Feel like you want to go somewhere but don’t want to go far – now that the weather’s so gorgeous your Facebook friends in Florida are jealous?
How about taking a culinary trip around the world without leaving the Boston suburbs?
We’re talking everything from exotic, Anthony Bourdain-worthy fare to excitingly different dishes with flavors that are both new and instantly comforting. We’ve got them all in the Hub: Nepalese, Taiwanese, Middle Eastern, Peruvian, Thai, Spanish, Ethiopian, Caribbean, Filipino, Cuban, Moroccan, northwestern Chinese, and many more.
These are restaurants owned by people who grew up eating the dishes on their menus. Many are offered in humble spaces, some in very stylish spots. Several of the owners have been cooking professionally for decades, some only months. All are driven by a passionate longing to share their cuisine, their cooking, and their love of feeding people.
“In Kathmandu ... you eat momos all the time,” said Sophiya Thakali, owner of Tasty Mo:Mo in Somerville, referring to a type of Nepalese dumplings.
Thakali, who came to Boston to study accounting, recalled, “I was making hundreds at my apartment here because everyone wanted them ... so I finally thought I better open a place.”
Thakali’s story is like those of many others who immigrated for school or work opportunities and ultimately discovered that their future rested on a love of what they brought from home.
Visit a few of these places. Talk to the owners, try something new, surprise yourself with unexpected flavors and, along the way, see how other cultures do it. When words don’t work, food speaks.
Gene’s Chinese Flatbread Café (northwestern Chinese)
466 Main St., Woburn, 781-938-6888
Yes, Gene Wu makes good flatbread buns, but the stars of the show here are his noodles. Both are staples of his home, Xi’an, in northwest China, where it’s too dry to grow rice but wheat does fine. Go, eat, and ask if you might possibly see Wu turn a tiny ball of dough into a six-foot-long noodle in a minute. After a quick bath in boiling water and topped simply with garlic, hot pepper, cilantro, and soy sauce, they’re out of this world.
Sepal (Middle Eastern)
Sepal has garnered great reviews for its baked and fried falafels in its 23 years in business in Watertown and Cambridge. Its latest incarnation is a storefront in Quincy. Don’t let the exterior fool you: Walid Masoud’s food is light and lovely and offered with a side of diplomacy. A Palestinian from Jerusalem, Masoud has been recognized for his efforts to make peace between Jews and Arabs. A great find for both vegetarians and omnivores.
Jean and Lee Kitchen (Taiwanese)
108 Oak St., Newton, 617-558-2888
This happy place was opened last year by lifelong cooks Jean and Der Lee. Their son-in-law, Alvin Chen, the manager, acquaints guests with the couple’s fantastic Taiwanese fare, as well as what makes them tick. “In the U.S., when you see somebody, you say, ‘How’s it going? How are you?’ But in Taiwan, they don’t say ‘hi’ – especially the older people – they say, ‘Are you hungry? Have you eaten?’ That’s our culture,” said Chen. For the Lees, food is first – and you can taste that.
Taberna de Haro (Spanish)
999 Beacon St., Brookline, 617-277-8272
Go enjoy the patio at this established restaurant that runs on chef-owner Deborah Hansen’s passion for Spanish food and wine. “In Spain, you eat, you drink, yell, argue, talk about food, talk about wine, talk about what you’re going to eat tomorrow. Food is an exalted thing in Spain,” said Hansen, whose celebrated dishes are as close to authentic Spanish as you can find around here.
Tasty Mo:Mo (Nepalese)
503B Medford St., Somerville, 617-764-0222
Tasty Mo:Mo, which opened on April 1, has been a winner right from the start. Chef-owner Sophiya Thakali, 29, moved to Boston from Kathmandu to study accounting but couldn’t stop counting momos – the popular Nepalese dumplings. After a year of making them at home, she figured it was time to open a place. Funding the whole thing on credit cards, Thakali has created an adorable place and a tiny, smart menu with big flavors. With her license to seat people still pending, it’s only takeout for now, but well worth a trip.
Casa B (Caribbean)
This is what you get when you marry two architects who grew up in the Caribbean loving food: a gorgeous, two-story restaurant with clean, spare lines and delicious, pretty food. He’s from Puerto Rico, she’s from coastal Colombia, and they – Alberto Cabré and Angelina Jockovich-- are in Union Square. Fantastico.
Café Paprika (Moroccan)
734 Washington St., Norwood, 781-440-0060
Having grown up in his mother’s kitchen and the restaurants of Marrakesh and Rabat, Morocco, Lahssen Abaichi opened Paprika in 2007 to share his country’s cuisine. “You have to find your calling,” said Abaichi. “Touching people through food is my joy.” With help in the kitchen, he runs the front of the house – serving customers his wonderful food as though they were guests in his home.
Gustazo Cuban Restaurant & Café (Cuban)
663 Main St., Waltham, 855-487-8296
Reflecting the artistry of both its owner and the Cuban culture, this pretty restaurant was born of Patricia Estorino’s longing for the food of her country. Not satisfied to only replicate it, Estorino feels a responsibility to let some dishes develop and evolve in her hands – a natural culinary progression that’s been thwarted by Cuba’s poor economy. Follow her lead.
Antara Peruvian Cuisine (Peruvian)
“This is the kind of place you’d find in Boston or Cambridge – it’s a niche market here,” says Lima-born Pedro Laredo, who has happily learned that his clientele love having something different close to home. With his brother doing the wonderful seafood, his sister lamb and chicken, and his wife the specials, it’s a family affair.
Sweet Lemons (Thai)
828 Washington St., Weymouth, 781-340-5551
Before opening this area favorite in 2002, Bangkok-born chef-owner Aroon (Nino) Neampong learned the business from the bottom up working in kitchens from Thailand to New York City. The 45-seat space is cozy and comfortable, the food consistently good, the service very hospitable: an equally great choice for omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans.
JNJ Turo Turo (Filipino)
This unassuming storefront opens into a small restaurant where Jervin Erasquin serves the food he grew up with in Manila. The menu changes daily and the choices include both cafeteria-style dishes and cooked-to-order items. For the adventurous, there’s tasty dinuguan – pork blood stew (you’d never know!). For the not-so bold, there are plenty of good options, including veggie stews and meat skewers.
Habesha Ethiopian Retaurant (Ethiopian)
If you have never been to an Ethiopian restaurant, go. Habesha is a humble storefront with a dozen tables. What a surprise, then, when a beautiful platter arrives covered with the crepe-like injera bread and topped with mounds of food. And forget utensils: You use your hands and bread to scoop up mouthfuls.
Joan Wilder can be reached at email@example.com.