Global Eats: Boston is a Crossroads of Food from All Over

Travel the world when hunger calls, rendezvousing in India, Senegal and France without ever leaving town

International dining is nothing new to Boston. The city has been a melting pot of cultures and cuisines ever since Native Americans first broke bread with the Pilgrims. Beginning in the 17th century, Boston was a port of call on the Rum Route from Africa to the Caribbean. After the Revolution, it was a cornerstone of Old China Trade shipping. Boston was home to future kings of France (Louis Philippe I) and Thailand (Bhumipol Adulyadej), and safe haven for immigrants—and college students—from around the world. Waves of Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants were followed by more from all over the planet. Many opened restaurants, and today, diners enjoy flavors of Persia, Nepal, Chile, the Caribbean, Colombia, Turkey and Greece. As you might expect, Boston restaurants are equally diverse and global.

You can hop a plane and fly to Spain. Or, you can stop into Estragon tapas bar in the South End. Owner Julio de Haro, who hails from Madrid, has assembled a menu of small and large plates you might find in his hometown. The extensive tapas selection ranges from imported hams and cheeses to beef tongue and rabbit. Heartier appetites will want the paella mixta of chicken, shrimp, mussels, squid, roasted pepper, and saffron rice. It’s large enough for two to share, washed down with a carafe of excellent sangria.

Julio de Haro's interpretation of traditional Spanish paella mixta, at Estragon. (©Kristin Teig)

Dining at Atasca in Kendall Square, Cambridge is like being a guest at the home of owners Joe and Maria Cerqueira. This cozy Portuguese café is a family affair with the couple’s two daughters often waiting tables. The grilled bread topped with chourico sausage pate and cheese is delicious. Ditto, grilled whole sardines and garlic and white wine poached littlenecks. The signature dish is the bacalhau a lagareiro, charcoal grilled salt cod, drizzled with hot olive oil and garlic. It’s simple, straightforward and soulfully satisfying.

French cuisine has never been more affordably accessible than at Jacky Robert’s Petit Robert Bistro in Kenmore Square. Honored with the Maîtres Cuisiniers de France (Master Chefs of France) Silver Chef's Hat, Robert cooks familiar dishes like garlicky escargot, caramelized onion soup gratinee and a classic roast duckling a l’orange, served with orange sauce and wild rice. With a bottle of red wine and mousse au chocolat for dessert, you could be dining in Montmartre, not down the street from Fenway Park.

At Teranga, in the South End, owner Marie-Claude Mendy serves the food she ate, growing up in Senegal. Try the fried, rice paper-wrapped spring rolls called nems and the black-eyed pea fritters called accara. Be sure to order thiébou djeun broken rice with fish and vegetables, the national dish of Senegal. The fish is said to symbolize Senegal’s coastline. The rice reflects the country’s rise out of poverty. And the veggies (cassava, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant and pumpkin) celebrate the diversity of its culinary heritage.

Where do Thai Bostonians go to dine? Montien, in the Theater District.

Request the ultra-spicy Thai menu (as opposed to the chicken satay, pad Thai and tamarind duck menu intended for less adventuresome palates), to get a true taste of Siam. That means tart and dried shrimp-salty som-tum green papaya salad that you scoop up with glutinous sticky rice. Hot and sour ground chicken, lemongrass and mint larb salad. And a Sterno-fueled firepot of tom-kha-mor-fai coconut milk, shrimp, lemongrass and galangal soup. Ask for extra chilies—dry, pickled or in fish sauce—if you prefer it hotter.

Grilled whole sardines at Atasca (©Kristin Teig)

Tucked into an old fire station around the corner from South Station, Tim and Nancy Cushman’s o ya serves up some of the most sophisticated Japanese fare in town—soups, salads, sushi, sashimi and assorted small plates—that is almost to beautiful to eat.  Widely considered one of the best restaurants in America, o ya’s menu changes daily. Fortunately, they always seem to have Kumamoto oyster sashimi topped with watermelon pearls and cucumber mignonette, foie gras sushi with balsamic chocolate kabayaki sauce and tamago omelette roll with white or black truffles. Reservations are a must.

Sushi. Hummus. Tacos. Some international dishes have been thoroughly integrated into Boston’s culinary mainstream. Indian restaurants are ubiquitous, there are lines out the doors in Chinatown and Mexican fare has become as all-American as … well, pizza. But, foodies searching for authenticity needn’t look far.

India Pavilion—Cambridge’s first Indian restaurant—has been a fixture in Central Square since 1979. What’s the secret? A fabulous selection of breads, including naan stuffed with coconut, apricots, almonds and raisins. An assortment of South Indian dosai lentil crepes (one is filled with minced lamb, ginger and chilies). A deliciously spicy goat vindaloo. And top-notch saag paneer, cubes of homemade cheese in a delectable pureed spinach sauce. You can substitute hard-boiled eggs or potatoes for the cheese, but why would you?

In the mood for brunch, Chinese style? China Pearl, Chinatown’s rococo dining palace, turns out so many varieties of Cantonese dim sum, you’ll lose count. From the rolling carts, choose lotus leaf-wrapped balls of rice pockmarked with Chinese sausage, fried eggplant (or tofu) stuffed with shrimp paste, pan-seared turnip cake, drizzled with sticky-sweet hoisin sauce and steamed, shrimp-filled har gow dumplings (they look like old ladies’ chins). Saturday and Sunday mornings are mobbed but the wait is worth it for gingery tripe and the best baked barbecue pork buns in the ‘hood.

O ya
O ya's sophisticated Kumamoto oyster sashimi. (©Kristin Teig)

Once it was difficult to find great Mexican food in these parts, but no more. Zocalo Mexican Bistro & Tequila Bar in the Back Bay serves some of the tastiest cocina Mexicana in town: smoky sweet salsa and homemade tortilla chips, guacamole prepared in a stone molcajete and mushroom, spinach, corn and cheese tamales. The pescado a la Veracruzana—fish in white wine, tomatoes, capers, olives and jalapenos—is superb. Owner Erwin Ramos studied with Mexican cooking doyenne Diana Kennedy.

Visit Italy at Pasta Beach, across from the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Owners Gianni and Susan Ropolo divide their time between New England and Turin, and they are serious gastronomes. Hence, thin-crusted Neapolitan pizzas baked in an imported gas-fired, brick oven, tagliatelle alla Bolognese that’s as good as you’d get in Bologna, and delightfully briny zuppa frutti di mare (mussels, shrimp and littlenecks in peppery tomato sauce). The many patrons speaking Italian is surely an indicator of the quality of the kitchen.