Can it really be? Lynn, Mass., "City of Sin," a gourmand's paradise? Following Vittorio Ambrogi's lead, Lynn might consider renaming itself "City Where You No Longer Need To Eat From A Tin" or "City Where The Eating Causes No Chagrin."
Leave it to an Italian to show us the goods in our own backyard. Ambrogi -- relocated virtuosic cook and dauntless culinary explorer -- has hunted down unsung, wonderful food right under our noses, zeroing in on this modest city as a required stop for every intrepid eater. He fled the Tuscan sun 16 years ago, and continues to treat food with a reverence imported from his native Lucca. His deeply flavored Bolognese sauce, available at The Grapevine in Salem where he cooks with his wife Kate Hammond, has a cult following on the North Shore. And yet he regularly escapes to Lynn for food that is fresh, hearty, honest, and spectacularly tasty.
In the last 10 years Lynn has become a mecca for immigrants arriving from countries in Central and South America, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. The dining options mirror this remarkable diversity. Ten minutes out of the Callahan Tunnel one can quickly immerse in the cultures of El Salvador or Cambodia, Guatemala or Vietnam. In this sense, Lynn feels not unlike Los Angeles, a polyglot, even cosmopolitan place, and one worth seeking out.
All Points East
A favorite spot of Ambrogi's would play perfectly in a Jim Jarmusch or David Lynch film -- that is, prepare yourself for a cultural collision. Locating Full Moon Restaurant, hidden on a back road in an industrial section of the city, requires a good map. You will know you've arrived at this pan-Asian boite because you'll be standing before an old Worcester Diner. Taking a cue from the exterior, you step in expecting fried eggs and grilled cheese. Seated at a comfortable booth, surrounded by old wood, tile, and original detail, you imagine yourself in small-town America circa 1952.
Full Moon recently changed hands, and the new owners, like the previous ones, are Cambodian. A stunning array of dishes are available, with Vietnamese, Thai, and Cambodian options leading the charge. Nime Chow, or Vietnamese-style spring rolls, are made with silken wrappers, toothsome vegetables, and shrimp, accompanied by a peanut dipping sauce. The Kistess Soup with shrimp is worth the visit itself. A coconut milk-based green curry soup, it's spangled with sensation -- tangy, sweet, biting, creamy all at once -- with more shrimp than you'd expect, accompanied by green beans and lemongrass.
Not far away, on the busy Lynnway, is the nondescript Green Tea Restaurant, which turns out to be a Hong Kong-style Chinese eatery. As with many of the shops and restaurants in Lynn, the exterior is modest. Green Tea looks like an old Lums Steakhouse. Yet these old spaces have been given new life via a creative New World touch and new flavors. The interiorwas a pleasant surprise, rollicking with patrons and with waiters passing with plates of hot food. Green Tea offers a twin lobster special in five different styles for the outrageously low price of $16.95. Order one more dish and a big bowl of rice, and there's plenty for three. When the plate of sauteed lobster arrives throwing off steam and laden with garlic, ginger, and scallions, it's not hard to allow yourself a solid hour to explore the chambers and antechambers of the local favorite reinvented.
Two Asian groceries -- the 99 Supermarket and Paylin Lynn Market -- yards from each other on Western Avenue, are the places to frequent after a meal at Full Moon or Green Tea, to gather the ingredients with which to attempt a home-kitchen reproduction. The stores present a dizzying range of produce, fish, meat, and dry goods, rival to any place in Chinatown. Their proximity has created fierce competition that has clearly translated to great variety, appealing displays, and low prices.
All Points South
Another trove of restaurants in Lynn features the cuisines of the Dominican Republic, Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala, whose populations represent the area of largest growth in the last years. A great spot to start, close to downtown, is Union Street. Bodegas, junk shops, hair salons, and bakeries make for vital street life -- close your eyes and you could be in Brooklyn. Two noshing spots catercorner from each other keep pedestrians well-fed and ensconced in salsa.
If the two were your uncles, La Fe Restaurant would be flashy and drive a Miata while D'Leomar would barrel around in a classic, Havana-style Chevy, unassuming and wonderfully Old World. Isn't that the smell of the Caribbean rolling through the door? La Fe, brightly painted and lit, specializes in frying. A chicharrone -- slice of pork with crispy skin -- is the decadent choice; select a whole red snapper and you won't have to worry about your arteries. The ribs come in pairs or threes and pull apart easily with your fingers. Paired with the unforgettable fried plantains -- caramelly and somehow buoyant -- they make a memorable meal.
No surprise that there's always a line at La Fe. But then cross the street and try not to fall in love with D'Leomar. The space appears to be a former pizzeria channeling old Santo Domingo. Stools line the back, booths run up the other side, the patrons chat, laugh and gaze at the street. The cook, Danilo Diroche, keeps a watchful and proud eye over his buffet of stews and meats. When I displayed indecision about what to select, he offered to make me a plate with a spoonful of every offering, which numbered over a dozen. The salt cod was thick with tomato and onion, the eggplant smoky and dense. The goat and oxtail stews, exotic departures to some, were animated by a zesty gaminess no longer found in our bland factory-farmed meat. A nice contrast was the cold seafood salad strewn with octopus, shrimp, and squid. Washed down with a glass of passion fruit juice, you'll be temped to hang onto your stool.
When you're ready to move, a quick pit stop back across the street at Mi Guatemala Bakery provides the proper dessert. The champurrada has more than a romantic name to recommend it. Similar to a suntanned sugar cookie, it tastes of dark honey. The moyette is a sweet roll with a decorative nose of flour.
Nearby is Tacos Lupita, which could as easily occupy a corner in downtown Mexico City or San Salvador. Though it presents itself as a fast food joint, a comparison to stereotypical fast food ends with the word fast. Corn tortillas are paired with a variety of meaty fillings, plus fresh chipotle salsa, tomatoes, cilantro, and a crunchy coleslaw laced with cumin seeds. The roast pork taco is earthy, the tongue tender and a bit sweet. A glass of horchata -- a pureed almond drink -- cuts the spice and salt nicely. The clientele, as in so many of Lynn's restaurants, is lively and diverse.
Just a few blocks west of downtown is another standout, Rincon Macorisano. Walking by you might not notice you're passing a restaurant, but step through the doors and you're in a dark-wooded Dominican temple of food and baseball. I wasn't in the place five minutes and a rumor was circulating that Red Sox star Manny Ramirez, along with a number of other Dominican players, had recently ordered out from here. A display case of baseball paraphernalia -- autographed bats, balls, and photographs -- runs down the center of the dining room. Bachata was playing on the jukebox -- you can't help but experience the island lift and wiggle your hips.
One of the cooks was eating a mysterious, tempting-looking dish, so I followed his lead. A mound of mashed, fried plantain was dressed with a hot shrimp and garlic sauce, along with red peppers and broccoli. The plantains were nothing short of a revelation. They played off the piquant garlic, each bite moist, honeyed, and revealing more and more shrimp. The papaya shake was the color of a Creamsicle -- pulpy, light and frothy -- yet with the tangy flavor of a more exotic fruit.
Central America can be further explored in two more restaurants not a half-mile from downtown. Both are laden with atmosphere -- how refreshing to eat in places where the decor is not an obvious calculation -- and they offer well-made, inexpensive home cooking (neither has a dish over $10). Quetzal Restaurant specializes in the food of Guatemala. Enchiladas in the style of that country are first an incredible visual feast with multiple colors and textures. Fresh diced beets battle with the biting red onions, vinegary tomatoes and grated sharp cheese. A layer of chunky roast pork underpins the flourish.
Around the corner at El Purgacito you may at first be disinclined to walk in. The windows are covered with faded signs and behind them it seems dark. Yet once again the interior -- the heart of the place -- bustles. Tacos, El Salvador-style, have the unique snap of radish and lime juice. The tamales let off a burst of steam, with chicken nestled within.
The pupusas are the real winner, though, discs of crisp corn tortilla filled with pork and accompanied by fresh cabbage slaw.
Final stop: Ciabatta Bakery on Washington Street. Tour guide Ambrogi loves the bread here, a version of what he left behind in his native country. Only in Lynn can you find a Chinese baker who puts out an immense, well-made loaf of bread to rival a Tuscan. Forget the flight to Florence. Stop in Lynn and you're transported.