By Donna Garlough, Jolyon Helterman, and Amy Traverso
We know how easy it is to fall back on burgers, pizza, and pub grub when you’re feeling less than flush. We do it all the time. But we also know there’s another way to eat affordably in Boston: Explore the city’s wealth of Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Brazilian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, Greek, and other world cuisines. Delighting both palate and wallet, ethnic restaurants deliver as much knock-your-socks-off flavor and belly-filling goodness as any fine-dining restaurant, but at a fraction of the price. There’s just one teensy little thing: You have to know where to go — and what to order.
Consider this your cheat sheet: 35 ethnic restaurants — and dishes — you can’t afford to miss, from enchiladas mole in Eastie to Korean fried chicken in Allston, plus breakdowns of each neighborhood’s best bets. So go on, ditch the silverware for chopsticks. Slurp on soupy dumplings. Experience a habanero high. Your taste buds, and your bank account, will thank you.
SO YOU’VE GOT…$5
WHAT TO ORDER Lion’s-head casserole, $2.95
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD Nearly every culture has its own take on meatballs in savory sauce. But if you’ve never tried the Chinese version called lion’s-head casserole, you’re in for a game-changing treat. Shanghai Gate’s meatballs are served in broth seasoned with soy sauce, giving them a meaty intensity, and paired with steamed bok choy. If you’ve been wondering what umami tastes like, this is it. 204 Harvard Ave., Allston, 617-566-7344, shanghaigateboston.com.
WHAT TO ORDER Banh mi, $3.25
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD Even if this classic Asian sandwich weren’t so tasty, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better deal in town. The folks at Pho Viet turn out flavor bombs tucked into crackly mini baguettes: pickled veggies, cucumbers, cilantro, chilies, and a pile of nicely caramelized meat. 1095 Commonwealth Ave., Allston, 617-562-8828.
WHAT TO ORDER Chocolate-hazelnut baklava, $4; kunefe, $5; pistachio and semolina custard flute, $4
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD If too many syrupy phyllo-based sweets have turned you off Middle Eastern desserts, the pastries at Sofra will be a welcome reintroduction. Chef and co-owner Maura Kilpatrick’s genius lies in making traditional recipes with a twist, such as kunefe (a sort of Turkish cheesecake) laced with cardamom and anise, and the nicely balanced chocolate baklava with hazelnuts instead of the usual walnuts. The flavors are fresh, a little exotic, and utterly delicious. One Belmont St., Cambridge, 617-661-3161, sofrabakery.com.
WHAT TO ORDER Breakfast burrito, $4.25
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD Two components make this morning roll-up the best burrito in town, breakfast or otherwise. First, the meat: Ground chorizo packs far more piquancy per ounce than does plain old sausage. Second, the griddle-crisped tortilla: It stands as a tasty — not just functional — wrapper for the black beans, cheddar, and guacamole within. 86 Bedford St., Boston, 617-482-8899.
Martsa on Elm
WHAT TO ORDER Papri chaat, $4.75
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD The word chaat describes a whole category of savory Indian snack plates based on fried dough. Martsa wins points for its authenticity, topping a salad of potato, chickpeas, and crispy wafers with not just the usual chutney and yogurt sauce, but also a bracing hit of chili and cumin and a sprinkling of black rock salt. You may never go back to nachos. 233 Elm St., Somerville, 617-666-0660.
SO YOU’VE GOT…$10
at Porter Square Books
WHAT TO ORDER Soft rolls, three for $6
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD When the Cambridge restaurant Indochine closed a few years ago, regulars lamented the loss of their luscious vegetarian summer rolls, which turned a tofu, noodle, and mushroom filling into a meaty, silky, virtuous treat. Now retired, the former owners still deliver rolls to this neighborhood bookstore café every day. And to see customers descend on the tray, you’d think it was a bank run. Get there before 1:30 to guarantee your take. 25 White St., Cambridge, 617-497-9464, portersquarebooks.com/cafe-zing.
WHAT TO ORDER Rice with butter and sumac, $6
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD The fragrant basmati rice (which accompanies Lala Rokh’s kebabs but can be ordered solo) is boiled, steamed, and baked to fluffy perfection. The hot granules are tossed with knobs of butter and sprinkled with dried sumac tableside, adding a tangy — and revelatory — bit of brightness. 97 Mount Vernon St., Boston, 617-720-5511, lalarokh.com.
New England Soup Factory
WHAT TO ORDER Chicken soup with matzo balls, $6.25
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD Cow parts, apparently. According to chef and co-owner Marjorie Druker, the secret to her chicken broth isn’t chicken at all, but veal bones, which contribute deep flavor notes that fowl alone can’t muster. Schmaltz-smeared matzo balls — lightened with whipped egg whites, yet still firm — elevate her take on this classic Jewish cold remedy. 2–4 Brookline Place, Brookline, 617-739-1695, newenglandsoupfactory.com.
WHAT TO ORDER Spicy dry-fried chicken wings, $6.75 (dozen)
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD A variation on Chinatown’s “spicy dry-fried” you-name-it (squid, shrimp, pork…), these are salty as hell, yet rely on crisp skin rather than breading for their crunch. Swapping out hot sauce and blue cheese for dark-charred garlic and fresh jalapeño, they’re arguably the tastiest wings in town. 58 Beach St., Boston, 617-338-1368.
WHAT TO ORDER Dolmades, $6.95
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD Blame the ubiquitous meze platter for giving stuffed grape leaves a bad name. A far cry from those dense, acidic “rice pickles” (served at least 40 degrees too cold), Steve’s leaves are thoroughly rinsed of brine, stuffed loosely with seasoned ground meat and soft rice, gently heated, then slathered with a warm, creamy avgolemono sauce. 316 Newbury St., Boston, 617-267-1817, stevesgreek.com.
Jo Jo Taipei
WHAT TO ORDER Special mini steamed buns, $6.99
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD “Special mini steamed buns” is actually what Jo Jo’s calls its Shanghai-style soup dumplings. They have the juicy pork filling, exceptionally tender skin, and signature gush of tasty broth that make this dish so crave-worthy. We’ve slurped soup dumplings all over the city, and none measure up to these. 103 Brighton Ave., Allston, 617-254-8887, jojotaipeiboston.com.
WHAT TO ORDER Kaddo (pumpkin with meat sauce), $7.50
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD By listing this as either vegetarian or nonvegetarian, the menu implies that meat sauce is optional. It is not. These chunks of pumpkin — pan-fried, then baked until ethereally light — don’t reach must-eat status until topped with the unctuous Afghan version of Bolognese. 143 First St., Cambridge, 617-492-4646, helmandrestaurantcambridge.com.
Viva Mi Arepa
WHAT TO ORDER Cheese cachapa, $7.50
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD This little diner on the edge of West Roxbury makes the best Venezuelan arepas in town, particularly the pork-and chicken-filled varieties. But don’t miss the cachapa, made from sweet cornmeal dough studded with fresh corn kernels. Stuffed with queso de mano and griddled to a crisp, it’s breakfast, lunch, and dessert rolled into one. 5197 Washington St., West Roxbury, 617-323-7844.
Pho ‘n’ Rice
WHAT TO ORDER Pho ga (chicken pho), $7.95
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD Among the many bowls of pho served around the Hub, the one at Pho ‘n’ Rice stands out for the intensity of its broth, vibrant with chili and star anise. Add tender rice noodles, moist chicken, and fresh basil, cilantro, onion, and lime, and you’ve got the ultimate feel-good food. 289 Beacon St., Somerville, 617-864-8888.
WHAT TO ORDER La phet thot (tea leaf salad), $8.25
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD A pile of shredded cabbage. Diced tomato. A mélange of garlic chips, sesame seeds, peanuts, and puffed-up fried peas that looks like a crazy Burmese trail mix. A puddle of canola oil. Minced hot chilies. A pungent mound of fermented pickled tea leaves that resemble brownish pesto. Toss it together and eat it. You’ll be hooked. 5 N. Beacon St., Allston, 617-783-1372, teasalad.com
S & I Thai
WHAT TO ORDER Pad ga pow moo krob (crispy pork with chili sauce and basil leaves), $8.95
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD We’re not going to lie to you: This dish is essentially flash-fried bacon chunks in a spicy-sweet sauce. But if you haven’t tried it at least once, then you’ve missed one of the city’s great guilty pleasures. The basil and chili do a little tango in your mouth, cutting through the richness of the meat. To ease the guilt, split your order with a friend; served with a pile of steamed rice, there’s plenty for two. 168A Brighton Ave., Allston, 617-254-8488, si-togo.com.
WHAT TO ORDER Spicy snow-crab cucumber hand roll, $9.25
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD While the brasher superstars on Douzo’s 266-dish menu practically shout their hotshot ingredients — yuzu! truffle! Kobe! — this understated number bowls us over with a whisper. A carpaccio-thin slice of crunchy cucumber is fashioned into a cone, then filled with fresh, feather-light snow crab that’s been tossed with an all-but-imperceptible dollop of delicately spiced mayo. 131 Dartmouth St., Boston, 617-859-8886, douzosushi.com.
Ken’s Noodle House
WHAT TO ORDER “The Sapporo” miso ramen, $9.50
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD Noodle soups are a bona fide obsession in Japan, and most regions have their signature flavor. In Sapporo, miso-based soups are king (there’s even a ramen theme park). Ken’s does well by this style, starting with a nutty, buttery broth and adding perfectly chewy noodles, scallions, bean sprouts, sliced pork, seaweed, and half an egg. Slurping is not only acceptable, it’s encouraged. One Brighton Ave., Allston, 617-254-5524.
WHAT TO ORDER Chile relleno torta, $9.95
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD Apparently, roasting a poblano pepper, stuffing it with cheese, frying it, and loading it onto a crispy-soft roll — where it’s then slathered with smoky chipotle-spiked molasses, refried beans, creamy avocado, and even more cheese — is so labor-intensive that La Verdad’s staffers aren’t allowed to order it, confessed one waitress. “But,” she added, “I hear it’s to die for.” It is. One Lansdowne St., Boston, 617-421-9595, laverdadtaqueria.com.
East by Northeast
WHAT TO ORDER Crispy pork belly, $10
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD Lots of places serve interpretations of gua bao, the savory Taiwanese snack of fatty pork belly sandwiched in a fluffy steamed bun with pickled greens. But only Inman Square’s East by Northeast manages to turn out pork this crispy and succulent, with tender house-made man tou bread, sweet bean paste, and pickled daikon hitting the full spectrum of salty-sweet-sour-soft-crunchy notes. 1128 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-876-0286, exnecambridge.com.
WHAT TO ORDER Ají de gallina, $10
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD A creamy chicken stew that doesn’t inspire grade-school cafeteria flashbacks? This classic (circa 1700s) Peruvian staple will banish all thoughts of lunch lines. The flavorful base is seasoned with ají amarillo, Peru’s signature yellow chili. The result is supremely rich, and more than a little addictive. No wonder the recipe has been around this long. 409 Chelsea St., East Boston, 617-569-4942, rinconlimenorestaurant.com.
SO YOU’VE GOT…$20
WHAT TO ORDER Boiled fish fillet in fiery sauce $10.75
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD The server will demur when you tell her you want it spicy. Persist: “Very spicy — authentic spicy.” As she turns to put in your medium-spicy order, smile and say, “I’ve had authentic spicy before.” You’ll get a steaming bowl full of flaky white fish, Chinese celery, cabbage, ginger, and more lip-numbing Szechwan peppercorns than is probably legal. Down a few spoonfuls straight. Switch to rice for a breather. Repeat. 2382 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-492-7540, qingdaogarden.com.
WHAT TO ORDER Bon Chon chicken, $11
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD If you’re unfamiliar with Korean fried chicken — so much lighter and, dare we say, better than American-style birds — you’re in for a treat. Boston’s only outpost of this international chicken chain is connected to Allston’s Privus Lounge, and serves ultracrisp, nongreasy wings and legs lightly glazed with your choice of garlic or chili sauce. Go with the drumsticks, which are meatier, and try the crunchy pickled radishes that come with every order. 165 Brighton Ave., Allston, 617-787-7483, bonchon.com.
WHAT TO ORDER Golabki (stuffed cabbage), $12
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD The miracle of this Polish treat is in its architecture: a fluffy filling of rice, pork, and spices in little packets that still manage to hold their shape when cut. Topped with tomato or mushroom sauce, these comforting bites will feed your soul, while still leaving room for Polonia’s exemplary potato pancakes — just $3 a pop. 611 Dorchester Ave., South Boston, 617-269-0110, cafepolonia.com.
Farm Grill and Rotisserie
WHAT TO ORDER Chicken gyro plate, $12.45
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD The moussaka is eggy. The potatoes are oily. The overcooked beans and corn “niblets” taste like they’re straight out of a can. But all is forgiven when you taste the heavenly chicken gyro: Salty, juicy, and aggressively seasoned, the tender slices of meat dance a delicate karsilamas with piping-hot pita bread and cucumber-and-yogurt tzatziki. 40 Needham St., Newton, 617-964-7766, farm-grill.com.
Addis Red Sea
WHAT TO ORDER Kitfo (Ethiopian steak tartare), $12.95
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD The French may get props for elevating butter to major-food-group status, but Gallic-style steak tartare looks like spa grub compared with its Ethiopian counterpart. Coarsely chopped lean beef is tossed with gobs of cardamom-and-chili-spiked melted beurre, which is hot enough to take the meat from raw to almost-rare. 544 Tremont St., Boston, 617-426-8727; 1755 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-441-8727; addisredsea.com.
WHAT TO ORDER Tea-smoked duck, $12.95 (half)
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD Peking duck has that crackling skin. French confit is all about the fall-apart flesh. But tea-smoked duck has it all: flawlessly rendered, paper-thin skin and succulent meat permeated by a camphor-leaf perfume. Marinated overnight in rice wine, soy, and fennel seed, FuLoon’s take on the Szechwan specialty is sublime. 375 Main St., Malden, 781-388-3338.
JP Seafood Café
WHAT TO ORDER Ok-dol bibimbop (with tofu) $12.95
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD Korea, meet Spain: This steaming pot takes the best part of paella — the crusty rice layer that forms at the bottom — and covers it with Seoul food. Velvety tofu perfectly contrasts with the spicy-vinegary kick of kimchi, pickled mushrooms, and chili sauce; as you mix it all together, the yolk from a sunny-side-up egg coats everything in runny goodness. 730 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-983-5177, jpseafoodcafe.com.
WHAT TO ORDER Chung Qing spicy chicken, $12.95
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD A more savory cousin of kung pao chicken (with twice the kick and complexity), this addictive stir-fry douses chunks of breast meat in a fiery, neon-orange Szechwan peppercorn sauce. Wok-charred wedges of bell pepper provide a respite from all that heat, though a swig of chilly Tsingtao beer does the job just as well. 21 Hudson St., Boston, 617-338-6688, newshanghairestaurant.com.
WHAT TO ORDER Prime rib-eye shabu-shabu, $13 (lunch)
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD It’s not until about halfway through the ritual that it dawns on you how much beefy flavor is getting rendered every time you swish another well-marbled slice of USDA Prime back and forth in the pot of hot, gurgling broth. When your well-meaning server tries to top off (read: dilute) this masterpiece with liquid, just say no. This is when the magic begins. One Harrison Ave., Boston, 617-338-8283, kazeshabushabu.com.
Myers + Chang
WHAT TO ORDER Lemony shrimp dumplings, $13
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD Bite into most dumplings and they separate into two parts: a hard-packed clump of prawn and an over- or undercooked wonton skin that slides off. Myers + Chang’s pot stickers unite everything into one big, tasty bite, the not-too-thick skin gently enveloping a mince of sweet shrimp. Let purists bemoan the “inauthentic” use of lemon zest. It just means more dumplings for us! 1145 Washington St., Boston, 617-542-5200, myersandchang.com.
WHAT TO ORDER Kabab-e-kohat (chicken-coated lamb kebabs), $15.50
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD Tastes like chicken, only lamb-ier! Tamarind Bay does Indian staples well, but this unconventional take on the kebab blows us away. The coriander-spiced ground lamb is packed around skewers, then surrounded by potently seasoned ground chicken. It’s grilled, sliced, and served with creamy raita. 75 Winthrop St., Cambridge, 617-491-4552, tamarind-bay.com.
WHAT TO ORDER Enchiladas de mole poblano, $15.95
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD Before landing in Eastie, chef-owner Angela Atenco Lopez cooked professionally in Puebla, Mexico. So it’s no surprise that her mole poblano is so extraordinary — a complex layering of chilies, plantains, molasses, nuts, chocolate, and spices. It’s best on the enchiladas, which come stuffed with either chicken, pork, or vegetables (but the pork is the winner by far). 131 Lexington St., East Boston, 617-567-4972, angelascaferestaurant.com.
WHAT TO ORDER Jumbo shrimp with yellow chives, $15.95
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD When chives meet the ferocious dry heat of a wok, they take on a subtle smokiness. Taiwan Café pits this savoriness against sweet prawns, large enough to get caramelized on the outside while staying moist on the inside. 34 Oxford St., Boston, 617-426-8181.
WHAT TO ORDER Pork bulgogi, $16.95
WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD The spicy pork barbecue at this Medford hole-in-the-wall is marinated in a blend of garlic, soy, sugar, fruit, and chilies. The thin swaths of fatty meat get grilled tableside, then wrapped in crispy lettuce leaves with kimchi (piquant pickled cabbage) and gochujang, a sweet and pungent red-pepper paste. 27 Riverside Ave., Medford, 781-391-5606.