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Superb dishes at mediocre restaurants

I was stuck at the Cambridgeside mall for 2 hours today while a genius at the Apple store repaired my daughter's macbook. We lunched at California Pizza Kitchen, an establishment that I would avoid under normal circumstances. Big surprise - the fusilli with fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes and brocolli rabe was superb. The pasta wasn't anything special - could have been prince or muellers - but it was cooked perfectly al dente and the sauce was amazing, redolent of decent olive oil and roasted garlic. I wouldn't have sent it back at Prezza.

So here's the question. Have you encountered any superb dishes at mediocre restaurants?

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    1. This is a great thread.

      Funny, I like the BBQ chopped chicken salad at California Pizza Kitchen. I also like the sweet corn tamale cakes at the Cheesecake Factory.

      I can't believe I'm about to say two things nice about Legal Seafoods on the same day, but I like their falafel salmon.

      The Chateau in Waltham makes excellent roasted red pepper and ricotta cheese pizza.

      Speaking of unusual pizzas, you can ask for the "Nolio" at Bertucci's --- it's prosciutto and carmelized onions in a light cream sauce.

      I really enjoyed the tomato, mozzarella and pesto omlette at Zoe's diner near Harvard Square.

      The Hong Kong restaurant in Harvard Square makes decent steamed chicken Peking ravioli, Hunan beef, roast duck noodle soup, and ginger and scallion noodles.

      18 Replies
      1. re: lipoff

        Wow, I love the fact that you found something good on the Hong Kong's menu! I haven't been back in years, and I don't remember a single thing I ever ate there (which is not really a comment on their food).


        1. re: MC Slim JB

          FWIW, they completely revamped the resto level of the building. I haven't eaten there so I don't know if it affected the food in any positive way, but it definitely looks spiffier.

        2. re: lipoff

          The only thing I've ever ordered at CPK is the BBQ chopped chicken salad. Stick with what works.

          1. re: lipoff

            Speaking of bertuccis, I am still a sucker for the "sporkie" which is italian sausage and ricotta.

            1. re: cassoulady

              Second the sporkie ... could have something to do with the name. Heh. Sporkie. Say it.

              1. re: cassoulady

                I too am a fan for the sporkie. A great dish in the winter!

                1. re: CookieLee

                  yeah for the sporkie. i go there only for that.

                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                    I'm getting the "sporkie fanclub" t-shirts printed up now. ;-)

                2. re: cassoulady

                  Wow, who knew there'd be so many sporkie fans. I like mine with the addition of caramelized onions. Mmm.

                    1. re: Ralphie_in_Boston

                      Oh man. another run of the t-shirts ....

                  1. re: cassoulady

                    LOL!! My mum and I are big fans of the sporkie too! I was almost too ashamed to add it to the list until I saw how UNalone I am! Of course, these day-- food snob I've become-- I prefer my own homemade, amped-up sporkie at home. Roast red peppers, sweet roast garlic, and red pepper flakes. And sometimes make it with ::gasp:: homemade tofu "ricotta."

                    1. re: globalgourmand

                      Has anyone tried eating a Sporkie with a Spork? Just had to ask.

                  2. re: lipoff

                    I didn't realize you could still get the nolio. When I was in college, my parents & their friends would get it often at their local bertuccis (and I liked it too), and I remember them saying that as staff started to turn over that the new folks didn't know how to make it.

                    1. re: jgg13

                      Okay, this thread prompted me to order it today, when I unexpectedly found myself there at lunch. And I think the Nolio would have been decent if they didn't burn/blacken so many of the carmelized onions. And I do mean charcoal burnt. I had to pick them out, and they made a pretty big pile on the side of the plate. The "free" salad though, just royally stinks.

                      1. re: SuperFineSugar

                        To be honest, I haven't had it in at least 10 years, so I can't say much about it other than I liked it at the time :)

                        1. re: SuperFineSugar

                          The "free" salad though, just royally stinks.

                          You mean, it hasn't changed since I worked there 10 years ago?

                    2. At Rustic Kitchen, the calamari can be pretty decent (have them hold the aioli, or put it on the side; they have a heavy hand with the stuff). Their pizzas aren't bad either, expecially if you have them add the same fresh sliced jalapenos they add to the calamari.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Blumie

                        A close friend of my son's insists on Vinny T's takeout for his birthday every year. The Rhode Island Calamari is actually quite good. The sauce has a nice balance of vinegar, cherry peppers and garlic, and they pack it separately so the calamari doesn't get soggy. Looks like it's still on the menu after the ownership/menu changeover.

                      2. the antipasto appetzer tray at Appetito used to be my standard order for dinner when i had to eat with my parents there. its quite good and a deal, though the last time i got it it was ice cold, so i took it home with me and by dinner it was fine

                        1. Higaditos Mexicanos (spicy chicken livers) at Sol Azteca.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: BobB

                            The chicken livers are excellent, but I actually like most things at Sol Azteca and don't consider it a mediocre restaurant. I love there nopalitos (cactus) whether on their salad on in the appetizer with salsa verde. I find there salsa incredibly fresh, unique and flavorful. I love their black bean soup. Their mole sauce doesn't taste like it was 15-20 ingredients in it, but has a few simple strong flavors that are very appealing. I often have enchiladas suizas there which aren't on the menu but often appear on the specials board. The carne asada uses very high quality meat. Their flan, lemonade and margaritas are all excellent. It may be a little dated and not exactly 100% authentic Mexican food, but I love the place. =)

                            1. re: lipoff

                              I'd say Sol Azteca is more spotty than mediocre - sometimes the food has been very good, sometimes it's been darn near awful (even the salsa). Ditto the margaritas - sometimes good, sometimes tasting like they used a horrible bottled mix. But their chicken livers have never let me down.

                              1. re: lipoff

                                Really like the carnitas and enchiladas verdes, and can happily put away quite a bit of their sangria when that carafe is in front of me.

                            2. the Grilled Clam appetizer at Summer Shack

                              1. [Brace yourself] The pizza at......Villa Rosa....in Quincy......HEY! Stop booing, LOL.

                                9 Replies
                                    1. re: hiddenboston

                                      Hiddenboston -- You like bar pies, have you tried the pizza at Time Out in Quincy? It's on Sea St, heading towards the neck. Ask for it well done and I think you'll like it. Just kidding you about the Villa. There was a time when I thought their pizza was pretty good, just can't get past the obnoxious service.

                                      1. re: Pegmeister

                                        Time Out? Is that the slightly dive-y looking place on the way to Louis' Crossing? What's the place like? I'll have to add it to my list!

                                        1. re: hiddenboston

                                          My guess is the dive-y place you're thinking of is the Haufbrau. It's a white building on the left side when you're heading to Louie's. The Haufbrau is definitely not a place for food, although they do serve it on occasion. Time-out is a take out sub type of place on the way to Louie's. The bar pies are really good. They do, however, put a small amount of red sauce on their shrimp scampi pizza which I don't understand, but I still like it. If you do decide to try the Haufbrau, expect steamed hot dogs, lots of beer and Keno. It's very much a local hangout

                                          1. re: Pegmeister

                                            A takeout place that does bar pies, huh? That's a rarity - usually sub shops do Greek pizza and bars do bar pies. I'll definitely check it out. Thanks!

                                            1. re: hiddenboston

                                              Some may refer to it as Greek pizza, but to me it's more of a bar pie, similar to Bella's in Rockland or the Lynnwood.

                                                1. re: Trumpetguy

                                                  Yes and no. I like the bar pizzas, but I find the service to be totally inattentive at times. Also, their hours are not consistent, and for some reason that really annoys me.

                                1. I braced myself, but still went over the side. If you like it, go for it! That's why they have horse races.

                                  1. The Nolio was the best pizza on the menu years ago. I would hope that they retain at least one employee that will remember how to make it. Bertucci's was a staple as a kid and that was the onlt thing on the menu I would eat.

                                    1. I am sure there is a Chilli's around here somewhere, but back in my college days I was wild for their "Chopped Salad" which was divine. Grilled chicken, bacon, tortilla strips, corn, beans, lime-cilantro sauce with some sort of drizzle of something...the flavors were just so great together. Unfortunately they took it off the menu and have something that's similar, but not quite right, and features FRIED chicken pieces. Ick. Haven't been back in years.

                                      1. I don't know if it reaches superb, but the French Quarter Chicken at Border Cafe is pretty damn good.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: Gabatta

                                          Catfish New Orleans. Once a year, with my freshman advisees.

                                          1. re: Gabatta

                                            Another vote for FQ Chix. Also the catfish version with the same lemon-peppery cream sauce called Tuscaloosa Catfish.

                                            1. re: Niblet

                                              Yet another vote for the FQ Chicken. Remember to squeeze a little lemon on it!

                                          2. I am in love with the French Dip Sliders at The Tides in Nahant. Just superb IMHO.

                                            1. Suan la chow show and dun-dun noodles at Mary Chung.

                                              5 Replies
                                              1. re: chickendhansak

                                                Ditto these two, particularly the Suan la chow show.

                                                I hesitated to add this comment myself, since I did not want to cause a debate on whether Mary Chung is mediocre.

                                                1. re: rlove

                                                  High five. I agree the Suans are the standout of the two.

                                                  1. re: rlove

                                                    I dunno, I think you should be able to call it as you see it, no matter which or how many Hounds disagree with you.

                                                    I defend Mary Chung for what is is, a pretty good place if you pick your spots and recognize that it's a Taiwanese kitchen doing Sichuan and American Chinese food, but I'd never put it up against real(er)-Sichuan outlets like the two Sichuan Gourmets, the two suburban Sichuan Gardens, or the new New Shanghai. (I think it also gets by on plain sentimental value to many.)

                                                    Meanwhile, I will also vehemently defend your right to hold an opinion of it as generally mediocre. Many viewpoints are what make Chowhound go 'round!


                                                    1. re: MC Slim JB

                                                      Oh, I'm happy to be a voice of opposition--I just didn't want to derail the thread by picking dishes from a non-obvious mediocre establishment.

                                                      That said, yah, I think Mary Chuang's is overrated and pretty blah, but the suan la chow show sure is yummy.

                                                  2. re: chickendhansak

                                                    The fried stuffed eggplant at Mary Chung is delish.

                                                  3. The Beehive has the best french toast I've had in my life. The rest of the food is average, but I challenge anyone to find a better french toast. And yes I've tried Masa, Deluxe town Diner, and others.

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: Torolover

                                                      Grilled Artichokes appetizer at Houston's is superb (though I think that most dishes there hit the mark)

                                                      Buffalo Wings at Bennigan's (the crunchy-coating variety)

                                                      Philly Cheesesteak Springrolls at Davio's and Avila may not rate "superb," but they sure hit the spot every now and again

                                                      1. re: Jolyon Helterman

                                                        the mac &cheese with pearl hotdogs at max &dylans is pretty tasty

                                                    2. I love this thread! OK, since PF Chang's is hardly a board favorite, I think they qualify...I must say I crave the lettuce wraps and the mogolian beef. SO good. I also love their garlic snap peas.

                                                      5 Replies
                                                      1. re: bostongal

                                                        i fess up to crab rangoon at pf changs. fried and cheesy. mmmmmmmmm.

                                                        1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                          "Northern-Style" spare ribs at PF Chang's are awesome too, IMO—dry rubbed with 5-spice and very salty!

                                                            1. re: Jolyon Helterman

                                                              I go for their shrimp in drunken noodles. Loads of garlic!

                                                          1. re: bostongal

                                                            OK I admit that I've had the Szechuan Squid with brown rice at PF Chang's and said out loud "hey, this is pretty good". So sue me, LOL

                                                          2. It's no longer on their menu, but Uno's (when it was Pizzeria Uno's) had a thin-crust pizza with roasted eggplant, roasted peppers, artichokes and feta cheese. I swear, I was the only one who liked it. And I LOVED it.

                                                            They have something similar now -- but not the same. And it's not as good.

                                                            Also, to steal from Julia Child, there really is something about McDonald's fries. If hot.

                                                            1. Snipped sorrel pizza at Upstairs on the Square. So, so good. The rest of dinner was very "eh."

                                                              Baked gouda in a skillet at The Independent. Of course, I used to like many things there, but they have gone completely downhill in the kitchen. So now I would only bother with the gouda...if I ever go back at all.

                                                              Some of the small plates at Avila.

                                                              Vanilla bean souffle at Olives.

                                                              Onion tart at Brasserie Jo.

                                                              Brasserie Jo
                                                              120 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02116