Posted on

Great Restaurants That You Haven’t Thought Of In Central Massachusetts

Chef Alex Gjonca's dish from Nuovo Restaurant in Worcester, MA (Photograph by Erb Photo)

What does it mean to say these are places you may not have thought of? Not that they aren’t successful. They are, especially with the people whose culture is covered by the cuisine. They aren’t best kept secrets either. Unlike places like Mare e Monti (tucked into Grafton Hill) or Belmont Vegetarian (which just missed our list but seems like an impossible place to stop for even if you do spot it on the Belmont Street hill), most of these places are in plain sight. What makes them special is they offer different – even unique – food on their menus for the region and do it great. Plenty of places turn out decent grub (even pizza!) in Central Mass these days. But we demand more to explore, and these places deliver.

Addie Lee’s Soul Food

The Sly & The Family Stone’s song “It’s a Family Affair” has the right groove for the food and the title describes exactly what Rob Evans’ southern restaurant is about: family, cooking authentically southern cuisine, together. This love fills the space and the menu – a touch of Mississippi in Massachusetts – especially when that menu option is on the sweet side. Which is why Addie Lee’s is on this list. Sure, the food is good overall and no Southern restaurant matches it. But while that Sly Stone song ends with everyone broke down at the end, Addie Lee’s will leave you lifted up if you leave room for dessert. Every one we have had there from banana pudding to peach cobbler to the cheesecake flavor of the moment has been great. And those yams. You could order a large portion of those delicious chunky yams and smile all day long. After a nap. Lean cuisine this ain’t. Nor would you ever want it to be.

Bay State Shawarma & Shawarma Palace

Perhaps all you know of shawarma is the end of The Avengers when, having saved New York from nuclear destruction, a resuscitated Iron Man says, “Have you ever tried shawarma? There’s a shawarma joint about two blocks from here. I don’t know what it is, but I want to try it.” The Avengers did. So should you. Shawarma is a spit-grilled Levantine or Eastern Mediterranean meat dish (chicken, beef, veal, beef, or some mixture of them) sliced and served fresh with Middle Eastern sides. And you don’t need to wait for the next alien attack or even go to New York to find it: There are two great shawarma joints in Worcester: Shawarma Palace at the base of Pleasant Street and Bay State Shawarma in Kelly Square. Is one greater than the other? Each has its passionate fans and we have found ourselves switching sides more than once. What is undoubtedly great about both is the pride each takes in their food and the quality/quantity/price value.

Fatima’s Café

The awning outside says pizza and pasta, but the menu inside has neither of those things. What it does have is … Somali Anjero? Rice with Sugoo? Ugali with Sukuma? An Ethiopian Anjero Platter? Two words: Yes. Please. All the things. You will never be more grateful for not having another mediocre pizza: This is great African comfort food that serves both the African community and anyone who wants a break from the usual. Then watch how fast Fatima’s becomes your new normal. The spongy ugali made from cornmeal that sits next to sautéed veggies more than fills you up, especially if you want to add one of the excellent meat stews (including goat!). Anjero is a sourdough flatbread and it is a perfect vehicle for three Somali vegetable stews. Fatima even serves up eggplant chapatti and samosas that hit their mark in your stomach like a bindi between the eyes. Yup, better than any pizza or pasta that could possibly come from a storefront here. Much better.

Mezé Greek Tapas

How Greeks ended up owning pizza shops in Massachusetts and diners in New Jersey is a topic for the “Curiosity Desk” on WGBH radio. A more curious question for this list is why there aren’t more restaurants like Mezé in Massachusetts doing real Greek food? The cuisine is accessible, diverse, and – My Big Fat Greek Wedding not withstanding – not all about meat. What is true in that movie is the Greeks are welcoming to the table and Mezé is a family affair: owner Sam Georgiadis hired his cousins Yiana and Niko to turn out authentic Greek fare you just don’t find anywhere else and presents it as “meze.” What the Spanish call tapas, most of the Mediterranean world calls meze: small plates designed to be shared to make a meal. It’s an authentic way of eating and no place does the Greek way better than Mezé from creamy taramasolata to a gooey Bou-you-rdi to meaty Loukaniko to the greatest octapodi/octopus in the state.

Nuovo Restaurant

One of the best Italian chefs in Worcester is . . . Albanian? Chef Alex Gjonca serves up some of the finest Italian food in a city that hardly lacks Italian options. You won’t go wrong with any of his dishes, and he has a particularly deft touch with herbs, truffles, and desserts. What Worcester does not have, despite its representation in the city’s population, is a true Albanian restaurant. Nuovo isn’t Albanian but Gjonca’s menu slips Albanian accents in his dishes and offers a fabulous “Albanian Appetizer” (oven braised liver, garlic, feta cheese, hot peppers). But book the private room for a small group or larger, and he will go full-frontal Albanian for you, making you kick yourself for not inviting your Albanian neighbors over for a potluck.

Red Pepper

There are eight modern Chinese cuisines: Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang. None of them look much like the Americanized Chinese food you get at places that have words like dragon, wok, panda, and golden in their names. Nothing against a tasty lo mien and General Tao’s but that’s more Mellencamp than Mandarin. Until recently, if you wanted to find anything close to authentic Chinese cuisines near here you had to drive to Framingham to Sichuan Gourmet or Red Pepper. Then Red Pepper opened a location in Worcester’s Webster Square (and closed the one in Framingham) and life got a whole lot spicier for the city. Red Pepper is not where you order egg rolls. This is where you sample dandan noodles, cumin lamb, spicy fish and silken tofu in chili sauce, pork joint, hot pots, and, yes, innards like tripe. Not everything is hot – tea smoked duck and soothing stir-fried pea shoots are nice counterbalances to the heat – but everything on the white board by the entrance listing the specials leans that way. Give yourself up to them and prepare to understand there is life beyond the usual Chinese takeout.

Posted on

Restaurants With A Great Beer List With A Point Of View In Central Massachusetts

Come to think of it, we won’t have a Heineken. But what will we have? That’s what we asked ourselves over and over as we surveyed the tap (and can/bottle but heavily weighting draft) selection at restaurants all around town. In the end, we fully expect people to come to blows over our list. Because, really, we did. But if you’re going to throw down, choose pilsner over politics. Truth is there are lots of great places to get your draft on – some at the actual source of the suds like Wormtown, 3Cross, and Cold Harbor, which (like Dive Bar) miss this list because they aren’t restaurants. The ones we did finally settle on we felt had a stronger point of view (meaning attitude) than the others – a curated list rather than just a great selection. Which isn’t a dig at all the runners-up. Those that missed didn’t fall short by much more than a matter of taste and a need to choose. What no one can dispute is our beer game is strong these days. The expectation is that can will find a great selection of craft and select national/mass brews by tap or can or bottle anywhere you find great food. Just don’t have your heart set in anything: What’s perhaps most amazing is how few brews and brewers repeat on each of these and ever-evolving and changing lists. Which is only a drop in the U.S. bucket these days: There are now 6,000 breweries in the country and the vast majority (98%) are designated as “craft” or small, traditional and independent.

Armsby Abbey

Anyone who makes a list like this and doesn’t include Armsby is either wrong or claustrophobic, because Armsby deservedly continues to pack them in for drink and food a solid decade after changing the face of Worcester dining by putting its stake down on Main Street. The list is a regional, national, and global education either through a range of choices from a single brewer like Hill Farmstead (six options on one February night) or single choices like Ayinger Bavarian Pilsner, Finback Split the Night, or Kyritzer Mord Und Totschlag (which we put in not only because it’s delicious but we like to make people try and pronounce it). Special props recently for the Trillium trio on tap recently: Day & Night, Puny Partridge, and Six. For the uninitiated, flights are always the way to go or you’re going to deprive yourself.


BirchTree Bread Company

The smallest selection on this list gets extra props for its clear devotion to Worcester and Massachusetts brewers and for the fact that there is no brighter more family friendly place to sip suds in the Woo. The big, open space is bookended by big bright windows that make drinking by day a salute to sunshine and a toast to tippling. (BirchTree is only open after 6 on Wednesday and Friday pizza nights and for its fabulous first Thursday of the month beer dinners like 3Cross and Flying Dreams.) Beer is really like Forrest Gump’s a box of chocolates here: You never know what you’re gonna get – even if it is on the board (taps get tapped frequently). But trust us: Something good is waiting in the back. Special props recently for Rapscallion Brewery’s Honey American Pale Ale and a nice non-beer choice: KrafTea Ginger Hibiscus Kombucha from Worcester.


Civic Kitchen + Drink

Civic Kitchen seemingly has two strikes against it: It’s located in Westborough where, aside from Korean, foodies rarely default to, and it’s on a golf course, where food usually goes to die. Nope. Even if you never tend to tee off and the mere idea tees you off, Civic Kitchen can be your exception to the rule. Decent even good grub with local sourcing is made all the better by a great rotating list of local and unusual brews worth putting on madras pants for. Special props to the huge and warming SingleCut Beersmiths’ Heavy Boots of Lead Imperial Stout (11.2% ABV), Lawson’s Finest Liquids’ Sip of Sunshine IPA, and local brewer Cold Harbor’s Indian Summer.


Smokestack Urban Barbecue

Beer and barbecue. I mean just say that and we challenge you not to smile. Two things that make the world better and better together. The list is enough to make you Google “How to Get a Wooden Leg,” because you’ll need stomach space for the food (especially the outstanding wings). Seeing as The Cana District space is always hopping, it seems perfectly apt the tap list should be too. This is a nicely curated list designed to complement the food and stand on its own, which is really NOT what you expect from a joint like this. Too many places we’ve been similar to Smokestack, populate taps with the usual suspects. Not here. Come to think of it, I won’t have a Heineken. I’ll have an Equilibrium Brewery MC2 IPA imperial double when the weather is cold and damp and a Cold Harbor Indian Summer IPA when it’s not. Special props for Fiddlehead Brewing’s Second Fiddle IPA and for always having a couple of great sours, including last we were there Deciduous Brewing Company’s The Light.


The Rail Trail Flatbread Company

Let’s hear it for the rebirth of Hudson! Five years ago Karim El-Gamal did for that town what Alec Lopez did years before for Worcester: put a stake down where no one else dared. What followed was everything from a cheese shop to an ice cream parlor and Rail Trail anchored it all. Quite frankly, that MetroWest I-495 corridor was a drag before that. Now, it’s just not a place for a desperate stop when Worcester or Boston are miles away but a destination. Spend the day working your way through the town and the list. Watch for Tap Takeovers by brewers like Jack’s Abby and Reserve. Special props for the Ommegang Smoked Porter, Kent Falls Shoots, and WOW: Founders Backwoods Bastard wonderful scotch ale that smells smoky and scotchy and makes an argument that Rail Trail should open a nap room in the back for afterwards.