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Doing one thing, and doing it right

So I've been pondering two rather different issues lately, and wondering if they might actually be related:

(1) after 3 years of living in Boston and dutifully following leads and eating out at all sorts of places, I'm still hard pressed to find any inexpensive-to-moderate places that I'm at all enthusiastic about, and
(2) recent threads about hot dog stands elicited quite a bit of excited and devoted discussion.

How are these related? Maybe they're not. But here's what I'm thinking: in the city where I used to live, many of my favorite places had just one or two menu items, with maybe a few variations of flavors/seasonings. And specialization leads to quality, especially for a small-time operation with a limited staff. They started the business to do what they do well, and people only go there if they like that particular food. Every day they focus on what they know, and there's no chance that you'll go and have a bad experience because you ordered something that isn't really their specialty, or because their attention is spread too thin so they're inconsistent. The customer base tends to be connoisseurs of that item, and will only come back if it's a good rendition.

It strikes me that in Boston, there are certain food categories that seem to stick with this model routinely: hot dog, burger, wings, pizza, and ice cream places. Why just these? I'm interested in places that do something *besides* these, offering just one(+) thing and doing it right. Examples: Ken's noodles has mainly just ramen, Alive & Kicking just has lobster, several banh mi places just have sandwiches. Even if you deny my premise, I'm currently just curious for your favorite places that offer one(+) type of item.

What are your favorites?

***EDIT: bonus points for things that are *not* hot dogs, burgers, pizza, or ice cream. Donuts and sushi probably fall in this category, too-- we hear a lot about those already.

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  1. Curious - what was your former city?

    And to answer:

    Speed's hot dogs at Newmarket Square does only dogs and does them better than anyone else in Boston, IMHO.
    Falafel King at Park St. T does Middle Eastern, but the falafel sandwich there is king.
    I think Anna's, for what it is, does the burrito very well (a view not often shared here).

    4 Replies
    1. re: Bob Dobalina

      I figured I wouldn't distract the issue by inviting comparisons with my former city :)

      1. re: Bob Dobalina

        Interesting thread. This is one of Bourdain's consistent themes in his essays on foreign food - places that have done only one dish for generations. Interestingly, I think street food is much more likely to be focused on one product only, and getting that one thing right. Maybe it's the climate here, but I cannot think of any great street food that I have had in Boston (no, have never been to speeds), but can reel off a huge list of places that do just one thing really well that I love and miss from philadelphia.

        I would include sushi as a great example - virtually always good in places that mainly do sushi, not so great when combined with other cuisines.

        1. re: tdaaa

          Anybody know what Boston street food would have been 100 years ago? Lobster maybe? (Which gets me thinking about Kelly's on Revere Beach for doing the same thing fairly well for a long time.)

          I dissent on Chacarero (wife and I have tried them twice and been nonplussed both times), but I'll leave it at that.

          1. re: Dr.Jimbob

            100 years ago lobster was considered to be junk. If you go to the Vinyl Haven (Maine) history museum, they have a contract for a nanny that specifies that loster cannot be served more than twice a week. Interesting question, though. I heard a great article on NYC a few months ago - for years oysters were ubiquitous street food there.

      2. Charcarero and ASSBAR immediately come to mind.

        4 Replies
        1. re: garlic breath

          Shoot...I always forget about Chacarero. That is the PERFECT example!

          Also, Al's State Street Subs.

          1. re: Bob Dobalina

            Oh, great call, I meant to cite Chacero as one of my leading examples, thanks! (And perhaps not coincidentally, it's one of the few places I find myself returning to!)

            1. re: another_adam

              sadly, today was the last day for the downtown crossing location. the other location is still open, though.

              1. re: alyssap99

                Chacacero IMMEDIATELY came to mind for me, too.

          1. I'm not sure if this would count, but Formaggio is primarily cheese etc. . . and they do it right.

            1. Victor's in East Boston for rotisserie chicken.

              1. Not uniquely Boston, but Beard Papa (Quincy Market) for cream puffs

                3 Replies
                1. re: rlh

                  Indeed-- they were also in the first draft of my post but I deleted it in hopes of getting more local places and not so much chains. I do like beard papa, though! (even if the quincy mkt one is not as good or fresh as some branches elsewhere)

                  1. re: another_adam

                    Speaking of baked goods...thinking about doughnuts...(no, not Dunks)...Verna's in North Cambridge and Linda's in Belmont, among others.

                    1. re: Bob Dobalina

                      Donuts with a Difference in Medford.

                2. good thought. I also immediately started to think of chilean sandwiches at Chacerero.

                  Fish Tacos at El Pelon Taqueria
                  Fresh exotic* burritos at Viva! Burrito
                  Wings at Buff's Pub
                  Maiz Asado at Toro (obviously they do more than this, but this is a staple)

                  *I think I'm the only one on the board that truly loves the burritos here. I'll differentiate them from Anna's by calling them exotic in that they have options like lamb, cajun chicken, steak and shrimp etc.

                  Buff's Pub
                  317 Washington St, Newtonville, MA 02458

                  El Pelon
                  2197 Commonwealth Ave., Brighton, MA 02135

                  Viva Burrito
                  66 Staniford St, Boston, MA 02114

                  1704 Washington St, Boston, MA 02118

                  1. Mr. Bartley's for burgers. They have an extensive menu of other things, too, but I think that's for show; I don't think they really have any of that other stuff!

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Blumie

                      True enough--yeah, there's quite a few other places with solely or mainly burgers (b good, uburger, flat patties, etc).

                      I think though that places like Bartley's which prominently feature one thing but have many other things as well, count as a different category for me. (The "people in the know navigate the menu with care" category-- also potentially a fine one, but not quite the kind of place I had on my mind today)

                      1. re: another_adam

                        Shabu Zen would fall into that category.

                        1. re: fullbelly

                          On a related note, so would Little Q Hot Pot in Quincy Center.

                    2. Porter Exchange has the Japanese food court that specializes to some extent. The prices are quite reasonable and the food can be good. Cafe Mami's katsu curry, or 2 stalls down, all the donburis are good.

                      I'm not sure that I understand or agree with your one food concept across the board. I mean the bbq places, like Blue Ribbon serve que... that's one food as far as I'm concerned. Would they serve better ribs if they didn't serve brisket or pulled pork? It just kind of depends on the type of food, whether that level of specialization really helps.

                      But places in China do specialize on XLB for example - there are famous places in Shanghai that serve nothing else - could that be done here in Boston? No noodles, no dim sum, just variations on soup dumplings. I don't know if the demand is there. I believe that there are places that do this in NYC - not the downtown chinatown, but in Queens.

                      Shabu shabu places just do shabu shabu.

                      There are Oyster Bars that really pretty much just do oysters (and clams, and yes, shrimp cocktail and clam chowder... they have to make money). The Walrus and the Carpenter in Fanueil hall - 2 down from Beard Papa's is a good example.

                      Speaking of Beard Papa's - I disagree that their specialization makes them great. I'd take a cream puff from Brookline's Japonais Bakery any time over Beard Papa - especially their azuki cream. And the variety from an-pans to curry pans makes the journey just that much more worthwhile (they have a kiosk in Porter Exchange).

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: applehome

                        Actually, I totally agree re the particular comparison of Japonais over Beard Papa, and I do love their curry pan when it's nice and warm... (Though knowing that BP is better elsewhere, I blame the venue in this case--they get away with slacking)

                        I didn't mean to imply that extreme specialization is the *only* path to quality--I've just been musing that it's probably an easier path, especially for inexpensive places. People who go there are craving a particular food, and not necessarily the ambience or wine list.

                        Maybe it's possible to phrase the issue differently: in many regions of the world, the "one item spot" is a staple of the restaurant scene. New England is probably such a place, historically-- viz the clam shack, the ice cream stand, the oyster bar (as you say), etc. It seems that the local offerings for a lot of cuisines suffer by getting spread too thin with too many/diverse offerings; Korean comes to mind as a prime case of this, but that's just one example. I find it odd when I go into a little place with one or two cooks and they offer dozens of items. This seems to lead to inconsistency, and that is my main gripe with the low-to-medium end of the scene here (which, to be honest, is the end of the scene that I'm primarily interested in).

                        So, my goal is to ferret out some new suggestions for places that might not get much mention because they are seen as too limited to go to with, say, mother-in-laws or an arbitrary bunch of friends, who might not agree that they all want to eat abalone porridge. :)

                      2. Would Galleria Umberto qualify here? Their Southern Italian menu is very limited (plain pan pizza, arancini, panzarotti, a couple calzones) though perhaps not severely enough for this discussion.

                        Depending on how much one likes their steak subs, Carl's in Waltham might also rate a mention.

                        1. Rami's for falafel. Again, they have some other stuff on the menu, but the falafel sandwich is sublime, and has been about the same for as long as I can remember.

                          Although I haven't been going there nearly as long, I might also add the roast beef sandwich at Mike's in Everett.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: Kip McSkipster

                            Having recently visited Israel, I have to say that Rami's just won't cut it for me anymore. The only falafel's I can enjoy now are the ones the BF (Israeli) makes at home!

                            1. re: Science Chick

                              pleasant cafe in roslindale for pizza- the place hasn't changed a bit in ( I would imagine) 40 + years, but I've had decent to very good pizza, cheap beer, and throwback feel there for at least 20 years now (well not always the beer).

                              I have a wierd relationshp with hot and sour soup, I get intense cravings about 4 times a year, have driven 45 minutes for a bowl to go... my favorite used to be called Kalok in Arlington.. alas, Kalok is long gone. Any other favorites for H/S soup out there? Suprisingly, Dragon Chef in Davis does a nice one if you req. extra spicy.

                              1. re: blacknbleu

                                I thought the hot and sour soup at Ocean East in Chinatown, served family style in a big bowl, was fantastic.

                              2. re: Science Chick

                                Interesting... we frequently have Israeli guests and Rami's is the only place that *will* cut it for them while they're here!

                                1. re: newhound

                                  Funny, when our family comes to visit, the LAST thing they even want is falafel....they want to check out OUR local food! :)

                            2. I have waxed poetic many times on this board about the amazingly fresh and delicious Kung Pao chicken at East Asia in Somerville. Might not be the most authentic version you'll find, but I've driven an hour round trip when the craving has hit. Really good stuff.

                              1. I saw Sweet Tomatoes mentioned on another thread and it made me think that they'd qualify for this "doing one thing well" thread. I guess it falls into the list of 'standards' mentioned by the OP but it's great pizza.

                                1. Great topic! I have two suggestions, both of them a bit west of Boston, but worth the drive or bus ride.

                                  Carl's Steak and Subs in Waltham (55 Prospect Street) is a recent discovery that i can't get enough of. I don't know about any other menu items, but the steak and cheese sandwiches are amazing! I particularly recommend the Cajun steak and cheese with onions. And here's a tip--go with a friend and split a large sandwich for a dollar more than the small--it's enough food for two, easy. They have a website and I would recommend calling in your order ahead. They only have a few tables outside, so if it's cold or rainy, you'll want to take these babies home to enjoy them

                                  Ohlin's Bakery (456 Common St) in Belmont has great donuts, but the pièce de résistance are the apple fritters. These things are simply spectacular. The coffee isn't great, so run across the street to Starbucks, and some of the other pastries aren't anything special, but if you stick to the donuts and fritters, you will be thrilled. (and yes, I've been to Linda's, and would still choose Ohlin's any day).

                                  1. I realize this isn't exactly what you're talking about, but there are a number of places around town where, although they offer a broader menu, they serve one dish that is billed as the house specialty.

                                    Along these lines, two dishes I'd highlight are the squab B'stilla at Baraka Cafe and the patlican iman bayildi from Sultan's kitchen.

                                    Anyone have any other ideas of signature dishes or house specialties?

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: finlero

                                      Imam bayildi (Turkish for "the imam fainted" - supposedly a description of how the dish's first patron turned unconscious with pleasure at eating it) is not exactly a specialty peculiar to Sultan's Kitchen. Braised eggplant stuffed withi tomatoes, onions and goodness turns up on the menu of just about every Turkish restaurant on the planet, and I like it more at Brookline Family Restaurant than at Sultan's. BFR does some more interesting things with the dish, and not always the same interesting thing -- once I had it with toasted pine nuts on top, which I hadn't seen anywhere before, quite an interesting added element though. (BFR isn't a one trick pony, though, so that doesn't apply for this thread.)

                                    2. I don't want to put words into a_a's mouth - but this business of a signature dish is, I think, quite different from the one food eatery. In fact, I think all these signature dish/house specialty responses kind of point to the fact that New England is actually NOT a "one item stop" kind of region, other than the very few examples we've mentioned.

                                      Growing up in Japan, I was used to ramen places, yakitori stands, sushiyas, tempura huts, and even shumai only train station shops and carts in Yokohama (but my oh my, what shumai!). I was seriously confused to come to the states as a 9 year old and find "Japanese" restaurants that served kare and tempura and sushi and...

                                      That's an ethnic example - and surely there are lots of those from many countries. It makes sense that outside of the native country or area, there just wouldn't be enough specialized demand to keep a one item stop going. But that point applies universally - there has to be demand from clientele that is focused and that acknowledges the benefit from that level of specialization. So here in New England, clam shacks have that kind of dedicated clientele. Que places in the Carolina's or KC provide the same kind of service to a large base of knowledgable clientele. But back here in New England, chain que places serve burgers and whatever else they need to make money from a less specialized clientele. No Tacos al Pastor hole-in-the-walls around here, although you'll find grilled TAP on generalized Mexican restaurant menus. A related observation: the real gyro places have also gone the way of pre-made strips... not a good sign considering the huge ethnic Greek influence we used to have - when did we decide that the vertical spit wasn't worth running?

                                      In fact, the quality issue really becomes evident when you look at TGIFs and Ruby Tuesdays serving everything from clam chowder to pizza. And the more there are of these types of conglomerate chains, the less there will be (as a percentage) of focused, knowledgable clientele, and therefore, one-item spots. The good news is that we seem to have gotten rid of Red Lobsters in New England - next, let's work on Weathervane.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: applehome

                                        Bravo! Another vote for the local, the specialized and the delicious.

                                        1. re: applehome

                                          Thanks, everyone, for the suggestions so far, and thanks, applehome-- yes, I really am interested in one food eateries. Well, maybe the addition of a barebones option like a side of macaroni salad or a cookie for dessert wouldn't be a dealbreaker... or even a few different preparations of barbecued meats :) Specialties among a larger menu can also be useful info, but not quite what I was fishing for with this question. (Though I do admit, places like Bartley's do make it pretty obvious that there's only one thing they expect you to order!)

                                          In fact, my question was prompted in part by two of our chief frustrations since coming to Boston: the Japanese food scene ("if it's japanese, they must have sushi") and the Korean food scene ("if it's Korean, they must have sushi"). These do indeed have bewildering assortments of items, which as you note, are very different from the usual format on their home turf (and in a few fortunate North American cities). We've developed scores of entertaining/depressing theories over the last few years for why things are this way, but I figured that rather than inviting a long unproductive discussion about why the bad things are bad, I'd try homing in one of the things that I believe encourages good things.

                                          I don't really know the feasibility of a place that does exclusively soup dumplings, or tamales, or sundubu, or okonomiyaki, or gumbo in Boston, but I got encouraged by the degree of excitement about chacarero, the hot dogs stands, etc, to think that it's a viable business model, even here. I know there's gotta be more places like these out there!

                                        2. Haven't been, but I wonder if Petsi's Pies falls into this category?

                                          1. So to add another one of my own: :)

                                            Boston Tea Stop (Harvard Sq) pretty much just has boba, and does a decent job with it. (I guess they do have mochi ice cream, too, but that's pre-made and can count as the '+' in 'one(+)' )

                                            Boston Tea Stop
                                            JFK St, Cambridge, MA 02138

                                            2 Replies
                                              1. re: limster

                                                Yes, true enough! THough I've personally had bad luck with Infusions--- I myself would lump them with (the faneuil) Beard Papa as proof that specialization doesn't *guarantee* consistent greatness.