With gas, you get salsa; at church, wings

Villa Mexico Erick Omar makes a burrito at Villa Mexico Cafe. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / April 14, 2010

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Boston is a city full of wonderful restaurants and gourmet shops. But with a little exploration, it also yields great food in surprising places.

Like a gas station convenience store on Beacon Hill. Banish all preconceived notions of gas station food, for Villa Mexico Cafe is a million miles from taco hell. Here, Julie King serves excellent burritos, tacos, tamales, quesadillas, and more. She used to operate a restaurant by the same name in Woburn, and her standards haven’t changed. She’s got a tidy little setup behind a counter, and she and her staff grill up satisfying food handmade from fresh ingredients.

Burritos ($6.75) are enormous parcels of rice, beans, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes, plus a choice of beef, chicken, chicken with mole sauce, carnitas (pork), chorizo, or vegetables. They also come with King’s smoky homemade salsa, which is absurdly good. During the summer, don’t miss the cucumber and lime agua fresca ($3.50), blended with ice. It’s a much more refreshing version of that old gas station staple, the Slush Puppie.

But the best part of Villa Mexico is King herself. A warm host, she calls everyone “my friend,’’ and she seems to really mean it.

Villa Mexico Cafe, 296 Cambridge St., Boston. 617-957-0725. Mon-Fri 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

On Seaver Street in Roxbury, there’s a building so grand it could only be a house of worship. Indeed, it’s a church, the United House of Prayer for All People (formerly Temple Mishkan Tefila). But in the basement, you’ll find a cafeteria serving big portions of soul food for small prices.

All parts of the chicken come baked, fried, and barbecued. There are pork chops and barbecue ribs, turkey wings, Salisbury steak, and whiting. Each plate comes with two sides such as collards, macaroni and cheese, and sweet potatoes. For dessert, you’ll find banana pudding, red velvet cake, and other appropriate sweet things.

Volunteers do the cooking, and the proceeds go back to the church. Nothing at the United House of Prayer Kitchen costs more than $10, and the daily blue plate special will run you $6.99. And that includes lemonade or tea. “We’re not trying to hurt nobody,’’ says kitchen manager Gordon Galloway with a laugh. “We’re trying to appeal to the families in the community. We do what we can.’’

United House of Prayer Kitchen, 206 Seaver St., Roxbury. 617-445-3246. Tue-Fri 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat-Sun 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m.

On Quincy’s Wollaston Beach, you expect to find fried clams. As you might guess, they’re a specialty at Tony’s Clam Shop. Run by the Kandalaft family, it’s been operating in the area since 1964. It opened for the season March 26.

Tony Kandalaft, the founder, is Lebanese, his wife, Tillie, Syrian. And so, there on the strip, in addition to steamers and lobster rolls, they serve Middle Eastern fare. There’s something wonderfully surreal about sitting outside eating hummus, tabouli, falafel, and kafta while everyone around you is downing chowder, clams, and onion rings. If it weren’t for the bikers buzzing past and kids on dates flirting in Cantonese, you could be in Byblos. Almost. Kind of.

Tony’s Clam Shop, 861 Quincy Shore Drive, Quincy. 617-773-5090. Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (closing times vary early in the season, so call first).

If you want excellent scones, breakfast dishes, and sandwiches, just walk through the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina. This working shipyard in East Boston’s Jeffries Point is home to Scup’s in the Harbour. Run by Wendy Saver and David Rockwood, the original founders of Emma’s Pizza, this quirky, wonderful restaurant offers homemade food, views of the skyline, and instant friendship. You never know whom you’ll find at the long communal table, and Saver likes to connect people. One day you may be talking to several artists, another helping a group of young tourists find a hotel room.

Scup’s, named after a dog Saver and Rockwood pulled out of the harbor, began as a brunch and lunch place. It now serves afternoon snacks and supper on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, seating people until 8 p.m. During the day you’ll find empanadas, grilled hot dogs, BLTs, and more. Brunch brings the likes of baked eggs, potato pie, and the sweet and spicy Millionaire’s Bacon. And supper could be anything from vegetarian lasagna to baked ham with red kidney baked beans. All served with a side of good conversation.

Scup’s in the Harbour, 256 Marginal St., Building 16, East Boston. 617-569-7287. Wed-Fri 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-3 p.m.