What does it mean to say these are places you may not have thought of? Not that they aren’t successful. They are, especially with the people whose culture is covered by the cuisine. They aren’t best kept secrets either. Unlike places like Mare e Monti (tucked into Grafton Hill) or Belmont Vegetarian (which just missed our list but seems like an impossible place to stop for even if you do spot it on the Belmont Street hill), most of these places are in plain sight. What makes them special is they offer different – even unique – food on their menus for the region and do it great. Plenty of places turn out decent grub (even pizza!) in Central Mass these days. But we demand more to explore, and these places deliver.
Addie Lee’s Soul Food
The Sly & The Family Stone’s song “It’s a Family Affair” has the right groove for the food and the title describes exactly what Rob Evans’ southern restaurant is about: family, cooking authentically southern cuisine, together. This love fills the space and the menu – a touch of Mississippi in Massachusetts – especially when that menu option is on the sweet side. Which is why Addie Lee’s is on this list. Sure, the food is good overall and no Southern restaurant matches it. But while that Sly Stone song ends with everyone broke down at the end, Addie Lee’s will leave you lifted up if you leave room for dessert. Every one we have had there from banana pudding to peach cobbler to the cheesecake flavor of the moment has been great. And those yams. You could order a large portion of those delicious chunky yams and smile all day long. After a nap. Lean cuisine this ain’t. Nor would you ever want it to be.
Bay State Shawarma & Shawarma Palace
Perhaps all you know of shawarma is the end of The Avengers when, having saved New York from nuclear destruction, a resuscitated Iron Man says, “Have you ever tried shawarma? There’s a shawarma joint about two blocks from here. I don’t know what it is, but I want to try it.” The Avengers did. So should you. Shawarma is a spit-grilled Levantine or Eastern Mediterranean meat dish (chicken, beef, veal, beef, or some mixture of them) sliced and served fresh with Middle Eastern sides. And you don’t need to wait for the next alien attack or even go to New York to find it: There are two great shawarma joints in Worcester: Shawarma Palace at the base of Pleasant Street and Bay State Shawarma in Kelly Square. Is one greater than the other? Each has its passionate fans and we have found ourselves switching sides more than once. What is undoubtedly great about both is the pride each takes in their food and the quality/quantity/price value.
The awning outside says pizza and pasta, but the menu inside has neither of those things. What it does have is … Somali Anjero? Rice with Sugoo? Ugali with Sukuma? An Ethiopian Anjero Platter? Two words: Yes. Please. All the things. You will never be more grateful for not having another mediocre pizza: This is great African comfort food that serves both the African community and anyone who wants a break from the usual. Then watch how fast Fatima’s becomes your new normal. The spongy ugali made from cornmeal that sits next to sautéed veggies more than fills you up, especially if you want to add one of the excellent meat stews (including goat!). Anjero is a sourdough flatbread and it is a perfect vehicle for three Somali vegetable stews. Fatima even serves up eggplant chapatti and samosas that hit their mark in your stomach like a bindi between the eyes. Yup, better than any pizza or pasta that could possibly come from a storefront here. Much better.
Mezé Greek Tapas
How Greeks ended up owning pizza shops in Massachusetts and diners in New Jersey is a topic for the “Curiosity Desk” on WGBH radio. A more curious question for this list is why there aren’t more restaurants like Mezé in Massachusetts doing real Greek food? The cuisine is accessible, diverse, and – My Big Fat Greek Wedding not withstanding – not all about meat. What is true in that movie is the Greeks are welcoming to the table and Mezé is a family affair: owner Sam Georgiadis hired his cousins Yiana and Niko to turn out authentic Greek fare you just don’t find anywhere else and presents it as “meze.” What the Spanish call tapas, most of the Mediterranean world calls meze: small plates designed to be shared to make a meal. It’s an authentic way of eating and no place does the Greek way better than Mezé from creamy taramasolata to a gooey Bou-you-rdi to meaty Loukaniko to the greatest octapodi/octopus in the state.
One of the best Italian chefs in Worcester is . . . Albanian? Chef Alex Gjonca serves up some of the finest Italian food in a city that hardly lacks Italian options. You won’t go wrong with any of his dishes, and he has a particularly deft touch with herbs, truffles, and desserts. What Worcester does not have, despite its representation in the city’s population, is a true Albanian restaurant. Nuovo isn’t Albanian but Gjonca’s menu slips Albanian accents in his dishes and offers a fabulous “Albanian Appetizer” (oven braised liver, garlic, feta cheese, hot peppers). But book the private room for a small group or larger, and he will go full-frontal Albanian for you, making you kick yourself for not inviting your Albanian neighbors over for a potluck.
There are eight modern Chinese cuisines: Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang. None of them look much like the Americanized Chinese food you get at places that have words like dragon, wok, panda, and golden in their names. Nothing against a tasty lo mien and General Tao’s but that’s more Mellencamp than Mandarin. Until recently, if you wanted to find anything close to authentic Chinese cuisines near here you had to drive to Framingham to Sichuan Gourmet or Red Pepper. Then Red Pepper opened a location in Worcester’s Webster Square (and closed the one in Framingham) and life got a whole lot spicier for the city. Red Pepper is not where you order egg rolls. This is where you sample dandan noodles, cumin lamb, spicy fish and silken tofu in chili sauce, pork joint, hot pots, and, yes, innards like tripe. Not everything is hot – tea smoked duck and soothing stir-fried pea shoots are nice counterbalances to the heat – but everything on the white board by the entrance listing the specials leans that way. Give yourself up to them and prepare to understand there is life beyond the usual Chinese takeout.