The Boston Food Bucket List: 50 Things You Need to Eat Before You Die
You’re newly entrenched in Boston, whether for work, school, or travel, and you only have one question: What to eat? No baked beans, for starters. The city has long moved past those staid, soggy staples. But we sure do love our cult dishes, whether those are secret burgers or hole-in-the-wall noodles or small-batch bagels. Here are 50 unforgettable orders that, once tasted, can never be forgotten.
1. Secret Burger
This one’s a no brainer. Chef Tony Maws’ masterpiece half-pound patty unites many choice cuts (brisket, short rib), bone marrow, and suet into one unforgettable burger. Remember: it’s in limited supply (only 18 per night) and only available at the bar, so go early to get your fix.
2. Boston cream pie
One of our gifts to the culinary world, Boston cream pie is a Parker House original, and its chocolate-covered, pastry cream-filled goodness has been a crowd-pleaser since 1856. That’s a pretty good run.
3. Brown butter lobster roll
No longer do you have to drive two hours north to eat New England’s most celebrated lobster roll. The award-winning Portland restaurant’s more casual Fenway outpost still serves up its most celebrated product: tender lobster meat tossed in a simple brown butter and lemon vinaigrette and served in a steamed bun that soaks up every last droplet of that rich, nutty dressing.
Tortas usually get shafted in favor of burritos and tacos, but brothers Alvaro and Andres Sandoval know better. They’ve brought the crusty telere sandwiches front and center, piled high with your choice of meat (we say, carnitas all the way), beans, chipotle mayo, pickled onions, avocado, and melted Oaxaca cheese. Muy addictive.
5. Italian cheese pizza
Beloved Santarpio’s has many fans, and for one great reason… its pies are tasty. Chewy crust: check. Melty Italian cheese: check. Even its straight-up basic flagship pizza (still only $9.50) is out-of-this-world good, and then you can add toppings. (We recommend hot peppers and sausage.)
6. Roast Beef 1000
There are roast beef sandwiches and there are roast beef sandwiches, and you really can’t go wrong with any roast beef sandwich. However, Cutty’s Roast Beef 1000 defines “special” with its house-roasted meat, crispy shallots, and sharp cheddar drizzled with Thousand Island dressing on a brioche. Yeah, that just happened.
7. Baked Alaska
From the first sight of the sculpted and toasted meringue to the last bite of chewy coconut graham cracker macaroon crust, Oleana’s baked Alaska transcends. And then there’s the house-made coconut ice cream with passion fruit caramel sauce tying the whole thing together. Note: could be habit-forming.
8. Fried chicken
The Coast Café crew makes some of the best soul food ever, and their fried chicken is off the chi-zain. (Even our Southern comfort food expert thinks so.) The chicken is artfully battered and fried for maximum crunchiness while maintaining maximum chicken juiciness. It’s the real deal.
9. The Double Awesome
Within seconds of its debut from Mei Mei’s food truck, The Double Awesome became Boston’s sandwich obsession. The quirky combo of cheddar, two soft eggs, and local greens & pesto wrapped in a scallion pancake catches you by surprise, then you catch yourself ordering another one.
Besides being one of the friendliest places around, Yume Wo Katare keeps everyone smiling with its slurp-alicious ramen… even if you have to wait in that really long line. There are only two options, pork and extra pork (+$2), and both are swimming in Yume’s signature Jiro-style broth that’s been slow-simmered for 24 hours… with more pork.
Available by the bucket, these are the best biscuits you’ll have north of the Mason-Dixon line, and possibly south of it as well. (Again, our Southern food expert agrees.) They’re everything you want in a biscuit: substantially sized; flaky, yet soft; and oh-so buttery. And then you get to spread on more house-made honey butter.
12. Any burger
The R.F. O’Sullivan team is serious about their burgers, and it takes them 20+ minutes to prep and cook each half-pound patty to order. And your patience will be rewarded. They have many different combos, so pick your preferred toppers and enjoy the ride. Along with being satisfying, these mega-burgers are also wicked-cheap and max out under $11.
13. 100-day aged prime ribeye
Weighing in at a whopping 18oz, Grill 23’s 100-day aged prime ribeye hits all the right notes: a deftly charred salty crust, deep/rich flavor, and tender “you can cut it with a fork” meat. For serious carnivores, it really doesn’t get any better than this.
While there are many fine pastry shops in the North End, everyone knows that Modern’s cannoli are the best. The crispy-yet-chewy shell gently hugs house-made ricotta cream, and Modern has different flavors and toppings (i.e., chocolate). Since they’re only $3, you might as well try a few. You know, for science.
15. Roast chicken
Hamersley’s closed and we all wept over the roast chicken loss. Then Shepard opened and we all wept with joy over the best new roast chicken in town. Moist and crispy at the same time, the oven-roasted bird comes plated on a wood slab, the head and feet still attached. Primal and perfect.
16. Lobster sandwich
Another favorite of our lobster roll experts, the lobster sandwich at Alive & Kicking sets the bar high with its lightly dressed meat-centric salad nestled between two pieces of toasted scali bread. Every bite starts with a pleasing crunch and ends with extra-pleasing fresh-catch lobster. Yep.
17. Grandma’s Beijing meat sauce over spaghetti
When restaurant royalty opens up a new venture, you check it out. Even if it’s in Weston. Nadia Liu Spellman, the daughter of famed Sally Ling’s owners Sally Ling and Edward Nan Liu, debuted her modest dumpling outpost a few years ago to a near-instant cult following. And yes, the dumplings are divine, but what keeps us returning are the simple noodles topped with a simply divine meat sauce, one of those dishes you used to see on every Chinese menu in town but has since faded away. Spellman gets us.
Who knew we were a pie town? Yet Rosebud sells out of its pies so consistently that it has yet to expand its dessert program. (What do you expect when the display case is the first thing customer see when they walk in?) Seasons dictate the flavors, but classics include strawberry rhubarb and apple. Grab a whole pie to go, and you’ll become the favorite son at your next family dinner.
19. Rumanian pastrami
Boston institution Sam LaGrassa’s is the king of giant sandwiches, and nothing beats its famous Rumanian pastrami. The house-made, dry-cured beef is definitely where it’s at -- seasoned then smoked before being piled high on light rye bread and crowned with Swiss.
20. New England clam chowder
There’s a reason why Legal’s chowder has been served at every presidential inauguration since 1981 (well, except for the most recent one): It’s delicious. And it’s got everything you want: salt pork, littleneck clams, onions, and potatoes hanging out in clam broth, fish stock, and light cream.
21. The Giambotta
It’s like the original meat lover’s pizza before there were meat lover’s pizzas. Pizzeria Regina weighs down The Giambotta with all your Italian faves (pepperoni, Regina sausage, salami) then adds mushrooms, peppers, onions, and mozzarella for good measure. Pro tip: go really old-school classic with anchovies on this one-of-a-kind pie.
22. Roast rack of Colorado lamb
One of Mistral’s best-known dishes, the roast rack of Colorado lamb, gets you from the first superbly grilled nibble straight through until you’re caught trying to suck the meat off the bone without being noticed. Suddenly the well-seasoned juices take over your brain and you attack your plate like a honey badger.
23. Fried Kumamoto oyster
Everyone loves a great fried oyster, and O Ya takes things to the next level with its well-composed Kumamotos. Chef Tim Cushman carefully sets a golden brown oyster on sushi rice wrapped in seaweed, then tops it with yuzu kosho aioli and froth of squid ink bubbles… so you get salt, crunch, tartness, and spice in one bite. Better get a couple of orders.
24. Crispy cod and chips
There are many fine fish & chip plates around Boston, but Matt Murphy’s has been the standard-bearer for a long time. The not-too-heavy batter complements the delicate flakiness of the cod, while pickled onions and malt vinegar put a bit of zip into the mix. Plus, it comes wrapped in newspaper, so you know it’s legit.
25. Hand-pulled noodles
Cult followings begin for a reason. These thick, chewy, flat wonders only need simple adornments to be savored: chili oil, cilantro, garlic, maybe a small pile of cumin lamb. They reflect the simple but fresh cooking style of the Shaanxi province and the genius of chef/owner Gene Wu, who came to the US to be a chemist but found a higher calling.
26. Fried Clams
Woodman’s may have invented the thing, but for our money, the Clam Box does the best fried clam in New England. These clams are sourced daily every morning, bathed in evaporated milk, dredged in both corn and pastry flour, and then fried twice for maximum crispiness (the oil is also changed out twice daily). Insider tip: Call in your order ahead of time to skip the hour-long line.
27. New York strip
If Ron Swanson lived in Boston, he would eat at Bogie’s Place because it’s for “Adults Only” and it has a killer New York strip. The 12oz steak is dry-aged for 30 days to deepen the flavor, then seasoned before searing to get that savory salt/pepper crust. “Give me all the New York strips you have.”
Voted one of the best burgers in America so many times, Bartley’s ample patties should be on every Bostonian's training table. Each half-pounder is handmade to order and served on a lightly toasted bun. Simple, yet effective.The basic setup totally rules, or you can go for one of its cheeky combos like The Viagra with blue cheese dressing (get it?) and bacon.
29. Maple bacon donut
Another city-wide obsession, the maple bacon craziness at Union Square Donuts is a game-changer. The tire-sized donut is glazed with maple and bedazzled with substantial pieces of bacon. It’s a complete breakfast, in donut form.
30. Mexican chocolate
The Taza team hand-carves their own granite millstones to produce these authentic (and organic) Mexican-style chocolate discs. So there’s that. The chocolates have a rustic texture, derived from said milling, and come in a variety of must-have flavors such as the hearty 85% Super Dark and Guajillo Chili.
31. Fenway frank
C’mon, you know they’re delicious.
32. Hot dog
It’s not just about the dog; it’s about the whole ritual. Standing in a long, poorly managed line. Sneaking peeks at the potpourri of Castle Island visitors. And when you finally get to the front, getting the lingo right for your made-to-order pup: plain (nothing on it), all around (mustard, relish, onion), or all included (mustard, relish, onion, ketchup). All this for just $1.90.
33. Hot Smoked Sandwich
It’s tempting to order the cult-fave honey rosemary varietal and call it a morning, but these handmade, slow-fermented bagels stand up to the heartiest of sandwich fillings. Locally sourced hot smoked salmon, cream cheese, pickled red cabbage, fresh dill, red onion: It ain’t first-date material, but it’s a hella delicious combo, brought home when ordered on an everything bagel for a salty kick.
34. Burnt Caramel Ice Cream
Before there was salted caramel anything, there was Toscanini’s burnt caramel ice cream. It’s not the shop’s most complicated flavor, but it’s far and away its most celebrated. Just four ingredients -- milk, cream, salt, and sugar -- transform into a flavor that’s somehow both light and intense, smoky but not bitter. OK, and much better eaten than explained.
35. Lobster tail
Also known by its Italian name la sfogliatella, this beauty has a giant flaky pastry shell on the outside, and a cavern of white fresh cream filling on the inside. Both light and rich, Mike’s lobster tail is a not-to-be-missed morsel. Note: this one’s a whopper, so share.
36. Atomic Meatloaf Meltdown
If you like major heat, this scorching sammy from All Star is exactly what you need. Inner Beauty Hot Sauce sets fire to the grilled house meatloaf, Jack cheese, and red onion jam while the grilled sourdough keeps the flames from spreading. It hurts so good.
37. Slice of cheese pizza
For one of the best Sicilian pies on this side of the pond, look no further than the North End’s tiny Galleria Umberto. It bakes its sheet pizzas until the crust AND the cheese both get nice and brown, and a slice will only set you back $1.55. Seriously.
38. Jewish pupu platter
Every new Jewish deli is cause for celebration, but Mamaleh’s is a special bird, named one of Bon Appétit’s best new restaurants of 2017. The only problem is whittling down your order, so we say don’t: spring for the $42 smorgasbord of chopped liver, schmaltz on rye, one potato knish, one meat knish, deli pickles, and kreplach (that’s a dumpling for you ignorant goys).
39. Osso bucco
Mamma Maria knows how to take care of you… in that “mangia, mangia!” Northern Italian mom kind of way. And the stick-to-your-ribs osso bucco, a hulking veal shank, is evidence of that. The fork-tender meat is prepared in the classic style and served with creamy saffron risotto milanese.
40. Prime bone-in ribeye
Boston Chops’ 18oz prime bone-in ribeye is a serious man’s steak, cooked to order in a cast-iron skillet with butter, garlic, and spices (like rosemary). It’s pure meat decadence. ‘Nuff said.
41. Taco al pastor
Anyone who is really into tacos needs to experience the authentic Poblana cuisine made in Angela Lopez’s kitchen, particularly the taco al pastor. The pork is marinated in adobo sauce and slow-roasted for maximum flavor. Then Angela adds diced pineapple, cilantro, and onions for maximum freshness. As our taco expert noted, “It’s just not fair how special the food is there.”
42. Egg sandwich
You’ll never look at a McGriddle again after you’ve had the egg sandwich at Sofra. This is not your average breakfast sammy, as it’s heavy on the exotic: spiced feta butter, halloumi cheese, and bacon on house-made brioche. It’s why the phrase “good morning” exists.
43. Sticky bun
Even Bobby Flay couldn’t beat these treats. Joanne Chang starts her ultra-famous sticky buns with traditional yeasted French brioche dough, and finishes the cinnamon sugar/toasted pecan goodness in a pan filled with brown sugar glaze. The extra caramelization shows the extra love.
You won’t believe your taste buds after trying Helmand’s exotic kaddo for the first time. The crew pan fries and bakes a sugar-coated slice of baby pumpkin, tops it with zesty ground-beef sauce, and serves it on tart garlic yogurt. Those things don’t sound like they go together… AT ALL. But they do. Oh, they do.
45. Lobster pot pie
Chef/Owner Stephanie Sokolove might be the Empress of Salads, but her lobster pot pie is a total game-changer. Fresh Maine lobster goes swimming in a crock of savory broth with pearl onions, peas, corn, potatoes, and carrots, and a sage crust blanket keeps everything nice and warm. (You’re welcome.)
46. Henry’s Soup
This ain’t your daddy’s French onion soup. No offense to your dad, or his French onion soup. It’s just that Marliave’s high-end version contains short ribs. Short ribs, people.
47. Maíz Asado con Alioli y Queso Cotija
In simpler terms, it’s grilled Mexican street corn, and it’s one of those dishes you’ll want to order before you even sit down. The key is the garlic aioli in lieu of a more traditional crema, or butter. That stuff clings to the corn so completely you get fat and salt in every bite. Add Cotija cheese, Espelette, and a squirt of lime juice, and you have a simple yet over-the-top tapas that has kept Toro’s waitlist overflowing for years.
48. Chengdu Dry Hot Chicken Wings
Sometimes the celebrated Baldwin Bar overshadows the cuisine of its dining counterpart -- a shame if it prevents umami addicts from tasting one of the most delectable dishes in Greater Boston. The wings are rubbed in chili, garlic, and ginger, double battered, and glazed with a maple Sriracha sauce. It’s heat upon crisp upon heat upon another round of cocktails.
49. Mini Juicy Dumplings
A Central Square secret since 1981, Mary Chung’s Peking ravioli (either pan-fried or steamed) are the must-have app at this neighborhood hole in the wall. Tender and chewy, the house dumplings are jammed with pork sausage and come with soy-chili dipping sauce.
50. Full tandoori chicken w/ naan
Inman’s always-bustling Indian roadside café cranks out authentic fare, and its 24-hour marinated tandoori chicken is the best you’ll find outside the subcontinent. The secret family spice blend sinks deep into the chicken during the roasting process resulting in hearty/earthy flavors and fall-off-the bone meat. (Note: the tandoori action pairs well with Punjabi Dhaba’s other specialty, the thirst-quenching mango lassi.)
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