Engineering a Good Meal on at Tight Budget
There’s almost nothing that pains me more than people wasting money or time on bad food. Each meal is an opportunity to eat well. There are so many options in the Boston area for a good, inexpensive meal (or a good, really expensive one) that I often wonder how mediocre places survive. But survive, they do.
Recently our sweet “cousin” Celine joined the elite ranks of incoming freshmen at MIT. Congratulations Celine! She is a delightful, smart and fun young woman. And, like other incoming Freshmen, not at all familiar with her newly adopted city. We’re doing our best to feed her good, home-cooked meals when we can. But recently she described a very sad meal and a very engineer-like approach to eating in the days between our South Bay blitz (Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target, Super Stop & Shop) and her first Sunday Supper with us.
It went something like this...
“Well, I found one of the $5 dollar foot long sub shops. So for dinner I had half of the sub, or 6 inches. For breakfast I had three inches and for lunch, the last three inches.”
That’s too much math for me and way too much to spend on bad food. Even if there’s logic in the approach, there’s not tasty food involved, so why bother? What could I do? I had to get this girl help, and fast.
That’s when it hit me - I recently befriended the perfect culinary knight in shining armor: MC Slim JB! For our incoming freshman and her new classmates, allow me to introduce our guide: MC Slim JB is a Boston-based restaurant critic and freelance food & drinks feature writer. He is best-known as a regular contributor to The Boston Phoenix, reviewing budget-priced restaurants in his weekly On the Cheap column.
The discerning engineer-to-be will have already noted that The Boston Phoenix and MC Slim JB’s blog will be your friends. Keep your eyes out for the Phoenix and bookmark his blog.
In the interim, I give you our expert’s opinion on good, cheap eats in the general MIT vicinity. Plenty of these places are within a stop or two on the T and you’ll find much better and more varied food ...
Celine and her sorority and dorm sisters: Consider this my Welcome to Boston gift - a culinary red carpet. Please, enjoy. ? ?Thanks to my undercover buddy MC Slim JB for the excellent advice!
Two other links of note:
Feeding Celine – MC’s Contribution
Welcome, Celine and all your classmates and peers! I’ll start by asking you to read my recent essay on the MC Slim JB blog entitled, Wear Sunscreen in the Restaurant, or, Words of Advice for Hungry Young People. It’s a set of general guidelines for the new-to-Boston on how best to take advantage of our amazing restaurant scene.
The first of those maxims is “Get the hell out” (i.e., “Explore beyond what’s next door.”) But beyond my admonitions to visit other neighborhoods and be a smart consumer of online restaurant advice, I wanted to provide a few specific recommendations to jump-start your chowhounding. I expect you’ll quickly find good stuff in easy walking distance of the MIT campus, so most of my pointers will involve walking or getting on a bike or public transportation for at least a few minutes.
- Ma paw tofu and rice lunch special at Mary Chung, Central Square. While I normally tout more authentic Chinese restaurants, here’s a rare example of very good somewhat-Americanized one.
- Two slices of the day at Emma’s Pizza, Kendall Square. There’s a lot of bad pizza in town, so it’s worth identifying the really good places early on.
- Cheeseburger and fries at Flat Patties, Harvard Square. I loathe fast food outlets (and you should, too), but make exceptions for quality fast food.
- Marinated chicken tacos at Villa Mexico, Beacon Hill. Located in a gas-station convenience store, this demonstrates how great food often turns up in unpromising locales.
- Falafel sandwich at Falafel King, Downtown Crossing. Not all food courts are suburban-mall dreadful.
- Kubideh sandwich at Pita Kabob, Downtown Crossing. A lovely bit of Persian home-style cooking.
- Tofu banh mi at Mei Sum, Chinatown. This Vietnamese sub is one of the world’s great cheap-eats wonders. It will make you forswear $5 Footlongs forever.
That's my favorite Banh Mi at 163 Vietnamese Sandwich, see Hello Banh Mi Sayonara Kotobukiya.
- Arancini, panino, and Sicilian slice at Galleria Umberto, North End. This neighborhood doesn’t have a ton of great values among its many tourist traps, but this venerable breakfast/lunch place is one of them.
- Pernil plate (Friday special) at Izzy’s, Kendall Square. A great little Puerto Rican counter-service place, a very good value, with terrific daily specials like this roast pork dish.
- Lamb in hot chili pepper sauce (lunch special with soup and rice) at Mulan, Kendall Square. An outpost of authentic regional Chinese (Taiwanese here) that’s closer than Chinatown.
- Indian buffet lunch at Royal Bengal, Central Square. The regional diversity and specificity of Boston’s Indian restaurants is steadily improving; this is a rare outlet of East Indian cuisine. Indian is also one of the few cuisines you should consider eating from a hot buffet.
- Daily entrée special at 2nd Street Café, East Cambridge, e.g., yellow curry tilapia on rice. An example of how some casual salad/sandwich/soup places are superior to others.
- Penne puttanesca at Basta Pasta, Cambridgeport. Surprisingly fresh and tasty sauces at a place that seems to play up its big portions, not usually a good sign.
- Uttapam at Tanjore, Harvard Square. A delicious savory pancake from another good regional Indian restaurant here focused on the cuisine of South India.
- Shamday at Martsa’s on Elm, Davis Square. Another testament to the regional culinary diversity that Boston supports, one of four Tibetan restaurants in town. This one serves the unique cuisine of Tibetans who grew up in exile in India, with delicious fusion-y results.
- Chicken chacarero at Chacarero, Downtown Crossing. Another astonishing sandwich, this one Chilean, two lunches for most folks. Request “spicy” if you like a little chili fire.
- Extra-large pho ga at Xinh Xinh, Chinatown. Many cultures do a comforting bowl of chicken noodle soup, but few do them better than the Vietnamese. Use that side plate: tear the leaves off the basil and throw them in, add some bean sprouts, squeeze the limes over the bowl, and add fresh chilies for a little heat if you dare.
About $20 for 2 (sharable dinners for cheap date night, which makes the dubious assumption that MIT students ever have time to date)
- Bacon-wrapped dates and grilled flatbread pizza at Garden at The Cellar, between Central and Harvard Squares. An example of a certain kind of restaurant that is one of the budget diner’s best friends: the casual bar with exceptional food.
- Combo shabu-shabu at Kaze, Chinatown. Healthy, fun, really tasty Japanese “broth fondue”.
- Jalea or ceviche de pescado at Rincon Limeño, East Boston. Exhibit A for the wonder that is Eastie’s wealth of great Latino restaurants, this one Peruvian, doing superb batter-fried seafood and marinated raw grouper, respectively.
I hope this brief list helps catalyze your own explorations. There are plenty more in my weekly On the Cheap column in the Boston Phoenix. Welcome to a wider world of culinary possibilities!
Okay, Leather District Gourmet Fans: Take it away - what are your favorite eats on the cheap?