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Dining Out

Still smokin' after all these years

East Coast Grill marks a quarter-century of hot and hotter food with larger-than-life flavors

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By Devra First
Globe Staff / March 31, 2010

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This year, East Coast Grill celebrates its 25th anniversary. There is nothing subtle about its success, predicated on internal-organ-scorching hot sauces, smoke and flames, hunks of meat, and creatures pulled from the sea. It’s a restaurant a caveman or a polar bear could love.

But Boston loves it best. For a quarter-century, we’ve sat in turquoise vinyl booths beneath glass fishing floats and shell lamps. We’ve mixed our own Bloody Marys and rolled our own black ’n’ blue tuna tacos. We’ve gone to 99 Hell Nights, the Scoville scale-tipping events at which food comes in hot and hotter (the 100th takes place April 12-15, but it’s sold out). If allowed, we’ll probably keep doing it all for another 25. Unselfconscious, cheerfully kitschy, East Coast Grill is the jolly uncle of local restaurants — back-slapping, fun-loving, perhaps slightly embarrassing in certain company. It exists to make people happy, and it clearly does its job.

On a recent weeknight, there’s a 45-minute wait, nothing compared with what you might endure to get to Sunday brunch. A table of young men with mustaches and plaid flannel shirts (and their token cute girl) sit shoulder to shoulder, gnawing on ribs as their eyes glaze over with pleasure. A woman on the other side of the room is having a spicy moment, panting and smiling and saying, “Oh oh oh!’’

You’ve already had what she’s having. At East Coast Grill, nothing changes. The trio platter of ribs, brisket, and pork; the jerk grilled salmon; the black beans and grilled bananas; the Asian and island touches — these are the things you ate at East Coast Grill a decade ago or last week. If nothing else, this longevity proves that the city does actually like spicy food. Now, please, sir, can we have some more? (It also proves that this city likes flaming volcano drinks, and there we may be at our legal limit.)

Executive chef and general manager Eric Gburski and staff continue to carry out owner Chris Schlesinger’s original vision: larger-than-life flavors, friendlier-than-life service. (Even friendlier if you spring for the “kitchen beer appreciation special,’’ sending a six-pack of PBR to the folks cooking your dinner.)

Gulf white shrimp are fried and served Buffalo style, their sweet, delicate flesh slumming it in hot sauce and blue cheese dip. Plump mussels swim in a brown broth flavored with coconut milk, chili, and lime; it’s a crime that there’s nothing to sop it up with. Dumplings arrive looking manhandled in addition to pan-fried, but the smushed packages of ginger tuna and pork sausage are generically satisfying. They don’t taste particularly like tuna, but they are savory and come with a makes-anything-good soy-ginger sauce.

I can’t tell you how the Southern Thai-style crispy wings are. “2 Hot 4 U,’’ promises the menu, and the servers reiterate the message in less-Prince-like fashion. “No, I don’t think so. Bad idea,’’ says our waiter. “Don’t,’’ echoes our waitress on another visit. “They will kill you.’’ They both look a little scared. Are new staff members made to try these things in some sort of hazing ritual? It’s an interesting tactic, featuring a dish on the regular menu that servers are extremely reluctant to actually let you eat.

That menu is augmented by a long list of daily specials. One day we find a smoked pork ssam, a Korean dish where meat is wrapped in leaf vegetables. The pork itself is a bit gristly, but it comes with kimchi made from plums, an excellent condiment. We wrap the meat and kimchi in lettuce leaves with chili paste and mushrooms. It’s a good idea that would be great with better pork.

Xiao Jianming’s wetbones are frequently on the specials menu, and rightly so. These ribs are coated in delicious, Asian-inflected ginger-chili barbecue sauce, their tender meat clinging to the bone just a bit before yielding to frenzied gnawing. One could be happy here ordering nothing but a pile of wetbones and a half-dozen of the “special guest oysters’’ on offer recently. They come from oyster fisherman (and world champion shucker) William “Chopper’’ Young. They are Wellfleets and they are wonderful, sparklingly fresh.

For entrees, you’ll have to choose between barbecue and seafood. The former is oak-smoked, cooked low and slow. There are spare ribs, their thick, spice-rubbed crust giving way to tender, pink meat. These are Memphis-style, without sauce, and none is needed. That’s good, because the Texas-style brisket needs all the sauce it can get. It’s dry, short on flavor, and no fun to eat. Eastern North Carolina-style shredded pork is much better — juicy, smoky, and tangy with vinegar. A trio platter features some of each. There’s better barbecue in town, but East Coast Grill’s will satisfy your craving.

Some of the sides may leave you wanting, though. Baked beans have a pleasing molasses sweetness, but they’re undercooked. Coleslaw is a fine, middle-of-the-road version, creamy enough but without too much mayonnaise. The corn bread is heavy, anemic, and far too sweet — time for a new recipe. And I doubt many people eat the wan piece of watermelon. Why not just leave it off?

Seafood dishes are stronger. Mahi mahi is rubbed with coriander and cumin, grilled, and served with fried plantains, rice and beans, and an avocado half filled sloppily with pineapple salsa — East Coast Grill isn’t too finicky about plating. No matter. The flavors are good, and the fish is perfectly cooked.

White pepper-crusted tuna is seared on the outside, raw in the middle, and served with wasabi, soy sauce, and pickled ginger — sushi’s flavors super-sized. Similar flavors appear in a dish of seared shrimp and scallops, piled atop ginger-garlic noodles with sesame-chili spinach. It tastes good, but you can practically squeeze oil out of the noodles.

A cod special one night goes Southern, the fish crusted in cornmeal, served with tempura okra, mashed sweet potatoes, and remoulade. After all the sauces and spices of the other dish, it’s refreshingly simple. Same with the Portuguese Big Bowl o’ Seafood, an aptly named special. It features fried cod, mussels, shrimp, and scallops in plentiful quantity, cooked with chorizo in a fragrant broth of tomato and white wine.

A special of jerk grilled salmon is a disaster, however. Inner Beauty hot sauce can’t hide the fact that the fish is dry, and the plate looks like a mini-tornado landed in the middle of it, throwing beans and rice and tomato-tamarind jam and grilled pineapple into the air and letting them fall where they may.

Dessert is just as subtle as the rest of the meal. There’s a Jamaican banana split made with mango ice cream, grilled bananas, whipped cream, and strawberries, an indiscriminate heap of sweet, tropical flavors. There’s somewhat flavorless peanut butter mousse pie with too-crisp candied bacon. There’s serviceable Key lime pie and guava flan.

Or you could just drink an Erupting, Flaming Volcano. “Serves 2 . . . very potent . . . limit 2 per couple,’’ according to the menu, which may have the most fine print of any in town. This is a scorpion bowl-esque combination of five kinds of rum, gin, brandy, and tropical juices, lit on fire. Be careful not to burn a hole in your 2-foot-long neon straw.

There are also well-made margaritas, sangria, and beer selections from Harpoon IPA to Abita to Hoegaarden. A wine list is divided into categories such as “flexible and diplomatic’’ and “large and in charge.’’

That last is a reasonable description of East Coast Grill itself. The food isn’t always pretty to look at, and the flavors often hit you over the head with a cudgel. But that happened in every episode of “Tom and Jerry,’’ and they kept coming back for more, too. East Coast Grill is constant and genuine. It’s here to show us a good time. Twenty-five years later, that still hasn’t gotten old.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

EAST COAST GRILL

1271 Cambridge St., Cambridge. 617-491-6568. www.eastcoastgrill.net. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $3-$29. Entrees $8.50-$27.50. Desserts $7.

Hours Dinner Sun-Thu 5:30-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30-10:30 p.m. Brunch Sun 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

Noise level Loud.

May we suggest

Xiao Jianming’s wetbones, mussels, grilled white pepper-crusted tuna, grilled spice-crusted mahi mahi.

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