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EAT THIS CITY: Chef Irene Li Shares 15 ‘Can’t Miss’ Food Experiences In Boston

Welcome to the second installment of EAT THIS CITY, a new Uproxx series in which premier chefs tell us where to eat when we’re in their town. This week: Boston!

If your vision of Boston is all Ben Affleck movies, the Red Sox, and wicked strange accents, let Chef Irene Li open that picture up for you. This is her hometown, and the innovative Chinese American food that she and her two siblings serve up at Mei Mei is a reflection of what they grew up eating (minus the Burger King they’d beg for).

Mei Mei started as a food truck, opening its brick and mortar restaurant two years ago. This year, Li was nominated for Rising Star Chef of the year by the James Beard Foundation. A vocal part of the movement to bring better ingredients to the plate, Li is very active in connecting small local farms and restaurants. She shouts out The Piggery as having the best pork she’s ever tasted and has worked to connect them with restaurants from Boston to New York.


The food at Mei Mei is “locally sourced and served with love” and Chef Li personally ensures that each dish passing from her kitchen to her customers is good enough to serve to her own family. That generosity of spirit and commitment to excellence is perfect for EAT THIS CITY, so we asked Li where to go in Boston and its suburbs (which she says are exploding with dining options).

Boston, it turns out, is more than a bowl of chowdah!

PIZZA

Pino’s Pizza

I have a theory that everyone’s favorite pizza is just an idealized version (or the precise pizza) that they grew up eating. To that point, Pino’s pizza in Cleveland Circle has and always will be my favorite — half-pepperoni, half-mushroom. I like to order a pizza, eat a slice, and then re-toast individual slices the next day (or several days) in a cast iron pan — crispy awesomeness.

I also love Max and Leo’s coal-fired pizza in Newton.

 

TACOS/MEXICAN

Chilacates

Chilacates — a new spot in Jamaica Plain — is definitely the ultimate Mexican food in Boston. An al pastor torta and a creamy house-made horchata is the perfect picnic lunch to enjoy on the Emerald Necklace parks nearby. The hot sauces are a must add. Try them all!

Socrates, the owner, is a dreamboat.

ASIAN

Taiwan Cafe

Taiwan Cafe in Chinatown — crispy pork chop, roast beef wrapped in scallion pancake. All the best flavors — sweet, fatty, crispy goodness.

Perfect late-night food.

 

STREET FOOD

M&M Ribs Truck

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Pre vacation lunch.

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I love eating barbecue from the M&M Ribs truck. They’re old-school, and the nicest folks.

SWEET FOOD

Donuts With a Difference

Their Boston cream doughnut is so light and rich — it melts in your mouth. Try the maple too.

 

FINE DINING

Oleana

Oleana, Ana Sortun’s flagship, is about as close to fine dining as I like to get. I love the vegetarian tasting menu — who needs meat? Cara’s food is amazing — sign me up for anything with crispy halloumi or melty slow-cooked lamb. She makes the most unglamorous greens sexy too.

Don’t forget Maura’s Baked Alaska for dessert.

CASUAL DINING

Sarma

My friend Cassie Piuma’s restaurant, Sarma, is just ridiculous. The space, food, cocktails, and service are vibrant, bright, and lovely. I especially love their cocktails with homemade infused liquors, and any of their cheesy dishes or fried chicken.

VEGETARIAN

Whole Heart Provisions

My friend Becca Arnold’s new place, Whole Heart Provisions, makes the best falafel ever — in hot-dog form! And the grilled avocado is to die for.

BRUNCH

Bronwyn

Easy: kielbasa by the pound at Bronwyn. It comes with sauerkraut, mustard and potatoes. I like to get that alongside the pfannkuchen, a cast-iron German pancake.

FOOD IN THE CITY

Select Oyster Bar

Lobster is classic in Boston, and there’s no better place for a luxurious bowl of lobster than Select Oyster Bar. The dressed lobster salad is total decadence — shucked lobster, fines herbs, and a light dressing. No starch, no potatoes, no cracking through shells.

That’s what I eat to spoil myself.

ODD CULINARY EXPERIENCE

Yume Wo Katare

Yume Wo Katare in Cambridge is an unusual spot — you pay at the host stand, sit in classroom style bars, and eat one of two options: pork ramen or extra pork ramen. You can also choose garlic. Then your giant bowl of noodles arrives and you do your best to crush it.

Thick style noodles are covered in fatty, rich, dark pork broth. At the end, your server shouts out your performance — next time, almost, good job, or perfect — and everyone in the restaurant echoes it. They also ask whether you’d like to share your dream — at which point you can stand up and let everyone know what your dream is. Wacky.

GUILTY PLEASURE

McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets

McDonald’s chicken nuggets. Not much more I can say about that.

HANGOVER FOOD

Forge Baking Company

Nothing helps a hangover like a solid bread and butter breakfast, and my favorite is at Forge Bakery. You can choose from all kinds of different toppings — great with hot black coffee.

DATE NIGHT

Shepard

Shepard is new(ish) in Cambridge and has a wood hearth, amazing cocktails, and incredible meats and vegetables. French-ish with gorgeous, comfortable decor, you feel like you’re sitting in front of the fireplace sharing an elevated but still homey and comforting meal.

The cultured butter with the bread service is a revelation — can’t all butter taste like that?

RESTAURANT RUN BY A FRIEND

Cafe Sushi

I gotta say, Cafe Sushi run by Seizi Imura is one of my go-to’s in Boston. The sushi is drop-dead gorgeous, especially the specials. I always order a whole fish collar, and sometimes even the California roll made with real snow crab. Even the appetizers, pickle plates, seared tofu, and clear soups are straight up delicious.

I love that you can drop $15 or $50 per person and have a great meal and be totally full.

[Note: Chef Irene Li says her superpower is ordering the perfect amount of sushi every time. A superpower, indeed.]

 

Stay tuned for more EAT THIS CITY — where each week we’ll feature a premier-level chef in a different city sharing their hometown eating tips! If you missed Detroit last week, click here.

See you next week!

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