Restaurant Review: Qingdao Garden

Don’t let the decor fool you in this Northern Chinese gem in North Cambridge.  The sparse, diner-esque decor with ten tables belies the quality of the food, the family-style food and service, and the overall bang for your buck.  I’d call it a hole in the wall, but it’s too clean for that.  You can easily ignore the decor if you close your eyes and listen to the sounds of locals, families, and die-hard regulars chewing thoughtfully and chatting about Chinese politics or quantum physics in as many languages as there are tables.  Eat late and eat with the family and staff, who are more than happy to share friendly pointers on the menu at any time of day.  

Qingdao Garden is perhaps best known for its stellar homemade dumplings, which have been featured in Boston Magazine’s Cheap Eats issue.  The menu features seven varieties, including three vegetarian types: Spinach, Leek, and String Bean.  All dumplings are just $5.75-$5.95 for a dozen or $14.00-$16.00 for fifty frozen dumplings to bring home with you.  Your friendly server will encourage you to eat them with the traditional vinegar instead of soy sauce.

But don’t ignore the rest of the enormous menu, particularly the pink “traditional” section.  We’ve only begun to explore the endless options, but everything we’ve tried has been fresh, delicious, and strikingly different than “regular,” Americanized Chinese food.  The Tofu with Black Bean Sauce we tried tonight featured the softest, lightest tofu we’ve eaten since we visited Japan, and a fresh egg and black bean sauce that was a surprising and welcome change from the heavy overspiced glop we were expecting.  Dishes like the house specialty Szechuan Style Fish with Black Bean Sauce and Lily Root with Celery intrigued, and now we’re curious to try the family’s take on old favorites.  Have you tried them?  Post below!

Qingdao Garden is located at 2382 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is easily accessible from the Porter, Davis, and Alewife T stations or by the 77 bus.  

Restaurant Review: Pescatore and KickAss Cupcakes

Tonight we decided to do something bold: try a new restaurant, one as of yet unrated by Zagat.  Could we rely on the Yelp reviews alone reliable for a neighborhood favorite?  We decided to find out.

Pescatore turned out to be a real find.  Located in Somerville’s up-and-coming Ball Square neighborhood, around the corner from a trendy sommelier and a run-down diner, Pescatore was packed on a Saturday night, full of locals who knew just where to go to find a warm spot in a cold Spring rain.  We squeezed into the only remaining table and took in the sights and sounds around us.  Families celebrated birthdays as grandparents slurped fresh clams and teenagers inhaled homemade pizza.  The first date two tables away appeared to be going well over specialty coffees brimming with fresh whipped cream.  We hungrily scanned the menu, vowing to save room for the limoncello, grappa, and other specialty drinks, as our waitress cheerfully served perfectly spiced, fluffy bread and a plate of salt-cured olives.  

We started with the Haddock Cakes, a welcome and delicious alternative to crab cakes.  The delicate, yet hearty cakes were accompanied by a fresh, tangy, homemade tartar sauce and shoestring onion fries that were so light and crispy that we almost convinced ourselves that they were good for us as we ate every last bite.  Then the entrees arrived, a Haddock Piccatta served with a side of homemade fusilli, and a Haddock Paisano in a homemade tomato sauce with roasted potatoes and sauteed spinach.  The fish was perfectly flaky and tasted so fresh that it could have been pulled out of the Harbor that morning, and both preparations were served with care and style.  Our cheerful waitress told us the restaurant had been there for three and a half years, and that they were thankful Yelp had been so kind.  Next year, maybe Zagat would come.   You should find it before they do.

The dessert menu taunted us with incredible homemade options: a pear-riccotta torte, a chocolate ganache cake, a tiramisu, an amaretto-soaked almond pastry.  But we had a tradition to uphold. We jumped into the car for the three-minute drive down Somerville’s windy streets to another neighborhood institution, KickAss Cupcakes, which serves vegan, gluten free, and “regular” cupcakes, all dripping in chocolate.  They indeed lived up to their name.

Pescatore is located at 158 Boston Avenue (@ Broadway), Ball Square, Somerville, MA. Reservations Recommended.  617-623-0003.  KickAss Cupcakes is located at 378 Highland Avenue, Somerville, MA.  Open until 10 on Saturday nights to better satisfy your cupcake cravings.