who once dined with us. A characteristic of Moroccan food is a combination of sweet with savory, as in the b'stila, flaky phyllo pastry filled with ground chicken and almonds, spiced with cinnamon, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. There is a wide choice of tagines, named for the domed clay pots in which they're cooked. A salmon tagine is redolent of cilantro, preserved lemon, and olives. For dessert, the authentic option is limited to a pastry tray of three: a fig turnover, a biscot-tilike cookie called fekkas, and a rose-water-scented baklava (the best of the bunch).

Tangierino, 83 Main Street, Charlestown, 617-242-6009, tangierino.com

Greek

Agni Charalambous Thurner, our Greek Cypriot friend, was skeptical the first time we took her to Ithaki Mediterranean Cuisine. Many Greek restaurants adapt their specialties for an American audience. But this Ipswich eatery, housed in a low white building and decorated with sunny Mediterranean colors and grand floral arrangements, doesn't veer when it comes to the classics. The dolmadakia, rolled grape leaves stuffed with savory ground beef and rice, are served with an intense avgo-lemono, the traditional egg-lemon sauce. "This is thickened just with eggs," says Thurner, "and it isn't heavy." The cinnamon-scented moussaka, layered eggplant slices and ground lamb (miraculously not oily), with a rich bechamel topping, is crusty in its terra-cotta dish. A dessert called galaktoboureko, an eggy custard in phyllo pastry that is all air and richness, is hard to find well-made anywhere. Alas, about a third of the menu is centered on other Mediterranean cultures. Authenticity reigns at Ithaki if you decide to eat like Homer.

Ithaki Mediterranean Cuisine, 25 Hammatt Street, Ipswich, 978-356-0099, ithakicuisine.com

Spanish

Boston has a particularly egregious dearth of authentic Spanish restaurants, though that may soon change, as the new BarLola recently started serving tapas in the Back Bay and Ken Oringer's take on the cuisine, Toro, is set to open this fall in the South End. For now, Taberna de Haro in Brookline is as close as it gets. The airy little yellow-walled place radiates a Spanish spirit of conviviality and an infectiously energetic approach to food and wine that puts to shame what passes for tapas at other faux-Mediterranean restaurants. At Taberna de Haro, the menu draws a distinction between raciones, meant to serve three or four diners a bite or two each, and pinchos, traditionally a finger-sized portion for one but here a little bigger. The glory is in the flavors, from the fiery sauce draping the patatas bravas (potatoes), to the smoky-sweet chorizo braised in hard cider, to the tender pulpo a la gallega (octopus) with potatoes, olive oil, and pimenton. While the best-known Spanish restaurants in the area have barely changed their menus in years, Taberna de Haro introduces new items and specials regularly. That's perhaps the truest Spanish quality of all.

Taberna de Haro, 999 Beacon Street, Brookline, 617-277-8272

Irish

Sit at one of the well-worn tables (perhaps the one with an Emerald Isle expletive carved in it) at Matt Murphy's Pub in Brookline Village and just wait for one of the brisk waitresses to call you "luv." Have a midday meal of hearty oxtail soup or a plowman's lunch of spiced beef with pickles and brown soda bread. At dinner- time, consider one of these favorites: The shepherd's pie boasts tender lamb and a crisp potato crust, and the rabbit potpie is served with a crunchy rabbit leg and fruit chutney. It's food you would find in Irish farmhouse kitchens.

Matt Murphy's Pub, 14 Harvard Street, Brookline, 617-232-0188, mattmurphyspub.com

Japanese

When we think of authentic food, we think of dishes made the same way for generations. But cuisine changes with the times. The monthly specials at Oga's Japanese Cuisine in Natick, one of the few sushi spots around that is actually Japanese-owned, showcase the ways that food is evolving in modern Japan. Sushi master Toru Oga creates miniature tableaus on the plate - one month it may be a checkerboard design of maguro (deep red tuna), yam, and seaweed dolloped with mullet roe. Kobe beef may show up as delicate and delectable carpaccio topped with pine nuts or as a hefty steak topped with amazingly fragrant Japanese mushrooms. Mushrooms might also pop up on skewers with scallops, shrimp, and zucchini, to be cooked by the diner on a hot stone. If only traditional sushi will do, Oga and his chefs do a stellar job of that, too, spinning out fantasies of sparkling fresh sashimi and elaborate maki rolls. Though the rest of the seating is comfortable, the best treat comes if you successfully angle for a spot along the bar to watch the chefs work. You could almost be in Toyko.

Oga's Japanese Cuisine, 915 Worcester Road, Natick, 508-653-4338, colamedia.com/oga

Southern

If you're looking for something on the lighter side, keep right on walking past this Dorchester institution. But if it's stick-to-the-ribs braised or fried foods you crave, Chef Lee's II Soul Food is where it's at. The food is served with a generous hand and a warm smile, from smothered chicken livers to fried pork chops, from pig's feet to oxtails. The sides are what you'd expect for classic Southern fare - collards, black-eyed peas, beans and rice, candied yams, and more. Expect a long line at lunch, when the regulars patiently wait their turn at this cafeteria-style joint. (But while you're waiting, check out the impressive photo gallery of African-American luminaries like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Martin Luther King Jr.) Then grab a seat at one of the tables by the window, or get your grub to go. Either way, be prepared to have little room left for dessert but plenty of cash left in your wallet. It's good eats - and cheap.

Chef Lee's II Soul Food, 554 Columbia Road, Dorchester, 617-282-2243

Ethiopian

Wonderfully authentic food can be found at Fasika Ethiopian Restaurant. Don't let the seen-better-days exterior deter you from entering. Inside, you can choose from two seating areas: The front of the restaurant offers standard tables and chairs, while the back features low-backed chairs and mesobs, woven wicker tables less than 2 feet in diameter. On the mesob, your server will place a platter of injera, a huge spongy pancake, atop of which sits the entrees your table has ordered. You'll also receive a side of more injera. Tear off a bit and use it to scoop up your dinner. Fasika makes its injera the authentic way with teff, a tiny grain in the millet family that is high in protein and has a slightly sourdough flavor. The pancake is a perfect foil to the spicy meat, bean, or vegetable stews, such as misir wet, red lentils seasoned with a chili mixture called berbere. An appetizer salad, timatim fitfit, is an Ethiopian version of a bread salad - torn bits of injera are tossed with tomato and lemon juice. If you're up for it, end your meal the traditional way: with coffee and kitfo, a spiced beef tartare.

Fasika Ethiopian Restaurant, 23 South Huntington Avenue, Jamaica Plain, 617-731-3833

Thai

Thailand-born Dan Tanabat - co-owner with three other Thais of Patou Thai in Belmont - spent years at a Texas country club (where he learned the customer was never wrong) while training in hospitality at a local college there, finished his schooling at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, and then opened this elegant restaurant. At first glance of the menu, you see all the curries you might find at any of a number of Thai places and, of course, pad Thai. But look closer. There is nothing ordinary here, and it's all wonderfully authentic. (The furthest Patou ventures from his country's classic cuisine is a pan-seared halibut in red curry sauce, made with typical ingredients but presented in a more stylish fashion than Tanabat sees at home.) Our favorites include a vinegary salad with shrimp topped with slender strands of crunchy green papaya that are addictively good. Garden rolls have such thin skins that you can see through them to the big flat leaves of Thai basil rolled up with rice vermicelli, chicken, and crunchy vegetables. The cooks in the kitchen make a wonderful creation for themselves - tiny pieces of halibut skin dropped into the deep-fat fryer until they curl and crunch - that Tanabat sends out to regular diners. This is a dish that fishermen's families ate, because after they sold the fish, the skin was all that remained. You can't get closer to authentic than that.

Patou Thai, 69 Leonard Street, Belmont, 617-489-6999

Kosher, Ashkenazic and Sephardic

In the world of kosher cuisine, two traditions have evolved: Ashkenazic, that is, European-style cooking, and Sephardic, the cuisine of Jews from primarily Middle Eastern and North African countries. For classic Ashkenazic food, head to Rubin's Kosher Restaurant Delicatessen in Brookline. The ambience is nothing special - with Formica tables and vinyl booths - but the menu is overwhelming. All the traditional items are offered, from chopped liver to chicken soup with kreplach (a dumpling filled with ground beef) to slow-cooked brisket. Best are the New York deli-style sandwiches (on rye or pumpernickel, of course) stuffed with lean corned beef, hot pastrami, tongue, or smoked turkey breast. And the nondairy "cheese" cake is surprisingly good.

Rami's, just a few blocks down the street from Rubin's, serves up terrific Sephardic Israeli kosher cuisine. The menu is small, but what the restaurant does it does very well: hummus, falafel, baba ganoush, and Israeli salad made with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and pickled cabbage. The house specialty is shawarma, meat - in this case, marinated turkey - layered onto a spit and slow cooked with spices; it's sliced to order and finished on the grill. There's also kebab, oblongs of ground beef seasoned with garlic and parsley. Enjoy with a can of mango juice for a true kosher Israeli experience. You order at the counter, and there are a handful of tables.

Rubin's Kosher Restaurant Delicatessen, 500 Harvard Street, Brookline, 617-731- 8787, rubinskosher.com; Rami's, 324 Harvard Street, Brookline, 617-738-3577

French

No local place re-creates a little slice of France better than Craigie Street Bistrot, in a residential area just outside of Harvard Square. Perhaps it's the warm, restful, efficient atmosphere. It could be the friendly staff, which really know its French cuisine. It certainly is the fine wines and the food - from the ethereal green garlic nage in a coquillage of mussels, crab, and Maine shrimp to the velvety braised pig tails over Puy lentils to the succulent veal sweet-breads with black truffle shavings. Chef-owner Tony Maws exhibits exacting French cooking techniques and dedication to his fresh ingredients. The menu changes daily and reflects the best of the market. Maws's perfectionism recalls the legendary and exacting 17th-century French chef Vatel - and you almost shudder to think what might happen should the fish delivery not arrive.

Craigie Street Bistrot, 5 Craigie Circle, Cambridge, 617-497-5511, craigiestreetbistrot.com

Lebanese

The Monzer family from Beirut opened Reef Cafe almost two years ago, offering the cooking of Lebanon prepared by mother Mariam. The small restaurant boasts a large television turned to an Arabic station. The food, says son Salam, "is very homemade." Mariam makes the laban, a thick yogurtlike cream, from scratch, along with the traditional white garlic sauce, a potent mixture whipped from lots of garlic and oil. Her chicken-and-potato stew, barely seasoned so you reach for the garlicky sauce, is served with rice, slender spears of pink turnip pickles, and chopped salad. One of the most unusual items on the menu is a grassy bowl of soup made with lentils simmered in water with potatoes, onions, and celery and flecked with chopped hearty greens. You can imagine centuries of women stirring this simple, flavorful pot.

Reef Cafe, 170 Brighton Avenue, Allston, 617-202-6366

Vietnamese

In a strip mall across from Randolph High School, Tony and Tammy Do run the year-old Pho So 1 Boston. He makes the soups (the famous Vietnamese pho) while she serves the customers or makes dishes like the crisp salads topped with shrimp or poultry and grilled meats served on glassy vermicelli or steamed rice. The sour ground-pork spring rolls have a gutsy and piquant filling of vinegary salad with a sausagey pork nugget. Like the rolls, other dishes have touches not often found at Vietnamese eateries. Chicken noodle pho is aromatic with gingerbread spices and deep brown from beef stock. Besides the traditional bun, a mound of rice noodles topped with shredded lettuce, bean sprouts, and grilled meats, Pho So 1 Boston offers "rice on a plate," a dozen variations of grilled succulent meats - such as honey-coated chicken thighs - on rice with crisp vegetables. Tony Do's parents, Huong and Thu, own a restaurant by the same name in Dorchester; when the family moved to Randolph and saw the large Asian community there, they decided to open another one. The only variation from the cooking of their homeland are a few Chinese dishes, which Tammy says they make for some customers who don't want to try real Vietnamese food.

Pho So 1 Boston, 51 Memorial Parkway, Randolph, 781-961-6500

Portuguese

Bacalhau, or salt cod, is the definitive food of Portugal, so much of a staple that it's sometimes referred to as "o fiel amigo," the faithful friend. At O'Cantinho in Cambridge, bacalhau is on the menu, to be sure. It appears baked with caramelized onions, fried as little cakes, and stuffed into sandwiches. But it's just the beginning of the definitively Portuguese dishes served here. Fava beans are stewed to tenderness and laced with slices of the garlicky sausage linguica. Soft white cheese is drizzled with a tangy red vinaigrette and set beside slices of spicy ham. And almost all of the entrees showcase the country's abundant seafood, like stews of shellfish or pork loin with clams. But what really makes it feel as if you're in Portugal is the warm atmosphere. The saffron-colored room is cozily small and decorated with blue-and-white pottery, the owner's children hang out here during the day, and the waitress won't let you take your leftover arroz de mariscos (seafood-studded saffron rice) home unless you promise to refrigerate it promptly. One of O'Cantinho's sister restaurants, Atasca on Broad- way, recently closed; to fill the void, O'Cantinho has added a wider-ranging dinner menu and a short but sweet selection of beer and Portuguese wines. What a faithful friend.

O'Cantinho, 1128 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, 617-354-3443

Turkish

You know you're in Turkish heaven when the cooks prepare eggplant in dozens of ways, each more inventive and delicious than the next. At Family Restaurant Brookline, the purple-skinned fruits can be ordered, for example, pureed and creamy (for spreading on the homemade bread), cooked with tomatoes to make a cold salad, or stuffed with ground meat for a striking entree - all dishes with roots firmly in the Ottoman Empire. This modest Brookline Village eatery for many years was a dinerlike restaurant where hearty breakfasts and ordinary American fare reigned (hence the name). When Turkish owners took over, they kept the name and the breakfast and lunch menus, but added their kebabs and other specialties. So you don't know where you've landed until you taste the eggplant and Turkish dishes. The famous adana kebab, delectable ground lamb pressed onto skewers, comes with a pool of yogurt sauce mixed with croutons. Warm cheese pitas are housemade, spread with feta cheese and shaped into ovals so they look like golden boats with creamy tops. A peasant dish of green beans, simmered with tomatoes and lamb until the beans have practically melted, could only be served at a place without any pretense. The kind waitresses struggle with English, but they're patient and happy to explain their cuisine. Many dishes are garnished with a single hot pepper and whole tomato, both lightly charred. Turkish food is a delightful mixture of aromatics, rich meats, crisp salads, long-cooked vegetables, mild heat, and intense flavors. Sip a cold Turkish beer and huddle over the aromas as they're sent from the kitchen, and you could mistake this place for Istanbul.

Family Restaurant Brookline, 305 Washington Street, Brookline, 617-277-4466

Korean

In a Korean restaurant, one authenticity test is the panchan, or little side dishes that come with the meal. New Jang Su, in a nondescript strip mall in Burlington, passes this test, and others, beautifully. On a recent visit, the waitress set out six panchan, including fish cakes, pickled radishes, and two fiery kimchis (one cucumber, one cabbage). And then the barbecue bonanza began. She unrolled a thin strip of meat connected to a short rib, snipped it off, and placed it on the table's built-in grill, where it sizzled next to shaved beef. One noteworthy dish is the chap jae, with glassy noodles just sticky enough and brimming with bright vegetables. The restaurant is divided in two, one side with the built-in barbecue grills at the tables, and one without. The barbecue side is always packed, and with precious few exceptions, always with Koreans.

New Jang Su, 260 Cambridge Street, Burlington, 781-272-3787

Chinese, Shanghai and Sichuan

Restaurant lore may dictate that only grungy holes in the wall offer "real" ethnic food. So it must follow that CK Shanghai - with crisp white tablecloths, a decent wine list, and a handsomely appointed room, and in Wellesley to boot - could never qualify. Wrong. C.K. Sau, who owned New Shanghai in Chinatown for more than a decade, moved to the suburbs, and with him came the most delicate and delicious dishes possible from his native region in China. Cold appetizers like crisp, sweet, tangy cucumbers or vegetarian goose - tofu crisped to resemble the skin of the bird and then stuffed with a filling of crunchy bamboo shoots and mushrooms - tease the palate. Sea scallops in a startlingly addictive black pepper sauce, lobster in a winy sauce with tomatoes, shredded pork in a sweet-hot garlic sauce, a whole fish studded with pine nuts in a brightly flavored sweet-and-sour sauce - the dishes go on and on like a gourmet's hit parade.

Interested in Chinese fare from the Sichuan Province? Head to Medford. Zheng Hu, the proprietor of Chilli Garden, insists on importing her peppercorns from Sichuan, where she grew up. Not only that, they must be last year's crop. The chili powder is imported, too, and ground by hand. Spices such as star anise, cloves, cassia bark, and dried sand ginger are all shipped from China, and all are part of what makes her restaurant the most authentic Sichuan experience to be had in these parts. Bacon is smoked in the kitchen of the little restaurant, in a slice of shops off of Medford Center. The payoff is in eating Chilli Garden's food. Cold noodles look pale and modest until the fiery red chili sauce is twirled into them; then they take on a yin-yang quality, hot-bright against the tongue, cushioned by the gentle texture of the noodles. Whole fish in spicy sauce tingles at the back of the mouth as the fish melts on your palate. Wild boletus mushrooms with bits of green pepper are earthy, a taste of autumn. And for those who seek the exotic - at least to Western tastes - there are many dishes like pork tripe with garlic and cucumber, beef tongue with napa cabbage and chili powder, and duck feet with spicy soy sauce. Although the menu includes many Mandarin dishes, Hu and her staff try to steer the diner toward the Sichuan specialties. After all, what good is Chilli Garden's obsession with authenticity unless others can taste the results?

CK Shanghai, 15-17 Washington Street, Wellesley, 781-237-7500; Chilli Garden, 41 Riverside Avenue, Medford, 781-396-8488

Brazilian

Churrascarias, the buffet-style restaurants where skewers of meat are brought to you tableside, are all the rage in local Brazilian dining, but for an equally authentic (and cheaper) experience, check out Padaria Brasil Bakery. This no-frills store, with locations in Allston, Milford, and Framingham, lets you sample traditional fare that you won't find in most Brazilian restaurants. For a filling breakfast, a hearty slab of dense yucca-coconut bread hits the spot, but skip the coffee and wash it down with tangy caldo de cana (sugar-cane juice). Flaky chicken potpies and cheese rolls are tasty afternoon snacks, and you can take home a loaf of fresh bread for your dinner table. The selection can be overwhelming, but luckily the staff is happy to make recommendations.

Padaria Brasil Bakery, 125 Harvard Avenue, Allston, 617-202-6783; 173 Main Street, Milford, 508-422-9840; 165 Concord Street, Framingham, 508-872-8698; 63 Hollis Street, Framingham, 508-872-2677

In a Class by Themselves

A few gems stand alone - literally. Either they are the only game in town, or what little competition they have doesn't come close. Competition may make you stronger, but these four don't need to be pushed. They are superb all by themselves.

Afghan

The Helmand has a unique edge on the few other restaurants serving Afghan fare: The owner is the older brother of Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai. But long before Karzai became president, the cozy spot in East Cambridge was renowned for its succulent kebabs, fragrant rices, and bread made in a wood-burning stove. Try the aushak, ravioli filled with leeks, on a sauce of yogurt, mint and garlic, and topped with ground beef.

The Helmand, 143 First Street, Cambridge, 617-492-4646

Cambodian

Born in Cambodia, Longteine de Monteiro, along with her family, brought her country's wide variety of culinary flavors to the area in 1991, and The Elephant Walk has been a local favorite ever since, spawning two more locations. Perennial favorites include s'gnao mouan, a wonderfully tangy chicken soup with lemongrass, lime juice, and Asian basil, and the deeply flavorful Alaskan black cod in a soy-garlic marinade, drizzled with ginger- coconut sauce.

The Elephant Walk, 900 Beacon Street, Boston, 617-247-1500; 2067 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617-492-6900; 663 Main Street, Waltham, 781-899-2244; elephantwalk.com

Cuban

Chez Henri is making some of the best French- Cuban food around, using ingredients such as plantains, yucca, chayote, and mango. The food, while an inspired take on island cuisine, can't really be called authentic, but the Cuban sandwich on the bar menu is the tastiest this side of Miami. It's filled with rum-and-molasses marinated pork, ham, Gruyere cheese, and pickles and served with plantain chips.

Chez Henri, 1 Shepard Street, Cambridge, 617-354-8980, chezhenri.com

Venezuelan

At La Casa De Pedro, chef-owner Pedro Alarcon serves the food of his native Venezuela in a cheerful dining room decorated with paintings of tropical birds and flowers. He gives his late mother, Leda Rios, a lot of credit for his food, from the sopa de Mama (Mom's chicken soup) to Leda's pargo, a succulent, lightly fried whole red snapper tossed with onions and balsamic vinegar. For a real Latin experience, sit in the secluded back courtyard and sip sangria.

La Casa De Pedro, 51 Main Street, Watertown, 617-923-8025, lacasadepedro.com

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