A melding of ethnicities, flavors
Lowell is home to a world of restaurants
LOWELL — Mansard roofs, Canadian flags, and towering smokestacks surround a compact downtown of 19th-century buildings. Wide sidewalks are filled, on this brilliantly sunny afternoon, with cafe tables whose patrons are speaking, so far, five languages. Among the good food choices within a few blocks: French, Lao, Italian, Mexican (it’s good Mexican), Japanese, Cambodian.
In its industrial heyday, about half this city was French Canadian. Waves of Greek, Italian, Polish, and Asian immigrants followed to work at the textile mills, then later at the now-defunct Wang Laboratories. Each brought a culinary heritage that remains remarkably intact.
Many restaurants today are run by first-generation immigrants. In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Laotian and Cambodian immigrants settled in Lowell (it’s the second largest Cambodian population in the country, after Long Beach, Calif.). Among the restaurants are Pho Da Lat and Pho 88 (both Vietnamese); Mr. Jalapeño’s (Mexican); Ricardo’s (Italian/Irish); Phien’s kitchen (Lao); Etsogo and Blue Taleh (both Asian fusion); and Bany and La Differencia (both Dominican).
“Why are you going to Lowell?’’ asked my Boston landlord, with an odd expression. Adriana DeStefano, owner of Caffe Paradiso (here and in Boston’s North End) sets me straight, “It’s a beautiful city, and it’s up-and-coming. The canals here remind me of Venice. The downtown reminds me of Europe.’’
At Paradiso, DeStefano serves Italian small dishes, gelato, and excellent pastries in a space that, like many establishments, has 18-foot ceilings and gorgeous exposed brick, with ample seating on the sidewalk. The sfogliatella, a golden shell-shaped layered phyllo pastry filled with lemony ricotta, is divine, the cappuccino perfectly pulled.
With its wonderfully unpretentious name, Southeast Asian Restaurant is one of the oldest and best Lao restaurants. Owner Kathy Xayyamountry, her friend, and her niece Pam run this spot. Mueon ang — three-quarters of a chicken marinated in padaek (Lao fish sauce), lemon grass, lime leaf, and galangal — is complex and delicious. The mysteriously unserved chicken quarter may be in moak gai, a coconut-driven delight involving sliced chicken, mushrooms, and bite-size, Thai Kermit eggplant, all wrapped in a banana leaf with mysterious spices (despite repeated pleas for the recipe).
Some common Lao dishes are similar to Thai dishes. Such is the case with dom sum, an appetizer of shredded green papaya, red chili, tomato, lemon juice, and more confidential spices. It’s a rural Laotian favorite occasionally called tam mak hoong at some other Lao eateries.
Similar to the Thai dish som tum, Lao dom sum has one noticeable difference. It’s spicy beyond belief. Initially cool and citrusy (for a few seconds), the innocent-looking shredded salad then explodes with intensity. It’s like being knocked around by a kick boxer, then going back for another round. We had insisted on ordering it. “You ask for it, you get it,’’ says Pam with a smile.
Down the street, next to the new Cambodian consulate (it opened last April), is one of many excellent places serving Khmer cuisine. The unassuming Tepthida Khmer has an upscale interior and impeccable service. Each dish is beautifully plated. Loc lac, tender beef cubes with red onion and sweet red pepper, is served with a lime and pepper sauce. The beef has a delicate crispness, the taste is fresh and sophisticated, mildly spiced. Addictive cha greung (chicken with bell pepper, onion, and lemon grass) has an intriguing yellow spice paste made from turmeric, lemongrass, and galangal. For the truly adventurous, desserts made with the bizarre-smelling, spiky durian fruit are available. You’ll ask where these tastes have been all your life.
Tephtida Khmer doesn’t bother to modify traditional dishes for American sensibilities. Guytieu Phnom Penh is a fragrant soup with a rich broth containing what our waitress coyly calls “pork insides,’’ and calf “blocks’’ (as in strips of tripe and small cubes of calf liver).
Bany, one of the restaurants serving Dominican Republic food, can be excellent if you hit it right. La Differencia is consistently good. A perfect dish is queso de frier, a slightly crumbly, salted, fresh white cheese. When it’s fried, the heat gives the interior a creamy, soft consistency, and brings out the mild, mozzerella-like taste. Golden, and surprisingly light, it’s easy to see why it’s a Caribbean favorite.
Chef-owner Lidia Tavarez’s chicken guisado is a good entree. Cut-up chicken — legs are chopped right through the bone so the marrow flavors the dish — is stewed in an olive and sweet red pepper sauce with fresh coriander, oregano, and capers. Tavarez also offers cerdo frito (fried spiced pork), mofongo (just-ripe plantains, fried and mashed with garlic and pork cracklings), modongo (pork tripe with lemons in a spicy tomato-based vegetable soup), and morir soñado (the creamsicle of a drink made with milk, orange juice, chopped ice, and cane sugar; in English it means “to die dreaming’’).
The upscale dining scene is centered around La Boniche, an impressive French bistro that manages to be both casual and elegant. For 20 years, the restaurant has been a destination for Merrimack Valley’s foodies and a training ground for chefs. Chef and owner Anna Jabar-Omoyeni is modest, friendly, and effusive. She brilliantly executes standards such as escargots with tarragon Dijon crème and julienne of vegetables. A white mustard sauce is a tangy accent on the earthy, tender snails, with carrots and celery adding a fresh, clean contrast.
The curious thing about La Boniche is the crowd. Here, nearly all the diners are white. At the Dominican spot, the people are nearly all Dominican. Ditto the top Cambodian restaurants: mostly Cambodian. And the Vietnamese and Laotian eateries. You get the picture. Ethnic restaurants this good should be a magnet for all diners, not just the adventuresome.
As people move into the huge renovated textile mills along the canals, young artists and professionals are arriving with more urbanized tastes. Five major restaurants opened in the cozy downtown in the past two years. On a recent Saturday night, even with a steady rain, most eateries, bars, and cafes were busy — many with live dinner music. Of course, not every eatery succeeds culinarily. The food at the gigantic Garcia-Brogan’s is an unfortunate conflation of Irish and Mexican, but even here, a silver lining — the bar is one of downtown’s most popular spots for live music.
At Cote’s market (they pronounce it KO-tees, formerly ko-TAYZ), in a section once known as “Little Canada,’’ some French-Canadian dishes have been made since 1917. One is baked beans, available with or without pork. “Both are cooked with pork,’’ the woman at the counter explains. “Then we take it out of one at the end.’’ The “without pork’’ beans are very porky — and very good.
Lowell is a beautiful, quirky, food town. And there’s a lot to like. As Lowell native Jack Kerouac wrote in “On the Road,’’ “I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop.’’
He might have been talking about his own hometown.
Devra First will resume her reviews next week.