Boston’s culinary landscape. Then…and now!
By Patricia Alvarado Núñez
According to Mr. Leo Romero, owner of Casa Romero, a Mexican restaurant in the Back Bay (featured on Neighborhood Kitchens Season I), back in 1972 the only thing that people could find in Boston was Chinese food, lobster and steak. Mr. Romero, one of the pioneers of more diversified cuisine in the city, remembers the Boston of the’70s as “not brilliant.” He jokingly told us that people wanting to have a good meal in the city had to go to Logan Airport and take the first plane to New York.
Not anymore. So much have changed in a few decades. There are more restaurants, more chefs offering new and interesting flavors, and more people with curious palates than ever before. Chef Ting Yen, owner of Oishii in the South End (featured on Neighborhood Kitchens Season II), remembers how 15 years ago Boston only had a handful of Japanese restaurants (now there is one in every corner!) and that he took a leap of faith when he opened Oishii, “I wanted to bring sushi to another notch and I had a tough time at the beginning, because people didn’t get the food. But now I have no worries. I think Boston customers are learning. They look at Japanese cooking very differently now.”
Ana Sortun, owner of Oleana, one of the top restaurants in the city (featured on Neighborhood Kitchens Season I), remembers when she opened her Cambridge eatery more than a decade ago, “In the beginning I remember being very nervous every time I found out there was a Turkish customer, a Greek customer or an Armenian customer. I wondered if they would understand how we interpret some of their very sacred and traditional dishes. And sometimes I would come out and people would be in tears. Tears of joy that someone was actually inspired by and paying attention to something that they grew up with. And a food that isn't that commonly represented here. So, it became sort of a boost of confidence to continue to do it. The enthusiasm was what really kept me going.”
During a recent visit to Christina's Spice & Specialty Food in Inman Square, owner Tom Ford told me how the shelves in his store reflect what is happening in the city. He distributes herbs, spices and other ingredients to restaurants around the city. Now his shelves are filled with za'atar, Peruvian peppers, black rice, pink peppercorns, heirloom beans and lentils, exotic corns, and so on. There is a great appetite for all these exotic flavors.
Ethnic restaurants are thriving because people are traveling more, reading about exotic destinations and becoming more adventurous when it comes to food. “What's really great is we still continue to see new faces. A very diverse crowd comes here, everywhere from the neighborhood, to the town in Cambridge, to Boston, and to outside of town and from other parts. It's really fun. Lots of different people to meet,” says Ana Sortun about her growing clientele.
At the annual Artisan Taste here at WGBH in September many Neighborhood Kitchens fans stopped by to tell us how much they appreciate learning about ethnic restaurants in the area. We are happy to carry the message to people who want to expand their culinary horizons… you don’t have to go far…because there is so much to explore right here in your backyard!!
Comment on This Article
About Neighborhood KitchensBuilding on a 35-year history of producing Latino and multicultural programming, WGBH’s award winning La Plaza team has a new offering — Neighborhood Kitchens, a series about the exploration of culture through food. Every week the show offers a unique window into immigrant communities in New England.
Saturdays at 4pm on WGBH 2
Fridays at 7:30pm on WGBH 44
On the GoIn each episode, host Margarita Martínez visits a different ethnic restaurant and learns three delicious recipes from the chef. She also explores the restaurant’s neighborhood, discovering hidden gems along the way. Join her as she learns about new ingredients, new cultures, and new neighborhoods. ¡Hasta pronto!
Watch: Full Episodes
Find a Neigbhorhood Kitchen
Margarita's Neighborhood Visits
»Boston: Bristol Lounge
»Boston's South End: Orinoco, Teranga and Oishii
»Boston's Back Bay: Casa Romero
»Boston's North End: Taranta
»Boston's Beacon Hill: Scampo
»All Around Boston: Mei Mei Street Kitchens
»Cambridge: Muqueca, Oleana, and Sandrine's
»Somerville: Dosa Temple
»Lawrence: Cafe Azteca
»Lowell: Simply Khmer
»Fresh from the Fish Market
»Jamaica Plain: Tres Gatos
»Dorchester: Pho Le and Cafe Polonia
»Medford: Bistro 5
»Portland, ME: Emilitsa
»Newport, RI: Tallulah on Thames
»Pawtucket, RI: Rasoi
Subscribe to WGBH Food & Wine Emails
Follow WGBH Foodie