People are rioting in Haiti, and my pasta was gummy.
That was the subject line of an e-mail I sent my editor recently: I was writing a less-than-glowing review of a local restaurant while the news was filled with reports of demonstrations over the high price of food. I just didn't feel particularly jazzed about critiquing my full plate.
Every week this column explores the restaurants of Boston and beyond, and every week in writing it I'm reminded how lucky we are to have such a varied, vibrant dining scene. These days I'm reminded all the more. In the past weeks and months, we've seen the prices of wheat, rice, and other staples skyrocket worldwide, pushing an estimated 100 million people deeper into poverty. Food riots have erupted, with more predicted. People are rationing and hoarding basics - cooking oil, rice - and going without. And the grocery bill of the average American family went up about 4.5 percent in the last year. On Friday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the rising cost of food "a real global crisis."
So this week, in exploring the restaurants of Boston and beyond, let us acknowledge that those of us with the opportunity to enjoy them are fortunate. And, to celebrate our good fortune, let's pass some of it along.
Here is my suggestion: If you were planning an upcoming fancy, high-end, blow-out dinner, scale back a bit and have a fancy, midrange dinner. If you were planning a midrange dinner, go for cheap eats. Then donate the differ ence to an organization working to alleviate hunger.
For example, instead of splurging on a dinner at o ya, which on a past visit ran me a worth-every-penny $135, I plan to go to Blue Fin in the Porter Exchange Building in Cambridge. It's a different experience, to be sure, but it will satisfy my raw fish craving, and the 18-piece sushi combo is a lot of food for $24. Plus a drink and tip, let's call it a $35 meal. A $100 donation may not feel like much in the face of world hunger, but - not to get too Sally Struthers on you - UN agency the World Food Programme says with $15 it can feed 10 children for a week.
So, where to go? Following are some ideas, restaurants you'd be happy to visit under any circumstance, reasonably priced for what they offer. Charitable impulses aside, they're also excellent options in a time when many of us are pinching pennies.
A quick trip
Anh Hong, 291 Adams St., Dorchester, 617-265-8889.
For a visit to Vietnam without boarding a plane, head to Fields Corner in Dorchester. Anh Hong's menu includes ca bay mon, or fish seven ways. This piscine orgy begins with cook-and-roll-your-own fish fresh rolls (the friendly staff is happy to show you how), progresses to fish fried in pats of butter in a hot pot till they're brown, then three kinds of fish sausage and a raw fish salad with carrots and other vegetables. It ends with a soothing, wonderful porridge of rice, herbs, and yet a bit more fish. This feast costs $29.95 for two (though it could feed more).
Also try: Cafe Polonia, 611 Dorchester Ave., South Boston, 617-269-0110, cafepolonia.com. Soulful Polish food that sticks to your ribs. The "Polish plate," with stuffed cabbage, pierogi, and kielbasa, is $16.
El Oriental de Cuba, 416 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-6464, elorientaldecuba.com. This Cuban restaurant serves the likes of ropa vieja (shredded beef) with rice, beans, and plantains for $10.45.
A festive occasion
Baraka Cafe, 80 1/2 Pearl St., Cambridge, 617-868-3951, barakacafe.com.
Dinner at Baraka Cafe doesn't break the bank, but it still feels special. The tiny restaurant is incredibly cozy (some might say crowded), and the North African food is divinely spiced. Entrees are good, but the mezze, or small plates, are better. Teklia (green olives in harissa salsa with vegetables, mint, parsley, and cilantro) is one of the world's great bread dips, and I believe the last time I had the bedenjal mechoui (a smoky eggplant puree), I actually said to the dish, "You're my new best friend." It wasn't the booze talking - there isn't any, but there is lemonade scented with rose petals. Cash only; $20 per person should cover a mezze and an entree each.
Also try: Toro, 1704 Washington St., Boston, 617-536-4300, toro-restaurant.com. You can get out of Ken Oringer's South End tapas spot for surprisingly little cash. A meal of mini Kobe burgers, pimientos de padron (spicy little green peppers), and grilled corn with lime, pepper, and cotija cheese is $24; add on a sangria and you're up to $31.
Orinoco, 477 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-369-7075, orinocokitchen.com. This charming Venezuelan nook is always a good time. Have the palmito salad ($7.75) - greens, hearts of palm, and bacon-wrapped dates in a Cabrales vinaigrette - and a bean and cheese arepa ($5.75), or a main course such as adobo-rubbed tuna or grilled tenderloin with crab picadillo, grilled asparagus, and salsa chimi. Most entrees are under $15. Warning: There can be a long wait - good thing a new, bigger Brookline location just opened (22 Harvard St., 617-232-9505).
The ultimate everyman dish
Chez Henri, 1 Shepard St., Cambridge, 617-354-8980, chezhenri.com.
Sandwiches may be the perfect food: Bread plus filling has endless permutations. Chez Henri's pressed Cuban - slow-roasted pork or vegetables with cheese - is up there in the local pantheon. It's $13.95. Mojitos not included.
Also try: Chacarero, 26 Province St., Boston, 617-367-1167, and 101 Arch St., 617-542-0392, chacarero.com. The chacarero - a Chilean sandwich with green beans, avocado, cheese, and (if you want it) meat - is worth waiting in line for. Don't forget the hot sauce! $4.80-$8.
Rami's, 324 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-738-3577. Mmm, falafel. Don't forget the hot sauce! $7.95.
Happy hours that make other happy hours look expensive
Pigalle, 75 Charles Street South, Boston, 617-423-4944, pigalleboston.com. Until Restaurant Week in August, Pigalle offers $1 Woodbury's oysters at the bar and on the patio.
Also try: Pho Republique, 1415 Washington St., Boston, 617-262-0005, phorepublique.net. Shrimp shumai and curry potato samosas are among the $2 dim sum offerings. (Mon-Thurs 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the bar, through May.)
Bukowski Tavern, 50 Dalton St., Boston, 617-437-9999, and 1281 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-497-7077. Weekdays before 8 p.m., you can get a burger for $1.69.
Bars with great food
Silvertone Bar & Grill, 69 Bromfield St., Boston, 617-338-7887, silvertonedowntown.com.
It can be a mob scene right after area offices empty out, but the casual, boisterous Silvertone serves excellent comfort food. The mac and cheese ($8) is a favorite, as are the steak tips ($12). A major plus: reasonable markups on the wine list.
Also try: Franklin Cafe, 278 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-350-0010, and 118 Main St., Gloucester, 978-283-7888, franklincafe.com. The South End location is the quintessential neighborhood restaurant/bar. Prices start at $5 for a house salad and top out at $19 for pork two ways or pan-seared cod. In the winter, try the turkey meatloaf with fig gravy. (The Gloucester location can be a bit more expensive.)
Green Street, 280 Green St., Cambridge, 617-876-1655, greenstreetgrill.com. Some of the entrees head into the $20s, and it might be worth it for braised lamb shank or seared salmon with favas, basil broth, and clams. But for fewer clams, there's mac and cheese with peas, carrots, and bacon for $17 or the house hot dog with baked beans and brown bread for $9. Plus, the cocktails are some of the best around.
A little Italy
Vinny's, 76 Broadway, Somerville, 617-628-1921, vinnysristorante.com.
Located in the back of a sub shop/superette, behind a curtain, Vinny's serves up absurdly large portions of excellent old-school Italian-American and Sicilian-influenced fare. Some of the pasta is homemade, and the lasagna - which looks as though it would weigh as much as a cinderblock - is astoundingly light and flavorful. It's $13.95 and is good for at least two meals.
Also try: Antico Forno, 93 Salem St., Boston, 617-723-6733, anticofornoboston.com. A solid North End spot with a brick oven that turns out pizzas for $11-$15.50. Many of the pastas are also in the mid-teens.
Carlo's Cucina Italiana, 131 Brighton Ave., Allston, 617-254-9759, carloscucinaitaliana.com. Come here for the likes of rigatoni puttanesca ($9.95) and chicken saltimbocca ($15.95).
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.