When taking the kids out to dinner, think outside the (pizza) box
Can summer really be ending? It only just began. But the days of cookouts, picnics, and fried clams plucked from greasy cardboard boxes with sea-salted fingers are nearly behind us. The chill in the night air means it’s time for apple picking, tailgating, and simmering pots of soup. Families are back together around the table, and we are thinking about what to pack for school lunches and serve for efficient, nutritious weeknight dinners.
But sometimes — let’s face it — the nicest way to eat together can be for someone else to do the cooking, and the washing up. Taking the kids out for a meal can mean more time for talking and laughing. It’s a treat that doesn’t have to break the bank. And it doesn’t have to be pizza every time, as glorious as pizza can be. The region is home to an endless, diverse array of restaurants that will make everyone — from food-positive parents to rather particular children (or the other way around) — genuinely happy.
To start, everybody loves dumplings. And in the firmament of dumplings, none is more fun to eat than the soup dumpling, filled with piping hot broth. In Chinatown, Taiwanese restaurant Dumpling Cafe has the best in town, flavorful and with thin, delicate skins. (It’s the one with the bright yellow awning, not to be confused with the nearby and similarly named Gourmet Dumpling House, which flies a blue awning. Both are very good, but Dumpling Cafe’s soup dumplings have the edge. The waitresses also love babies, and there’s a fish tank to observe while waiting for food to arrive.) The soup dumplings appear on the menu as “mini juicy buns,” which will amuse everyone; they are available filled with straight-up pork or a combination of pork and crabmeat. When the steamer arrives, gently pluck up a dumpling, taking care not to puncture the skin. Place it in a spoon, drizzle with ginger-spiked vinegar, and attempt to eat it without scalding or splashing yourself or your offspring. (I bite off a corner and carefully slurp the soup, then eat the rest of the dumpling, but everyone has his or her own preferred method.) Follow with a spicy bowl of noodle soup with beef and peppers, twice-cooked preserved pork, or pea pod stems with garlic. Or simply order another round of soup dumplings. 695 Washington St., Chinatown, Boston, 617-338-8858, www.dumplingcafe.com.
Everyone also loves tacos: There is just something eternally pleasurable, and universal, about meat folded into dough. To get your fix, head to Waltham, where incredibly nice people serve Mexican fare at the tiny Taqueria El Amigo. The tacos are simple and the real deal, without the unnecessary distractions of salsa, sour cream, or shredded cheese. Warm, fragrant corn tortillas are wrapped around crisp-edged pork carnitas, tender cabeza (braised beef cheek), carne asada (steak), and more. Complementing the meat are onions, avocado, and cilantro, the pared-down flavors and textures adding up to some of the finest tacos around. You can get just one, but why would you when the tacos especiales, a plate of four, is just $6? You’ll also find plates of chiles rellenos and enchiladas with rice and beans, burritos and tortas or Mexican sandwiches, fruit shakes and the creamy, rice milk-esque drink horchata. The taqueria is also right near Russo’s in Watertown, if you want to throw in a convenient grocery expedition. 196 Willow St., Waltham, 781-642-7410.
Not to beat this meat-and-dough thing into the ground, but our next stop is KO at the Shipyard, which specializes in Australian meat pies: golden, flaky, savory. They are filled with beef, curried vegetables, and more; a pie floater comes accompanied by mashed potatoes, mushy peas, and gravy. KO also serves fresh salads, nasi goreng and piri piri chicken, fish and chips and burgers, and an array of Aussie desserts. This is the second branch; the original is in South Boston. But the East Boston restaurant is where you want to come before it gets really cold. It’s located on the Boston Harbor Shipyard & Marina, with a fine view of boats and the city skyline. You can take a water taxi here, and Piers Park is right nearby. Make a day of it. 256 Marginal St., Building 16, East Boston, 617-418-5234, www.ko cateringandpies.com.
When everyone is feeling rowdy, take the family someplace where chaos already reigns. Then the noise just blends right in. Redbones, in Davis Square, is a fine choice for a spirited meal. The fun, casual barbecue restaurant is a longtime neighborhood favorite for brisket, ribs, pulled pork, and catfish dinners. Kids love the fried pickles and hushpuppies, sides like mac and cheese, and the array of barbecue sauces to sample, mix, and match. Parents don’t necessarily mind the ginormous beer selection. 55 Chester St., Davis Square, Somerville, 617-628-2200, www.redbones .com.
Redd’s in Rozzie is the rare place that caters to adults while making children feel at home, without making a fuss about it. Crayons and straws materialize; servers talk to toddlers like small, intelligent human beings. Maybe that’s why there are often a lot of kids in house. The dinner menu offers crisp avocado with buttermilk dressing, fancy grilled cheese, roast chicken, and other dishes that will appeal; there is also a kids’ menu that showcases vegetables. (Mmm, carrot pennies.) But Sunday brunch is Redd’s shining moment, with gorgeous sticky buns and biscuits, oatmeal waffles, and creative egg combinations. And when children act like children, everyone seems to understand. If all else fails, have a spicy Bloody Mary. 4257 Washington St., Roslindale, 617-325-1000, www.reddsinrozzie.com.
It’s a scientific fact: Kids love to dip food in other food. Indulge the impulse at To Beirut in Norwood. The Middle Eastern restaurant serves astonishingly good baba ghanouj, smoky and lush. Stuffed grape leaves make fine finger food, and the falafel and shawarma here are above average. There’s a crazy mashup called the Falafallo, like a cross between falafel and Buffalo chicken, but for real spice ask for some of the thick, hot house pepper paste to be smeared on your sandwich. Kafta plates, kabobs, veggie kebbe, and chicken with garlic sauce are all hits with parents and children alike. The restaurant is a spinoff of Cedar Market next door; the owners started off serving takeout and discovered there was a market for this food, healthy and reasonably priced. The market is worth a stop, too, to stock up on feta, olives, tubs of that baba ghanouj, and much more. 15 Cottage St. East, Norwood, 781-769-3663, www.to-beirut .com.
Sometimes dinner is just a necessary stopover on the journey to dessert. New Englanders demonstrate an unusual eagerness to consume ice cream year-round. Is it any wonder that Cabot’s has been winning hearts and minds since 1969? The old-school ice cream parlor and restaurant has personality, retro charm, and glorious ice cream concoctions served in silver dishes, like sweet trophies. Choose from dozens of flavors and toppings, and endless combinations — from a simple dish of vanilla to an elaborate banana boat sundae. (I’m partial to peppermint stick ice cream with hot bittersweet fudge.) But not until after you’ve had a burger and fries, turkey dinner, or other classic diner fare. Plenty of the people spooning up Dentist Disaster sundaes and slurping chocolate malted frappes have been coming here since they were kids themselves. 743 Washington St., Newton, 617-964-9200, www.cabots.com.