As soon as we stepped into the shop, we knew we were in trouble. Whiffs of fresh baked bread filled our noses and the further we moved into the small market, the harder it was not to bump into blocks of artisan cheeses, smoked meats, sausages, spreads, sweet treats and jams. Never had we seen such a diverse collection of cheeses in one place, let alone a market the size of a living room. I shoved my hands in my pockets to keep them from snatching things off the shelves.
Twelve of us crowded around a bin of Italian cheeses in the middle of the store. Our group had been touring Boston’s South End neighborhoods all afternoon, trying samples from various restaurants, and we couldn’t wait to see what we would be tasting next. A white plate covered in two dozen triangles of cheese was handed to our guide, who nodded in approval at the samples. The first half of the samples were called Maggie’s Round; cheese made from free range cows living at Cricket Creek Farm, not far from Boston. With the first nibble, I noticed the cheese was tart and dense. I could almost taste the dew-soaked grass at the farm. Popping the rest of the sample in my mouth, I swooned as the bold flavors swept across my tongue.
The second sample was called Landaff, from New Hampshire. It was soft and didn’t taste like much of anything at first; however, the mellow introduction eventually faded to reveal a tangy finish. The perfect kind of cheese for a sandwich. We were given a few extra minutes to peruse the shelves and the deli before we had to peel ourselves away from the market. A part of me was sorry to leave so soon, but another part was excited to explore more of South End on our Bites of Boston food tour.
As it turns out, Boston’s South End has been fascinating history buffs, charming romantics, thrilling urban gardeners and exciting foodies for nearly 30 years. The reason why none of us were wading through tourists was that South End hasn’t always had such a nice reputation. “If you talk to anyone local to Massachusetts, who lives in the Boston area, there is a memory of South End being a very tough area,” said Alyssa Daigle Schoenfeld, Bites of Boston founder and local guide. “It just kind of has a reputation for being a rough, not-so-nice area, that you wouldn’t want to spend any time in. So the fact that it has changed so dramatically from that perception makes it really exciting.” At first glance, South End doesn’t seem like much, but a fifteen minute walk through its neighborhoods reveals a welcoming and lively world.
One of the best ways to get acquainted with a new community is to sample its cuisine and that is exactly what Alyssa had in mind when she started the Bites of Boston food tour. “One of my favorite parts of the Bites of Boston tour is that it is a great tour for both locals and travelers. Sometimes I feel that it’s almost better for locals because they have an expectation that [South End] is negative and they are that much more excited when they find out how great everything is. It also has a great mix of historical information that’s interesting, current information that’s interesting and a great mix of different types of foods.”
Our Bites of Boston tour began at the Parish Cafe and Bar where no more than 12 tour-goers wandered in and found seats at the front of the restaurant. Menus and tall glasses of ice water were already waiting and the hostess greeted everyone with enthusiasm. After a few moments, Alyssa greeted us with a big smile and a map of the area we would be covering. Her bubbly personality was infectious and soon we were all ready to follow her down the dark allies of South End in search of exotic foods.
Our first order of business was to learn about a rather unique specialty at the Parish Cafe: sandwiches. Not sub sandwiches or deli sandwiches. We would be sampling gourmet sandwiches that had been envisioned by the best chefs in Boston. Thirty different sandwiches were normally available to order; however, we would be trying one of the owner’s favorites: Sean’s Meatloaf Club, a spicy meatloaf sandwich with a small scoop of mashed potatoes and gravy on the side.
According to Alyssa, samples are assembled according to portion size: “All the food is bought at each location, none of it is gifted or donated, so that does play a part in portion size. Sometimes, if there is a group of two or four vegetarians who require a different sample, then the restaurant can more easily accommodate them. It also depends seasonally for what’s on the menu.”
To cut down on bathroom breaks during the tour, we were encouraged to enjoy one glass of water at the Parish Cafe and refrain from drinking the rest of the time. This worked out nicely as many of our stops were short. After scraping the remaining gravy or dressing from our plates, we walked down the street to Chester Square, a tiny half oval park that most visitors would dismiss as a simple path of greenery. In the mid 1800s, before wider roads were needed in the town, circular parks were designed to bring a little nature to the South End neighborhoods. Parks like Chester Square and Union Square offered a place for people to relax and let their children play. Beautiful three-tiered ceramic fountains decorated the centers of the parks, trees were planted around the perimeter and grass was kept green. When the neighborhood started getting busy, the parks were demolished to create roads. With the revitalization of the community that started in the early 80s, neighbors got together and rebuilt smaller versions of the parks on both sides of the streets. Small replicas of the original fountains were made in memory of the beauty that used to be. Even with the demolition of the parks, South End still has the largest, intact, Victorian collection of inhabitable buildings in the United States.
From Chester Square, we walked a few blocks through a sleepy little historic neighborhood. Surrounded by five story, red brick, Victorian homes and apartment complexes, we felt as though we had stepped into a strange dimension where past and present had never been separated. We rounded a corner and were met by an intimate dining patio attached to a small restaurant called Orinoco. One of Alyssa’s favorite restaurants, Orinoco was created by Andres Branger, a locally renowned chef. The restaurant’s cuisine was inspired by Venezuelan taguaritas, or family-run eateries found along the roadsides in rural Venezuela. Each recipe features local ingredients and traditional methods of preparation, as well as added flavors from the Andes and the Caribbean.
We crowded in the small eatery and were given datiles, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with almonds. I was told this morsel was tasty and full of sweet and savory flavors. My vegetarian palate received a maracuchito, a grilled sweet plantain stuffed with melted cheese, or queso paisa. The warm maracuchito was sweet and soft to bite into. The salty cheese mingled masterfully with the plantain and the experience ended much too soon.
“There’s a variety of reasons why these restaurants were chosen for the tour,” said Alyssa. “First, and foremost, delicious food- consistently delicious food across South End. I wanted to highlight how many different types of ethnic foods and how many fun concepts there are in the South End neighborhood.” When researching these restaurants, Alyssa found dozens of eateries that fit her criteria. Eventually, she was able to narrow the list down to a manageable six with restaurants that were open during lunch and were easy to access along her desired geographical route.
Once we had licked our fingertips clean, we ventured away from Orinoco and were immediately stopped by a strange phenomenon on the sidewalk. A light post at the corner of the street had been completely covered with what looked like a decorative smock. Alyssa told us that the light post had been “yarn bombed” by guerrilla knitters. The colorful smock had been installed during the night and left for the community to admire.
As we zigzagged our way through the historic streets, we started to notice other community projects such as art installments and community gardens. South End has 16 gardens spread out across the neighborhood. Alyssa informed us that the oldest gardener in the community is 90 and the youngest is 11. These gardens are perfect for growing vegetables, herbs and flowers, throwing parties and potlucks, strengthening friendships, and indulging in fresh food. We strolled by several gardens, each spilling over with life and beauty. Around the corner from one of these gardens was another beautiful site: Flour Bakery.
The Flour Bakery first opened in South End in 2000 and has since won seven awards for Boston’s best baked goods. It has expanded to three other locations and has sold thousands of cookbooks. With the bakery overflowing with patrons, we stayed outside while Alyssa went in for the samples. She came out with 12 small paper bags, each containing a cookie. The cookie softly melted in our mouths as we tried to pick out the different ingredients: oats, pecans and bittersweet chocolate. While we indulged, patrons emerged from the bakery with freshly baked bread, heaping sandwiches, cupcakes, gooey sticky buns and other aromatic treats we could only salivate over. I decided that if I ever moved to South End, my weight and bank account would suffer greatly.
Alyssa collected our bags and tossed them in the recycle container before ushering us to the next destination. The Morse Fish Company was a tiny market that had been selling fish nearly every day since 1903. Morse Fish Company is the oldest fish market in Boston and has been managed by only three owners. Every item is fresh and caught sustainably. We sat at the square plastic tables inside the shop and drooled over the crab, lobster and fish behind the counter. Alyssa brought out a tray covered in little white cups. Inside each cup was a sample of New England fried clams. Clams? As a resident of a mountain town in Arizona, I had rarely encountered a clam that didn’t make me turn tail and run. Shrugging, I pierced one of the clams with a toothpick and popped it in my mouth. Incredible. The breading was light and crispy, not greasy at all. The clam tasted like it had been caught that morning and its flavor was bold and intense. Being a fan of strong seafood flavors, I devoured the rest of the sample immediately. The clams had been cooked in vegetable oil, which was then donated for biofuel.
After failing to procure extra samples of fried clams from Alyssa, we moved on to what would become my favorite of the six eateries: Formaggio Kitchen. This cheese-wheel-sized market was easy to miss when walking down the street and without Alyssa showing us the way, I’m not sure if we would have been able to find it on our own. After sampling two kinds of cheeses, we learned that Formaggio also has a deli where sandwiches and select meats and cheeses can be ordered. A Formaggio location in Cambridge also offers tasting and cooking classes.
“I’m a firm believer that what you see on foot is entirely different than what you see in a vehicle,” Alyssa said, recalling her decision to create a walking tour. “In my mind, I equate taking a vehicle or trolley tour to taking a cruise. When you take a cruise, you see a lot of little things versus going and staying in one spot and really getting to know it. The idea of getting a cultural, historical, current day perspective of the South End neighborhood really makes the most sense.”
Our walk from Formaggio took us through more neighborhoods and years of Boston history. Because we were walking so close to the buildings, we could see how each slender, five-story, brick, complex was both unique and identical to the one next to it. One house was completely covered in white statues that the owner had cast himself. Some complexes had been completely remodeled on the inside while others were barely holding themselves together. But each structure leaned the same direction, had the same light fixtures and gave off the same wise and omniscient sense of being.
The final stop brought us across the street from our first eatery, Parish Cafe. The last dish of the day was a chocolate, peanut butter, banana pie with a vanilla wafer crust from Estelle’s Southern Kitchen. The sweet creamy pie was an original recipe from the chef’s mother and was a delightful end to the tour.