Want a lousy place to celebrate Valentine's Day? Try a fine-dining restaurant, where overly demanding customers collide with overpriced prix fixe menus, yielding an unhappy marriage of unrealistic expectations and unseemly gouging. Instead, share the romance of great food in a more humble, cliché-free setting. These frugal alternatives will make for memorable dates nights throughout the year.
RINCON LIMEÑO | 409 Chelsea Street, East Boston | 617.569.4942 | This Peruvian is handsomer than many modest Latino restaurants, and its food is sublime. Share ceviche mixto ($15), citrus-marinated grouper, squid, and shrimp, and jalea ($14/small; $19/large), the same seafood, beautifully batter-fried. Add bottles of Cristal ($4) — the Peruvian lager, not the pricey bubbly — and a box of alfajores ($6), anise-scented cookies filled with dulce de leche.
MARY CHUNG | 464 Mass Ave, Cambridge | 617.864.1991 | The Americanized Sichuan and Hunan specialties here never fail to bring smiles. Focus on the classics: Grandma's Pie ($4.50), scallion pancake stuffed with bok choy and pork, suan la chow show ($4.50), steamed pork dumplings on bean sprouts in chili-fired soy/ginger sauce, and dun dun noodles with shredded chicken ($6.25) accented with julienned cukes and spicy-hot peanut sauce. Some icy Tsing Taos ($3.95) will help cool the capsicum fire.
INDIA QUALITY | 484 Comm Ave, Boston | 617.267.4499 | This super-friendly Northern Indian is great for wooing a vegetarian. The thali for two ($33.95) includes papadum (crisp lentil-flour wafers), lentil or coconut soup, saag paneer (spinach and farmer cheese), dal makhani (spicy black-lentil stew), baingan bhartha (roasted mashed-eggplant stew), and either poori (puffy deep-fried bread) or pratha (griddle-cooked flatbread). Share a tall Taj Mahal ($6), a crisp Indian lager.
ANGELA'S CAFÉ | 131 Lexington Street, East Boston | 617.567.4972 | Mexican cuisine is red-hot in Boston, and nowhere better than at this charming Poblana storefront. Start with favoritos de Angela ($18): chicken mole gordita (stuffed fried cornmeal cake), tostadas of tinga (spicy shredded chicken) and ceviche, tacos arabe (flour tortilla with spicy pork shoulder), and al pastor (corn tortilla filled with spicy pork and pineapple). Then share Angela's justly lauded mole poblano ($16), pork loin in a dazzlingly complex sauce of dried chilies, nuts, and chocolate.
SHABU-ZEN | 80 Brighton Avenue, Allston | 617.782.8888 | Tailor-made for intimacy, this shabu-shabu palace lets you cook a heaping platter of raw vegetables, meats, and/or seafood to your preferred degree of doneness at your table in a pot of bubbling broth, leaving behind a delicious meal-ending soup. Surf-and-turf shabu-shabu ($17) is especially eye-catching: pork, lamb, beef, or chicken plus salmon, cod, scallops, fish cake, and squid, with noodles or rice.