Over the course of the past several days, I’ve eaten four of the best lunches of my life. Three, in fact, were on the same block in East Boston’s Maverick Square.
My first meal was at La Cancun, just around the corner from the Maverick T stop, where it’s been for nearly 20 years. It’s quiet here, just before noon, empty save a beatific man sitting solo eating a bowl of shrimp. The walls are painted a soothing gold, and the women behind the counter don’t stop smiling. Next to the cashier, there is a sign: “Let’s taco bout how awesome I am.”
Chips and a bowl of salsa arrive right away. Our waitress, Gabriela, takes special notice of my toddler as she sets down the dishes.
“It might be too hot for babies,” she says sweetly. (Chunky and just a tiny bit spicy, it’s not. Spice fiends will find happiness with the duo of table salsas that arrive in glass jars, especially the seductively smoky chile de arbol.)
My eager young dining companion requests a strawberry shake, which he insists is actually pineapple.
“Oh, yes. This is really pineapple,” Gabriela says, winking conspiratorially at us. He slurps the frothy pink concoction contentedly. Pineapple.
La Cancun specializes in Mexican and Salvadoran food. (Owner Jose Torres is Mexican.) Corn tamales are dense and warm, mealy and steamy, sweet when mixed with a plastic tub of Salvadoran crema. Pupusas, soft Salvadoran grilled corncakes with savory fillings, are the size of pancakes. They’re stuffed with rubbery white mozzarella wound around sweet zucchini, shredded pork, beans, and loroco, a nutty, herbaceous green flower bud from Central America. The fillings are simple, but the accompanying light orange tomato sauce — thin and piquant — makes those pupusas sing. What is it?
“Just tomato, onion, and love,” Gabriela says.
Top them with heaps of tart coleslaw salad: skinny sliced jalapenos, shredded cabbage, and ribbons of crunchy carrots. At $2.50 apiece, they’re easily one of the city’s most budget-friendly and satisfying meals.
192 Sumner St., Boston, 617-567-4449
• • •
Next, it’s a quick jaunt around the corner to Taco Mex, a buzzing little place with a yellow awning and flower boxes in the windows, overlooking the Maverick T stop. It seems all of humanity is outside, baking in the sun. A sunglassed man with a cane blesses passersby in an acid growl. A woman with a triangular tower of amber hair fumbles for a cigarette. Off-duty drivers recline against their cabs, squinting into the sky.
Inside, it’s wall-to-wall families with kids in high chairs (a sign in the shape of a cocktail announcing, “Margaritas make my clothes come off!” notwithstanding).
The menu is huge, arriving in a ringed laminated binder with pictures of favorite dishes: shrimp cocktail; fried calamari; fried tilapia; burritos stuffed with pork rinds, sweet plantains, and boiled eggs. Portions are equally outsized: A chicken Milanese sandwich stacked with avocado, tomato, lettuce, chicken cutlets, refried beans, Monterey Jack cheese, and sour cream — oh, and a tower of fries piled like Jenga tiles across the plate — takes up half a table. A waitress makes a flexing motion as she carts one through the dining room. These plates are heavy.
Seafood makes up much of the menu, and I’m partial to the shrimp tacos (3 for $12), lightly grilled, which I’ve had twice in the past five days. They’re buttery and fresh; no turgid, wan little crustaceans here. Fat wedges of creamy avocado line the soft tortillas. But something called pink sauce makes the dish; it tastes like a richer, thicker cocktail sauce. What could it be? I approach the counter, and a waitress smiles.
“Would you like more?” she asks, reaching into the cooler for a squeeze bottle.
I allow that I would, and I squirt more onto my taco trio. Is it Thousand Island dressing? Some sort of obscure hot sauce that I’ve never tried?
“What is this?” I finally ask.
“Mayonnaise and tomato sauce,” she grins. “Actually, ketchup.”
65 Maverick Square, Boston, 617-569-2838
• • •
Cactus Grill is just across the Maverick Square parking lot, and it feels like the neighborhood’s unofficial cafeteria. No table service (and hardly any tables); no cute signs or bar behind the cash register. This is assembly-line cuisine, served fast, and the lines are long. The atmosphere is part bus station, part mess hall. People jostle for elbow room. Kids wiggle off their stools, clutching empanadas that look like miniature footballs. Bikers tromp out with backpacks, carrying trays of fried chicken and stewed beef, taking care to walk around the cartons of lettuce heads by the door.
If the room is chaotic, the service is patient. What are those enormous stacks of cornbread, piled against the cash register? Rice and cheese quesadillas, actually, or Salvadoran breakfast cakes. They have the texture of pound cake; my toddler eats two, and they crumble to dust in his sticky mitts.
“Take more!” I’m told. We do.
Step to the counter and point. A lavender beet potato salad looks like ice cream and tastes like savory paste, little pops of sweet peas in every bite. Swipe it up with sticky plantains the color of maple syrup. Burritos ($6.99) are compact and wrapped tightly in griddled tortillas — stout, crisp, and filled to bursting, just the right ratio of beans to rice to lettuce to sour cream. Empanadas ($2) are thick, sturdy masa dumplings. They don’t flake or crumble. Imagine the best carnival corndog you’ve ever eaten. Inside, ground beef has the texture of mashed paste, a savory glue. Dunk them in a thimble of sweetish, smooth tomato salsa, and then give up your prized table to the masses.
44 Maverick Square, Boston, 617-561-2800
• • •
And then there’s Taqueria Jalisco, on the bottom floor of an apartment building with air-conditioners hanging out of the windows like loose teeth. It’s about a mile away on Eagle Hill, outside of Day Square, in the shadow of the Logan Airport. It’s standing-room-only on Saturday at lunch time. But the sign beckons, and so do the crowds. We have to go in. My kids ravage the candy stand next to the cash register, somehow unearthing watermelon lollipops with spicy crusts. We order chicken enchiladas with mole ($12.99) and fold ourselves into a corner.
“This mole is sweet,” warns our server. I assure her that this is no problem. We get three mountainous corn tortillas awash in mole that really isn’t sweet at all, at least not bracingly so. It’s nutty and smooth, with hints of chocolate, dried chilies, sesame, black pepper, and cinnamon. Swirled with the shredded chicken, it’s more stew than entrée. There are no more seats, so we eat standing up, watching a delighted man tangle with a burrito dripping with tomatillo sauce. He notices that I’m watching him.
“Yes, it’s really amazing,” he says, glasses fogging up.
I know the feeling, and so I leave him to his work.
291 Bennington St., Boston, 617-567-6367