Naco Taco – Central Square, Cambridge

Tacos are nature’s perfect food — what could possibly be better than a holy combo of meats, cheeses, veggies, and sauces all wrapped up in a warm tortilla?

We’ve been on a bit of a taco kick lately, and we ventured to Naco Taco in Central Square to satisfy the craving. Needless to say, we were not disappointed. The taco menu is full of fresh ingredients mixed together in funky flavor combos and each taco comes on a warm, slightly spongy homemade corn soft corn tortilla (ground and pressed in-house daily). The best part? The most expensive taco is $5, meaning you can order more than one without breaking the bank (we’d recommend 2 or 3 per person).  The menu also features tortas served on homemade corn telera, salads, and a variety of small plates and snacks meant for sharing.

While pretty much everything on the menu looked enticing, we were able to eventually make a decision after what seemed like hours of deliberation.  I went for the Bistec taco — tender and juicy grilled flank steak with avocado, crispy onions, and a slightly spicy chimichurri sauce — and the Duck Confit taco — a generous portion of duck covered in a perfectly sweet pomegranate molasses and topped with crunchy sweet potato sticks and shaved cilantro.  Nate went for three different takes on pork — the Al Pastor, a sweet and savory taco that came with charbroiled pork, onion, and cilantro all mixed with juicy burnt pineapple; the Cochinita Pibil, a combo of pulled pork, radish, and onion with a cilantro crema and a spicy chile de árbol glaze; and the Chorizo, which came with baby yukon potatoes, cilantro, and onion topped with a charred chipotle and tomatillo salsa.  All five tacos were incredibly flavorful and fresh and my only regret is that we couldn’t order every one off the menu so we could try the rest of the flavors in one sitting.

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We also decided to split a half order of the Street Corn off the Cob — sweet corn niblets topped with crumbles of cotija cheese, tangy chile de árbol, a dash of lime juice, and cilantro.  It was the perfect addition to an already delicious meal (and honestly, if that’s what street food looks like in Mexico, then why are we still living here? I propose we all move South of the Border asap…)

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The menu isn’t the only great thing about Naco Taco, either. With walls covered in trendy murals, a cool outdoor patio tricked out with twinkle lights, live music, and a great location (right on Mass Ave. in Central Square), the restaurant has a funky, unpretentious, and relaxed ambiance that fits right in with the vibe of the neighborhood.

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TL;DR:  If you’re in the market for delicious, outside-the-box tacos, Naco Taco is a perfect spot for a quick snack or a full meal that is sure to satisfy.

Jin’s Fine Asian Cuisine and Sushi Bar — Coolidge Corner, Brookline

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If there’s one thing in this world that I love, it’s sushi. In fact, I could eat sushi three meals a day and never get sick of it. It’s an obsession, really.  Luckily for me, Boston has no shortage of sushi restaurants — large and small, upscale and basic, funky and traditional — and my goal in life is to try them all.

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Recently, Nate and I decided to visit Jin’s Fine Asian Cuisine and Sushi Bar, a relatively new Asian fusion restaurant in Coolidge Corner that boasts a giant menu of both Chinese favorites and, more importantly (at least in my opinion), dozens of different kinds of Maki, Nigiri, and everything in between.  

The sushi menu featured traditional rolls that any sushi restaurant usually serves — there were a few veggie options for people who don’t love the idea of raw fish, as well as standard maki featuring different combos of salmon, shrimp, crab stick, or eel with avocado or cucumber.  The highlight, however, was the specialty maki menu, featuring interesting and intricate ingredient combos (like the Sweet Lobster Maki — sweet potato tempura topped with lobster, mango, avocado, flying fish roe, and mayo — or the Spicy Baked Scallop maki — served with crab stick, mushroom, flying fish roe, and mayo).  There were also tons of different options for sushi platters and combos, making Jin’s not only a nice date night spot, but also a great option for larger groups.

Nate and I decided to split three different kinds of rolls:  Philadelphia Maki, which came with smoked salmon, cream cheese, cucumber, and scallion; Rainbow Maki, which is a traditional California maki topped with slices of tuna, salmon, squid, and avocado and then garnished with multi-color flying fish roe; and Volcano Maki, which came with eel, shrimp, avocado, and cucumber rolled together and topped with spicy tuna mixed with flying fish roe and crunchy tempura flakes.  

The Philadelphia roll was exactly as expected — the combo of the smoky salmon and the cream cheese with the starchy rice tasted like the Japanese version of a bagel and lox.  The Volcano maki had a slight kick to it, but not enough to really qualify as “spicy” — the avocado and cucumber helped to counteract the spiciness of the tuna, and the tempura flakes gave each bite a nice crunch. The Rainbow maki was easily my favorite — immensely fresh and flavorful, the tuna, salmon, and squid complemented the sweetness of the crab stick. And the green, red, yellow, and black flying fish roe was not only aesthetically pleasing, but also gave the roll a delightfully pleasant texture that elevated the flavor of each bite. (Also flying fish roe is basically Japanese caviar — pinkies up, everyone).  

Portions were on par with most sushi restaurants — each order came with six to eight pieces, so three rolls were enough for two people to split without breaking the bank (although some of the maki options on the menu get very expensive depending on what you choose).  We left satisfied with all of our menu choices (if not wishing that there was such a thing as dessert sushi — someone invent that, already!!) and wanting to return for another visit to try more off the menu.

TL;DR:  Jin’s Fine Asian Cuisine and Sushi Bar is a great option if you’re looking for fresh and flavorful sushi in a casually elegant setting.

Kelly’s Roast Beef – Saugus, MA

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Labor Day marks the official end of summer, and while fall does have a lot to offer in terms of fun (Apple cider donuts! Leaves changing! Halloween! All pumpkin everything!), I’d be lying if I said that I’m not clinging to the last minutes of summer the way sand clings to your feet after a day at the beach.

So, in an attempt to get one more summery activity under our belts, Nate and I decided to go full-on New England and head up to Maine for the weekend. On the way, we stopped in at Kelly’s Roast Beef in Saugus, the second of five locations of the classic Massachusetts-based chain that originated on Revere Beach in 1951. A family-owned and operated business, Kelly’s has won a slew of awards for their lobster rolls, roast beef, and clam chowder. And after our visit this long weekend, it’s easy to understand why.

First of all, the menu is gigantic. The roast beef is only the tip of the iceberg — Kelly’s also serves everything from hamburgers and hot dogs to fried seafood platters to barbecue pulled beef (there are also salads if you want to be that person, but honestly if you’re coming to Kelly’s, you’ve already lost the battle when it comes to calorie counting).

Nate and I decided to go for the classic Kelly’s staple — the roast beef sandwich. The roast beef was thinly-sliced and juicy and it came on a grilled sesame-seed roll. Nate got a large sandwich with mayo and barbecue sauce, while I opted for the small roast beef meal, which came with French fries and thick-cut onion rings.

There wasn’t much of a difference size-wise between the large and small sandwiches, and where my meal came with the fries and onion rings and a fountain drink of my choice, it seemed like the better deal even though it cost a couple dollars more.

The best word I can use to describe the sandwich was perfect — the warm, tender roast beef combined with the slight crunch of the grilled roll and the savory smoothness of the mayo made for a delightful, no-fuss version of the classic roast beef sandwich. After trying one, it’s no wonder that Kelly’s has been in business for six decades.

TL;DR: With seriously delicious roast beef sandwiches (not to mention a menu chock-full of other beachy favorites), Kelly’s lives up to its reputation as Massachusetts’ authority on the best roast beef.

Cha Yen Thai Cookery – Watertown, MA

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We went out to dinner with our friends, Todd and Ashley, at Cha Yen Thai Cookery – just outside the city in Watertown center. Cha Yen Thai Cookery is not what you’d call “fine dining”, but it is what you would call “delicious fooding”. There are also great vegetarian and gluten-free options here.

It’s a small space that was quiet that night – although to be fair, it was also raining, and nobody likes to go out when it rains – that and we also went later in the night around 8 pm.

To start it off, we ordered and split appetizers enough to taste test, ordering curry puffs and shrimp donuts ( Donut mind if I do)! The curry puffs had spices and the shrimp donut, which was not a dessert by any means, was nothing I had ever eaten, but in the best way possible.

The Seafood pad thai that we ordered was also nothing short of tasty. The dish had every type of seafood you could think of outside of lobster – calamari, shrimp, and squid. Samantha and I ended up splitting the dish, which worked out nicely because there was enough to split into two good-sized portions. In my humble opinion, it’s not Thai food if there’s no kick, so to give it some spice, I asked the waitress for some sriracha sauce for the portion.

After dinner, we debated off-and-on about whether or not we wanted ice cream for about half an hour, basically until they closed (worth noting that they close early on weekdays). The flavors sounded intriguing, and included flavors like green tea, ginger, and Thai iced tea (yes, Thai iced tea coffee, sounds amazing, right?!). The ice cream is also homemade, so it must be good! Next time we go, we’ll try it and report back.

TL;DR: The high ratings online hold up in my book – Cha Yen Thai Cookery is completely worth a trip out to Watertown if you’re in the market for Thai food.

Blue Ribbon BBQ – West Newton, MA

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Nate and I have been getting very into House of Cards lately, and real talk: those scenes where Frank Underwood goes to Freddy’s BBQ Joint to get ribs and unwind after a day of political deception and double-crossing have been getting to us. In other words, two seasons and twenty episodes in, we’ve been finding ourselves thinking more and more about finding a place in the city to eat good barbecue than about Frank and Claire’s depraved quest for political power.

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So, we hopped in the car and headed to West Newton, home of Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q, for some down-home Southern-style comfort food. And let me tell you, if Frank Underwood was eating here instead of at Freddy’s, he’d be too full and satisfied to be so angry and devious all the time.

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The storefront itself is very small — there is only counter seating available (other than a few tables and chairs located on the sidewalk outside) — but the atmosphere is fun, homey, and exactly what you’d expect from a Southern BBQ joint.With a full wall of pickled veggies surrounded by a bevy of out-of-state license plates, kitschy neon signs, a menu full of classic Southern sandwiches and platters, and a barbecue sauce station with a myriad of flavor combos, Blue Ribbon is a casual and fun slice of the South located in the heart of Newton.Nate got the North Carolina Pulled Pork sandwich — made from pork shoulder smoked for 14 hours and mixed with a vinegar-based barbecue sauce traditional to North Carolina. The pork was tender and juicy and the sauce was tasty but there needed to be more of it (the BBQ sauce station came in handy since the sandwich needed extra sauce for dipping in order to bring out the full flavor of the pork). Each sandwich comes with two sides and Nate chose the mashed potatoes (garlicky, creamy, and flavorful) and the baked beans (which came smothered in a sweet, tangy, and thick molasses-based sauce that made the beans irresistibly delicious).I decided to go a little off the beaten path and get a dish I had never heard of before — the Kansas City Burnt Ends, beef brisket smoked for 14 hours with oak and hickory and then chopped and cooked in sweet BBQ sauce until the meat is caramelized. I’m not usually a huge fan of Southern BBQ brisket, but the Burnt Ends were otherworldly. Each piece was unbelievably tender (to the point where there weren’t even whole pieces of brisket on the plate — it was just a pile of sweet, juicy, stringy, fatty goodness) and the portion was so big that I hardly made a dent in it.  I chose to get a platter instead of a sandwich, which meant I got to choose three sides.  I went with the mashed potatoes, baked beans (which I devoured), and the cornbread, which had a dense, almost cakey consistency.Blue Ribbon has a location in Arlington as well as Newton, but despite the fact that the restaurant has been in business for over 20 years and is such a household name that they even sell their sauces online, the restaurant has the feel and technique of a roadside barbecue joint (the meats are all slow-cooked at low temperatures over oak and hickory hardwoods to ensure that every piece of meat comes out tender, juicy, and flavorful).  Along with Tennessee’s Real BBQ in Braintree, Blue Ribbon BBQ is one of Massachusetts’ best pieces of proof that good barbecue isn’t just a Southern tradition.

Tl;DR: If you want delicious barbecue and don’t have the time to take a trip down South, Blue Ribbon BBQ is the next best thing to being there.

Panza – North End, Boston

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There’s nothing better than Italian food and, luckily enough, Boston is home to some of the best Italian restaurants this side of the Atlantic. We recently took a trip to Boston’s historic North End with our friends (and visitors from Washington, DC) Nicole and Jasmine in tow for some authentic Italian food at Panza.

Panza is located right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Hanover Street and its small storefront makes it easy to walk right by it.  That, however, would be a big mistake since Panza — a cozy, relaxed, and homey space with mismatched plates on the wall and an open kitchen — has a menu full of classic (and reasonably priced!) Italian dishes that will satisfy pasta lovers, meat lovers, and seafood lovers of all varieties.

I went with the Butternut Squash Tortelloni — oversized, handmade dumplings filled to the brim with a slightly sweet and delectably savory roasted squash purée and topped with a rich brown butter sage sauce. The tortelloni had just the right ratio of pasta to filling and the sage butter sauce — which was flavorful without being too heavy — had an undertone of cinnamon that complemented the savory creaminess of the squash stuffing.Nate got the Potato Gnocchi Bolognese — small potato-filled dumplings in a classic beef and pork ragu. The gnocchi were flavorful and light (despite the fact that the combo of pasta and potato can sometimes make for a rather large post-meal food baby, these gnocchi had just the right amount of starchy goodness) and the meat sauce enhanced the flavor of the pasta even further.

Nicole and Jasmine both gravitated toward the poultry portion of the menu and went for the Chicken Saltimbocca and the Chicken Parmesan, respectively. The Saltimbocca came with salty prosciutto, creamy mozzarella cheese, and roasted veggies, all topped with a light and flavorful white wine sage sauce.  The Chicken Parmesan was exactly as expected — the chicken was slightly crisped and smothered in gooey cheese and delicious homemade red sauce.Both dishes came with a small bowl of pasta that was not wholly necessary considering the large portions, but was nonetheless greatly appreciated because, let’s face it, who doesn’t love pasta?

We left totally full but still completely in the mood for dessert, so we stopped for cannoli at Bova’s (which, pro tip, has amazing cannoli but never has the same long line as the more touristy Mike’s Pastry or Modern Pastry). We shared a cappuccino, chocolate chip, and classic plain cannoli — all of which were perfectly crispy on the outside and deliciously creamy on the inside.All in all, a perfect Boston night in one of the city’s most uniquely fun neighborhoods.

TL:DR:  Panza is the perfect place for a traditional Italian meal without the high prices usually found in most North End restaurants. Be sure to make a reservation to avoid the long lines!

Bamboo Thai Restaurant – Brighton, MA

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In case you haven’t noticed, we are big, big fans of Thai food. Like, such big fans that if we could travel around Boston just eating Pad Thai and writing about its merits, we probably would.

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So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of our favorite things to do is visit the Thai restaurants in our neighborhood and see how they measure up to one another. This week, we popped into Bamboo Thai Restaurant in Brighton. Small and charmingly decorated with traditional Thai paraphernalia, modern artwork, and a seriously awesome fish tank that features nearly all of the stars of Finding Nemo, Bamboo is a neighborhood gem with an inviting vibe and a menu full of Thai dishes that are sure to satisfy.

We decided to start with the Lollipop Wings — crispy chicken wings coated with a tangy sesame sauce.  The wings were tender and juicy with the just the right amount of the delightfully fried, crispy coating.  Each wing came smothered in the sesame sauce, which was sticky and sweet with a slight kick to it (not to mention so good that if my impulse control hadn’t kicked in, I probably would have started just licking the plate with reckless abandon).  

We also got an order of Crab Rangoon.  Each of the bite-sized dumplings had the perfect ratio of crispy fried wonton to creamy crabmeat filling, and the homemade sweet and sour sauce further enhanced the flavor by adding a little tang to the otherwise mild rangoon.

To top the whole meal off with some carbs, we decided on the House Pad Thai, which came with chicken and shrimp, as well as fried egg, turnip, scallions, bean sprouts, and peanuts.  Bamboo’s Pad Thai is one of my favorite iterations of the classic Thai dish in all of Boston — it has a hearty, peanutty flavor without being too greasy, it’s light enough that you don’t feel guilty after eating it, and the generous portion of shrimp and chicken take on the flavor of the noodles and bring the whole dish together so that it is substantial enough to stand on its own as a meal.  

Because no meal is complete without dessert, we decided to split a dish of green tea ice cream.  It was simultaneously sweet and savory and the perfect cherry on top of a very satisfying meal.

TL;DR:  Bamboo Thai Restaurant has an expansive menu filled with some of the best Thai food that Boston has to offer and is more than worth a trip on the B-line out to Brighton.