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Food for Thought

Exploring Boston’s international cuisine scene

Port cities like Boston have always been magnets for immigrants, who bring with them strange and wonderful recipes, many of which eventually appear on the menus of neighborhood restaurants. Here, it started with the Puritans, for better or worse. Since then, however, the flavor of the city has steadily improved with successive waves of migration, ranging from the African slaves brought here by English settlers to the Chinese workers who sought work in the shoe factories after the Civil War. Each group brought new languages, new traditions, and new food to the city.

“There is great curiosity as we have become gradually a more cosmopolitan place — that is, a city where there are people interested in crossing boundaries,” says Merry White, a professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences who specializes in the study of food. “It has made Boston an unusually interesting city for trying out cultural adventures.”

Today, some neighborhoods that once seemed exotic — such as Boston’s Italian North End —are considered an ordinary part of the culinary landscape. But as the city continues to draw people from around the world for work or scholarship, new cultural adventures emerge. BU Today sampled seven places that offer a chance to test your palate. Scroll through the photos above to read about Afghan, Armenian, Cambodian, Portuguese, Russian, Tibetan, and Venezuelan foods.

Atasca (Portugal)
50 Hampshire Street, Cambridge
Monday – Saturday, 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m., Sunday noon – 11 p.m.

The dining experience at Atasca, which in Portguese means a small, family restaurant, begins before you step through the door. An outdoor patio, filled with flowering perennials and shielded from the street by grape vines, offers a relaxing atmosphere for dining al fresco. Inside, the golden, sponge-painted walls, cherry wood tables and chairs, and wide-mouthed fireplace give the interior a rustic feel. The atmosphere helps to make Atasca, which won Best Portuguese restaurant from Boston Magazine in 1996, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2005, a popular choice among not only the large Portuguese population of East Cambridge, but also the nearby MIT and business crowds.

Atasca is well known for its small plate dishes called petiscos, which make for a great way to try many different authentic Portuguese dishes without filling up on one individual plate. Petiscos are also served as appetizers, and range in price from $5 for Portuguese white cheese with sliced tomatoes and roasted garlic vinaigrette to $8.95 for a casserole of shrimp, goat cheese, fresh tomatoes, herbs, and jalapeño peppers. The Portuguese staple and traditional Azorean combination of grilled linguica ($6.50), a Portuguese pork sausage seasoned with onions, garlic, and paprika, and served with pineapple, is mild and quite good. A selection of salads ranges in price from $5 for a garden salad to $9.95 for a tasty crab cake.

Portions at lunch, which is the main meal of the day for most Portuguese, are large, and the lunch menu is almost identical to the dinner menu, but less expensive. Although owner Joseph Cerqueira hails from mainland Portugal, the cuisine contains a highly Azorean influence. The waters surrounding the islands of the Azores, which are approximately 900 miles from the rest of Portugal, provide a bounty of fresh fish — the most popular of which is cod. The national dish, dried, salted cod called bacalhau, is served several times a week on dinner tables across Portugal and for this reason it’s said that there are 365 different ways to cook it, one for every day of the year. A luncheon portion of baked dry salt cod ($13.95) topped with caramelized onions and roasted peppers, and surrounded by homemade thin-sliced fried potatoes, almost flows over the sides of the plate. Another traditional dish, carne de porco a alentejana ($13.95), features tender sautéed pork loin with clams, paprika, garlic, cilantro, and cubed fried potatoes. Because of its ample green pastures, beef is also plentiful in Portugal and that bounty reflected in Atasca’s menu. Bife Atasca ($13.95), sirloin steak sautéed with garlic, red wine sauce, Portuguese butter, and topped with a fried egg, is a favorite of Terceirans from the Terceira Island in the Azores.

The Portuguese enjoy a variety of rich egg-based desserts that are often seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla. Most towns in Portugal have their own local specialty dessert, usually egg or cream based. At Atasca, the house dessert is pudim de casa, a flan-style custard flavored with lemon and port wine and topped with caramel sauce. Other desserts include paseis de nata, a custard filled flaky pastry, and a rich chocolate mousse. Prices ranged from $4.95 to $5.25. —Meghan Noé

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The Elephant Walk (Cambodia)
900 Beacon St., Boston (Other locations in Cambridge, Waltham)
Sunday – Thursday, 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
Cambodian restaurants are still uncommon in the United States, but Bostonians curious to discover the flavors of this former French protectorate need not travel far. In fact, one well-known local Cambodian restaurant, the Elephant Walk, has locations in Boston, Cambridge, and Waltham.

Although it draws on the traditions of its Thai neighbors and Chinese residents, Cambodian cooking is also heavily influenced by French colonialism. Hence, the Elephant Walk serves both Cambodian and French fare. Created by the mother-daughter team of founding chef Lonteine “Nyep” de Monteiro and her daughter Nadsa de Monteiro, menu items range from everyday street food to aristocratic and royal delicacies. The menu is strictly separated between the two cuisines, and, for vegetarians, there is also a substantial meatless section.

Born and raised in Cambodia, Lonteine de Monteiro grew up eating and cooking Cambodian and French food. When the Khmer Rouge party overthrew the Cambodian government in 1975, she and her family fled to France and ultimately settled in Somerville, where they opened the first Elephant Walk in 1991. The Boston and Waltham branches opened in 1994 and 1997, and in 1998, the original Elephant Walk relocated to its current home in Cambridge.

With its gleaming hardwood floors and multi-paned windows, the spacious, sparsely- decorated dining room of the Boston Elephant Walk harkens to Southeast Asia’s colonial age. Patrons are encouraged to sample cuisine from both sides of the menu, and for appetizers, our party chose to pair the Rouleaux — lightly fried Cambodian spring rolls ($8.95) — with the chilled French avocado and citrus soup ($8). Although the spring rolls are traditionally filled with ground pork, we chose the vegetarian option, which consisted of crushed peanuts, shredded carrots, and minced onions served over a bed of fresh lettuce, mint, basil, and bean sprouts. The soup — a blend of orange, lime, and jalapeño juices served with chunks of avocado, tomato, mushroom, and onion and garnished with fresh cilantro — was unique, to say the least.

For the main course, we decided on Cambodian entrees: Organic Tofu Citronelle, ($15.95) organic tofu flash-fried and sautéed in a lemongrass sauce with onion, peas, red bell peppers, scallions, and peanuts, and Curry de Legumes, ($13.95) a vegetable curry sautée with eggplant, asparagus, baby bok choy, red bell peppers, snow peas, and yellow squash. The dishes are best described as being similar to Thai cuisine, although not nearly as sweet or spicy. The lemongrass sauce was rather bland, while the tomato-based curry sauce was more pungent.

We didn’t order wine, but the Elephant Walk has an extensive wine list, with wine available by the glass or bottle. Prices per bottle range from $19.95 to $89. And while we also passed on the dessert menu, the Gateaux l’Opéra ($7.50) — a French opera cake with layers of coffee almond dacquoise interlaced with coffee buttercream and chocolate ganache, and paired with vanilla ice cream — sounded purely decadent. —Vicky Waltz

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Helmand (Afghanistan)
143 First Street, Cambridge
www.helmandrestaurantcambridge.com (Menu prices on Web site are all about $1 out of date)
Sunday – Thursday, 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m.

The Helmand restaurant, much like the brick warehouses that surround it, is low on frills. Except for a few photographs of Afghani tribesmen and women and an assortment of oriental rugs, the large, yellow-walled dining area is sparsely decorated. Still, the flavorful Afghani food, which draws on influences from China, Russia, Iran, and India, brings a hungry dinner crowd, even at midweek.

Mahmood Karzai (the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai) and his wife, Wahma, opened the Helmand in 1995 (the couple also runs a Helmand in San Francisco). In the late 1990s, when the Taliban still ruled his country, Karzai and other Afghan exiles would occasionally dine here and talk politics. These days, many of the diners look like they’d be at home in a lab at nearby MIT.

The Helmand’s menu includes a primer on the boiled-then-baked rice that accompanies nearly every dish (pallow rice is flavored with cardamon, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin seeds, & black pepper, while challow rice is mixed with oil and cumin). Lamb, garlic, and cumin are clearly the stars of the menu, but it also features plenty of chicken, beef, seafood and vegetarian dishes, all with a range of seasonings. On a recent visit, we began with two appetizers (both $5.95): aushak, a ravioli-like dish filled with leeks and scallions with yogurt-mint and ground beef sauces, and kaddo, sweet, pan-fried pumpkin with yogurt-garlic and ground beef sauces. We moved on to dwopiaza ($16.95), lamb tenderloin, cooked with onions, yellow split peas, and served with pallow rice and seekh kabob ($16.95), a charbroiled leg of lamb marinated in a puree of onion, sun-dried baby grapes, and garlic, served with sautéed eggplant and pallow rice. The food is a delicious mix of sweet and savory, and the portions are large, so don’t fill up on the crispy flatbread that arrives at the table with a sweet-and-spicy red sauce, a dill-yogurt sauce, and a green cilantro sauce.

The wine list is extensive, although the house red and white is the only choice you can order by the glass ($6). Bottles run the gamut from a $17 Chilean merlot to an $83 cabernet from Chappellet in California. But lest the wine selection tempt you into making reservations for your next romantic dinner, be forewarned that the place gets noisy, and while there are plenty of tables for two, the bright, open layout is more suited for large parties than gazing into your lover’s eyes (the electric candle at your table might be another clue). Still, that might be for the best. After all, the more people at the table, the more dishes you get to taste. —Chris Berdik

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Orinoco: A Latin Kitchen (Venezuela)
477 Shawmut Ave., Boston
Sunday – Wednesday, 6-10 p.m., Thursday – Saturday, 6 – 11 p.m.

Waiting for a table at 8:30 on a school night can get tiresome. But at the South End’s Venezuelan favorite Orinoco, where trumpets and accordions herald your arrival and sangria eases the stress, you quickly realize it doesn’t have to be a chore.

Not that we waited very long. Five minutes into our sangrias (white and citrusy, with hints of peach and pineapple) the affable Andres seated us at a colorful booth-style four-top about halfway between the restaurant’s entrance and back wall.

Orinoco is named after one of the longest rivers in South America, three-quarters of which snakes through Venezuela, with Colombia getting the leftovers. On its Web site, the restaurant claims to be inspired by taguaritas — rustic roadside eateries — and the menu and prices fit the bill, serving up corn-based arepas, ($5-6) empanadas ($8) or cachapas ($11) filled with stewed meats and traditional cheeses, and accompanied by different forms of plantain and yams.

The difference between Orinoco and a taguarita is in the sophistication. Don’t expect greasy roadside heaven — expect its elegantly-assembled, trendy doppelganger. Empanadas are tiny and delicate, but you get four of them served with a large and deliciously-dressed mesclun-based salad. Arepas are also small, but amply filled (and even more filling). Cachapas are best described as corn-based pancake quesadillas, filled with drippingly fresh handmade farmer-style cheese.

While a feast of the aforementioned would’ve satisfied most, the entrees are not to be neglected. We went with the churrasquito special ($22), a succulent beef tenderloin topped with a crab picadillo stew, grilled asparagus, and a parsley-based chimichurri sauce. The meat was indeed tender and tasty, the stew and sauce just the right blend of spicy, sweet and salty.

The restaurant is not huge, but does offer both casual patio seating and a more intimate candle-lit inside. A third of the interior is taken up by an open kitchen, which imparts no shortage of appetite-swelling aromas. The main gripe at Orinoco seems to be the wait for a table, though one diner — who provided an otherwise glowing review — also told us the restaurant occasionally runs out of ingredients towards the end of the evening. Our investigation unearthed one notable absence — Cerveza Polar, the only Venezuelan beer on the menu. On the other hand, considering that Venezuela just hosted soccer’s Copa America over the past month — it’s a surprise Orinoco, and Venezuela, have any beer left at all. —Edward A. Brown

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Rangzen (Tibet)
24 Pearl Street, Cambridge
Monday – Saturday, 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m., 5:30 – 10 p.m.

A trip to Tibet may be a lot shorter than Bostonians think it is. A panoramic mountain view and a portrait of the Dalai Lama grace the walls of Rangzen, greeting customers at one of the area’s only Tibetan restaurants. It’s no surprise that this gem is located in Cambridge’s culturally-rich Central Square.

Rangzen offers traditional Tibetan dishes, and although there are parallels to some other Asian cuisines, Tibetan food is largely a horse of a different color. You won’t find much seafood in this landlocked, mountainous region, and few crops can withstand the elements at such a high altitude.

Barley is one of the region’s few hardy grains, and tsampa, the dough derived from it, is prevalent in Rangzen’s dishes. Rolled and flattened, tsampa is used primarily for noodles or dumplings called momos, served either vegetarian (Tsel, $11.45) or with beef (Langsha, $11.55), and accompanied by a choice of lentil or soybean soup. An entire section of the menu is reserved for wheat breads called phaley, which range from beef- and scallion-stuffed patties (Sha Phaley, $3.55) to deep-fried wheat bread (Yoshang Phaley, 4.25). On the lighter side, for 99 cents you can get a freshly made basket of plain papadum, closely resembling an oversize potato chip, but tasting more akin to a baked tortilla.

While beef, mutton, and milk products are all part of the Tibetan diet (withstanding the demanding climate takes a lot of energy), Rangzen offers more vegetarian than meat options. Vegetables are generally paired with potatoes or tofu infused with ginger, garlic, tomato, and onion. The Shogo Numtak (mashed potato with cilantro and ginger, rolled in bread and fried) was unexpectedly good, and at $3.95 for two, it’s a bargain.

Rangzen offers a lunch buffet from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with an array of curries, chicken dishes, fresh fruit and steamed vegetables for a modest $7.95, and serves both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, including the traditional Poecha ($2.25), a tea blended with butter, milk and salt. The portions are generally large, though not unmanageable, so seek exile in this urban oasis if you need sherpa-strength to tackle an Everest-sized week. —Paul Heerlein

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Sevan’s Bakery (Armenia)
599 Mt. Auburn Street, Watertown
Monday – Saturday, 8 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Forget atmosphere — go for the olives. This bakery and gourmet store in the heart of Watertown’s Little Armenia is stuffed to the ceiling with homemade salads, meals, and fresh-baked pastries, as well as imported packaged food and wine from Armenia, Greece, and Turkey. There’s no eat-in option, but Sevan’s has all the components for a pleasantly-exotic take-home meal or picnic.

Start with the string cheese, a mild, salty rope of cheese flecked with tiny black nigella seeds, and pair it with an international selection of olives, or samples from the nut bar. For a main course, Sevan’s offers a case of stuffed grape leaves and salads by the pound, ranging from $4.99 to $7.99. Borekas are flaky turnovers stuffed with spinach, cheese, and fruit fillings, and Middle Eastern favorites like hommos, tabouleh, and baba ghanouj round out the selection.

But the highlight at Sevan’s are the lahmejunes: flatbreads thinly layered with a blend of crushed tomatoes, garlic, peppers, onions, and beef. They’re baked fresh each afternoon, and at $6 for six, they make a satisfying hot or cold meal with enough left over for the next day’s lunch. The lahmejunes come in plain, extra garlic, spicy, and vegetarian, and are sold by the dozen or half-dozen.

Do not, under any circumstances, leave Sevan’s without ordering dessert. The bakery makes several killer baklava with walnut and pistachio. The choreg, a sweet, braided bread dotted with sesame seeds, and the tahini bread — which tastes like the world’s richest, nuttiest cinnamon roll — make a great after-dinner snack paired with coffee or tea, too.

Sevan’s has a decent array of wines, including reasonably-priced French and American bottles, plus several Greek retsinas and a few Armenian muscats. After stocking up on the night’s dinner, take a few more moments to browse the shelves for special treats like rose jelly and halvah, a sesame-and-honey candy. And make sure to get some extra tahini bread for breakfast tomorrow morning. —Jessica Ullian

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Stoli (Russia)
213 Washington St., Brookline
Monday – Friday, 12 -9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 12 – 11 p.m. (Closing times are approximate.)

On the flat screen TV above the bar, a bald man surrounded by three beautiful young women is singing in Russian. Elsewhere, mahogany and velvet chairs and crystal chandeliers give this Brookline restaurant a very different, and distinctly formal feel.

The dinner menu at Stoli includes several traditional Russian dishes, with lots of breads, fish, cabbage, beets, and potatoes, but the restaurant also offers a few sides of fusion cooking — French, Asian, Jewish, Ukrainian, and Caucasian — influence are sprinkled throughout the menu.

Almost immediately upon being seated, the waiter serves light and dark rye, also referred to as “black bread,” a traditional component of Russian meals. The short growing season in much of Russia limits the fresh fruit and vegetables used in traditional cuisine, but sturdy crops like rye, barley, wheat, and millet make fresh bread widely available, and it is a key part of any Russian dinner.

Presentation is big at Stoli. The herring ($8) arrives beautifully arranged and served with onion, vinegar, and hot potatoes, all seasoned with dill, and the Potato Ladky ($12) looks almost too beautiful to consume— a stack of potato pancakes alternating with thin slices of smoked salmon, topped with a salmon rosette and served with red caviar and sour cream. The Siberian Pelmeni, also a traditional Russian dish, looks like tortellini and tastes like a wonton. The noodle is stuffed with minced beef and turkey and served with sour cream.

I recommend the soups. Traditional beet borsch, which bubbles on the stoves of many Russian grandmothers during the long winter, is served here with beans and cabbage and topped with sour cream. And the kharcho — lamb soup is prepared with rice, tomatoes, and special spices — is delicious, with fresh cilantro.

A Russian meal is simply not complete without nastoika, or flavored vodka. Stoli’s version is homemade, and takes three days to distill. Brace yourself and sample the horseradish flavor, tangy with a bit of a bite, and pepper, surprisingly smooth. But don’t miss other flavors of honey and black currant. And, as in Russia, be sure to toast with each shot. Na zdorovie! —Nicole Laskowski

BU Today’s staff can be reached at today@bu.edu.

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