You probably don’t believe that the job of reviewing Cheap Eats restaurants isn’t exactly as much fun as sitting on the couch eating bon-bons. There are duds week in and week out. What makes the reviewing exciting is wonderful food at little places, offered inexpensively by hard-working folks, often families, who care a lot about what they serve you. Cheap reviewers Ellen Bhang, Sheryl Julian, Catherine Smart, and Glenn Yoder give you their best tastes of the year.
Crisp, wood-fired pizzas at A4 in Union Square, are some of the best in the area, but the green lentil and bluefish salad might be my favorite dish on the menu. House smoked fish and plump little legumes are tossed with briny vinaigrette, and served in an adorable little cast iron skillet. That personal size serving vessel is a good excuse for not sharing. 445 Somerville Ave. Somerville, 617-764-4190, www.areafour.com
It should come as no surprise that a restaurant named Bibim (formerly Color) serves a terrific bibimbap in a stone pot ($13.50), the stellar Korean dish of rice topped with carrots, shredded beef, rice noodles, sprouts, and an egg. Use your chopsticks to break the soft-fried egg into the rice mixture, add a little of the intense, dark-red chile sauce that accompanies the pot, and keep digging till you get to the crusty rice on the bottom. You’ll eat in silence — and awe. 166 Harvard Ave., Allston 617-787-5656
At Kiengiang Restaurant, a Vietnamese spot off of Revere Beach Parkway in Everett, the dish to order is an appetizer that looks like an omelette but doesn’t contain a drop of egg. Banh xeo ($8.95), a savory Vietnamese crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork, and sauteed bean sprouts, is fried until golden and folded into a half-moon to resemble the eggy breakfast favorite. Served with sweet-tangy Asian fish sauce and minty purple shiso, it’s the dish we craved long after brunch was over. 1871 Revere Beach Parkway, Everett, 617-389-0040, www.kiengiangrestaurant.com
The first time I had nacho libre ($7) at La Catrina Fonda Mexicana, they were perfect, carefully layered from the dish up with melted Monterey Jack, pepper Jack, and ricotta, then combined with salsa and jalapenos, with a delicious kick from a drizzle of chipotle on top. The nachos I had built up to legendary status arrived too salty the second time, the culprit being shredded beef (not in the first round). Get them meat-free. Then you’re looking at perfection. 1620 Commonwealth Ave., Brighton, 617-383-5015. www.lacatrinaboston.com
You’ve likely had Lilly’s food. The Everett-based company has been producing high-quality pasta for local restaurants since 1986. After a failed expansion into quick-service restaurants, a lone Lilly’s Gourmet Pasta Express stands in Mission Hill. The delicious Buffalo chicken ravioli ($10.99) sounds like it came from a suggestion box put out for the college kids who frequent the place. But it was actually thought up by owner Matthew Postal, who initially intended for it to be a deep-fried appetizer served in Buffalo sauce. Instead, he whipped it into chicken-filled ravioli in a Buffalo-Alfredo sauce topped with blue cheese and scallions. Sometimes genuine inspiration strikes. 1528 Tremont St., Mission Hill, Boston, 617-427-8080, www.lillysgourmetpasta.com
Saltenas, the sunny-yellow Bolivian empanadas at Que Padre, call to mind a Dr. Seuss rhyme — I will eat them in a plane, I will eat them on a train, over to Eastie I will stroll, to eat them I will pay the toll (you get the idea). A slightly sweet dough, wrapped around savory bits of meat, potato, and peas in succulent gravy, these little pastry pockets are my new anytime snack. 386 Chelsea St., East Boston, 617-418-7278.
A poached egg and grilled halloumi breakfast ($8) is only offered once a week (Saturday mornings) at Seta’s Cafe, the new Armenian/Mediterranean spot in Belmont run by the talented Seta Dakessian. The egg sits in a little bowl, garnished only with olive oil and black pepper. Halloumi, a firm, salty, white cheese, doesn’t fall apart on the heat of the grill, but turns smoky. It comes with cucumber-tomato salad and warm, homemade lavash. It’s easier to get up early on Saturdays if you know this is waiting. 271 Belmont St., Belmont, 617-484-7823, www.setascafe.com.
Winter makes us dream of the Caribbean. When you can’t fly to the islands, head to Some ’Ting Nice Caribbean Restaurant, a new spot in East Somerville, showcasing colorful dishes of Trinidad and Jamaica. Little Ochie ($16.50) is a Jamaican-style whole fried snapper, served up escovitch-style. Rings of sweet red pepper, onion, and carrot, sauteed in vinegar with Scotch bonnet peppers and whole allspice berries, top the crispy fish. Infused with zippy, floral heat, this dish inspires visions of sun and sand. 561 McGrath Highway, Somerville, 617-627-9047
Xiao long bao, affectionately known as XLB, soup dumplings, or mini juicy dumplings, are exactly the kind of dish you want on a cold winter’s eve. I crave them 356 days a year, and the best version I tried in 2013 is at Szechuan’s Dumpling in Arlington. The slouchy, plump little steamed packages contain well-seasoned, tender pork, and savory broth, in near perfect proportion. Nibble off a corner, and slurp your way to soup-dumpling bliss. 1360 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington Heights, 781-648-8882, www.szechuans.weebly.com
I ate many good pizzas this year, from the legendary (and legendarily straightforward) Louie’s Special at the Woburn fixture of the same name, to the Picard at Salem’s funky Flying Saucer Pizza Co. (a white pie with mozzarella and asiago, thinly-sliced potatoes, Canadian bacon, rosemary, and Parmesan). But a true surprise was pork belly pizza ($8) at Simpli Bar & Bites, a pie meticulously crafted with Kurobuta pork belly that has been slow-cooked for over eight hours. You can really taste the low-and-slow process. That meat is paired with shredded mozzarella and julienned red onions, topped with arugula and sweet barbecue sauce. It’s something special. 3840 Washington St., Jamaica Plain, 617-522-2400. www.simplibarandbites.com
You know a vegan dish is a winner when the bacon lover at your table takes a bite, and then another. At Walnut Grille in Newton Highlands, chef Shiva Kumar cooks up imaginative, global vegetarian fare. Polenta Napoleon ($13), a colorful main dish, features saucy-spicy pepperonata (tomato, onion, sweet bell peppers) layered between three griddled corn cakes stacked tall. This gluten-free dish is crowned with curly kale and a salsa of corn and black-eye peas. “I’d eat vegan more often if it tasted this good,” declares our dyed-in-the-wool carnivore. 1203 Walnut St., Newton Highlands, 617-964-1029, www.walnutgrille.com
With their golden, crusty toasts and hints of smoke, salt, spice, and cream, it’s hard not to embrace a cheesy pressed sandwich. At Wichit Sandwiches in the Back Bay, owned by Chris Young and his aunt Rose Young, the Carnegie ($7.99) comes on marbled rye with pastrami, Gruyere, and sauerkraut, all heated to that melted goodness. Cured meats, hot cheese, pickle-y cabbage, toasted rye. The sandwich sells itself. 244 Newbury St., Back Bay, Boston, 857-277-1708, wichitsandwich.com