Boston's got some serious dining chops, but chasing down the latest restaurant opening, the newest hot chef or the trendiest ingredient can be exhausting. Sometimes, what visitors and locals alike want is a no-fuss, affordable, and, above all, flavorful meal—and preferably one with an international spin.
Luckily, Boston and its neighboring towns have a prodigious variety of inexpensive offerings for the intrepid food explorer, or those who simply appreciate a delicious meal that doesn't leave you destitute. Here are 10 great cheap eats in and around Boston, ranging from to-go joints to sit-down restaurants, where I've found you can eat well—and substantially—for $10 or less (as always, tip well where appropriate).
Gene's Chinese Flatbread Café, Downtown Crossing
At Gene's Chinese Flatbread Café, which opened in downtown Boston last summer (following a suburban location in Chelmsford), the eponymous owner greets you with the biggest grin and a knowing look, confident that you'll become a return customer once you've taste his hand-pulled noodles. Called Biang Biang Mian ($6)—an onomatopoetic reference to the "bang bang" noise they emit as they're yanked, bounced, and slapped against the counter—the wide ribbons are pulled up to a yard long and cut into jagged, chewy strips that are appealing in their lack of uniformity. Any other secrets? "They're made of fresh," Gene Wu offers. Alrighty then. Bathed in chili oil, garlic, scallions, a shower of cilantro and crushed red pepper, these revelatory noodles are ushering in new expectations in Boston, and might be the most exciting $6 meal around.
Sapporo Ramen, Cambridge
The Sapporo style of ramen hails from Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, where rich, miso-based soups containing a shower of sweet corn are a nourishing, almost defiant meal in the face of harsh winter conditions (sound familiar?). Cantabrigians—and Bostonians too, of course—flock to the Porter Exchange Building for Asian eats, and Sapporo Ramen's spicy miso ramen ($9.30) is among the best. Spring yellow noodles are tossed with sweet corn kernels, nori, finely chopped pork, scallions, and a garnish of bean sprouts. The steaming, bright-red broth is achieved by simmering chicken for 10 hours to achieve a depth usually attributed to pork-based preparations. As always, slurp enthusiastically to show your appreciation for the chef.
Jo Jo Taipei, Allston
Jo Jo Taipei typifies the best of Allston Village cuisine: diverse, delicious, and oh-so-affordable. Sanbeiji (three-cup chicken) is a popular and iconic Taiwanese preparation, but I prefer the dynamite Three Cups Eggplant version ($9.99). It's a penchant largely owed to the beautiful purple skin, which stays a little bit crackly while the eggplant's insides soften when stewed in a cup each of water, rice wine, and soy sauce. The dish is served in an earthenware pot, the eggplant laced with strands of basil, chopped scallions, and almost obscenely large slivers of fresh garlic and ginger, all coalescing into a pungent scent and bold flavor I find intoxicating. For a little extra sustenance, add a bowl of white rice for 99 cents.
House of Tibet Kitchen, Somerville
This family establishment near Davis Square opened nearly 16 years ago. The House of Tibet Kitchen dining room, overseen by a portrait of the Dalai Lama, is host to Himalayan cuisine that boasts flavor, freshness, and value. Everybody at your table starts the meal with complimentary lentil soup, mild and thickened with carrots and celery. The Tsel Nezom ($10) stir-fries broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, zucchini, onion, and snow peas with minced ginger and garlic. The flavors are bright, crisp and not the least bit greasy; for $1, you can add tofu as well. Two pieces of steamed Tingmo bread accompany the meal, the perfect implement to absorb extra sauce. There's even a small salad (more like a slaw) showered with black pepper. The Ngo Khatsa ($10), a spicy, Indian-influenced spinach dish, is also worth seeking out.
Galleria Umberto, North End
As you descend upon Hanover Street, you'll likely spot a line out the door, and maybe even a lingering pizza-focused tour group. The Sicilian Squares ($1.65) at Galleria Umberto justify the hype: brought to the counter in oversized pans, burnt around the edges, cheese browned and bubbly, tart tomato sauce spilling over the sides and grease glistening unapologetically, these slices are the real deal. But don't neglect the restaurant's other offerings: golden Arancini ($3.25), fist-size, fried risotto balls sliced open to reveal cheese, peas and seasoned ground beef; and Panzarotti($1.65), a massive fried tater tot stuffed with chives and cheese. All of this can be yours for less than $10, but get there early! The restaurant closes by 3 p.m., and individual menu items are first come, first served.
Punjabi Dhaba Indian Roadside Café, Cambridge
What this two-story "roadside café" in Inman Square lacks in elegance, it more than compensates for in portion size, quality, and variety. At Punjabi Bhaba Indian Roadside Café, the "Dhaba specials" are served on metal trays, with a number of $9.95 vegetarian entrées (and meat-based options only $1 more). In the Paneer Chili Masala, cubes of pressed cheese swim in a spicy, creamy tomato sauce with onions and bell peppers. Other tray sections contain raita (a yogurt-based condiment), onion chutney, slivered red onions, basmati rice, and a huge, fluffy naan flatbread, which you can upgrade to garlic naan for a buck. As the name of the restaurant implies, service is spare: it's up to you to pick up your food at the counter and pack up any delicious leftovers you wish to bring home.
El Oriental de Cuba, Jamaica Plain
In a city not particularly known for authentic Latin eats, this unpretentious Jamaica Plain institution in the "Latin Quarter of Boston" stands out, not only for its excellent Cuban renditions, but for its comeback from a 2005 firebombing. In addition to seafood stews and a ropa vieja variety plate, among El Oriental de Cuba's best options is the archetypal Cubano sandwich ($7.95). This mammoth comprises (take a deep breath first) roast pork, sliced ham, Swiss cheese, marinade sauce, shredded lettuce, white onion, tomatoes, pickles, mayonnaise, and mustard, all layered on a grilled, nearly-foot-long flattened roll. Taken together, it's an exceedingly satisfying marriage of meaty, sharp, and salty. I'd also recommending convincing a buddy to split an order of Tostones or Sweet Plantains ($2.95) to round out the meal.
El Pelon Taqueria, Fenway and Brighton
Another phoenix risen from the ashes: The Fenway location of El Pelon Taqueria closed when an entire block of restaurants went up in flames in 2009. A year later, a location sprang up in Brighton near Boston College, and Fenway made its triumphant return a year after that. Thank goodness, because in addition to some fantastic fish tacos, El Pelon purveys the grand teton of burritos: the El Guapo, or "the handsome one" ($6.95). This foil-wrapped beauty is stuffed with grilled steak, Mexican rice, black beans, Jack cheese, shredded romaine lettuce, fire-roasted salsa, sour cream and—the special ingredient—lightly fried and slightly charred plantains, which make for an unexpectedly sweet element in an otherwise savory meal. Add guacamole for $1, and you've still got an affordable, portable repast.
Picco, South End
This charming little South End hotspot is revered for its fresh-out-of-the-oven pizzas. But for something a little lighter, sidle up to the bar and order the restaurant's Grilled Cheese Sandwich and Soup Combination ($10). I firmly believe that there's no need to gussy up the classic grilled cheese to the point that it's unrecognizable. Picco's version relies on Crucolo, an ooey-gooey northern Italian cow's-milk cheese, and Mornay, a derivative of béchamel sauce usually enriched with Gruyère and Parmesan, soft and soothing on the tongue. The accompanying white bean and vegetable soup contains a chunky, colorful mix of carrot, onion, celery, tomato, green and red peppers, and white beans in a light tomato broth, with a dollop of salsa verde for added punch. It's served in a teacup, making me less self-conscious about lifting it to my lips to down the very last drops.
Bánh Mì Ba Le, Dorchester
There's an increasing number of shops in Boston offering bánh mì, but no matter how many others I try, I can't stop coming back to tiny takeout joint Bánh Mì Ba Le on Dorchester Ave, the Hub's, uh, hub of Vietnamese cuisine. The speed and efficiency with which the staff behind the counter assemble their Bánh Mì is mesmerizing, a whir of knives slathering fresh French baguettes with pâté and mayonnaise; gloved hands slapping daikon radish, pickled carrots, fresh cilantro, and your choice of protein onto the bread. It's finished with a squirt of fish sauce, and yes, you do want hot peppers. The tofu bánh mì is my usual selection, but friends swear by the chicken and BBQ pork varieties. The most drop-dead delicious fact of all is the price: a mere $3.50.