Angela’s Café, a tiny East Boston outpost of authentic Mexican cuisine, does a plain mid-priced steak as competently as hundreds of other Boston-area restaurants. Carne asada ($14.95) is an Angus sirloin, simply grilled after marinating in chimichurri, an Argentine-inspired mixture of olive oil, garlic, parsley, and oregano. It’s served with lime wedges, a pile of fresh salsa, and a big side of mildly spiced black beans. While it’s a nice piece of steak, what makes it noteworthy is its side of rajas con crema, strips of poblano chilies in a rich cream sauce, an intriguing tandem of faintly bitter roasted peppers and tangy crème fraîche.
The rest of Puebla-native chef Angela Atenco Lopez’s menu fairly pops with flavor. She’s a master of long-simmered sauces of bemusing complexity, like her justly famous mole poblano, available in chicken enchiladas ($9.95). Her tinga is another sauce with a depth that reveals some new facet with every bite: smoke, fire, tang, and sweetness from myriad other chilies, fruit juices, and carefully combined spices. This features in the gorgeous tinga tostada ($3.50), which layers refried beans, tinga-sauced brisket, lettuce, sour cream, and cotija on a flat, crisp-fried corn tortilla.
With the recent addition of a liquor license, patrons can now enjoy wines by the glass, like the 2006 Finca Del Valles malbec ($5.50), or bottles of Mexican lager, such as Modelo Especial ($4). These add a bit of fine-dining dash to a restaurant that demonstrates a beefy maxim: while many chefs can serve up a worthy steak, it takes a truly talented one to create an outstanding steak dinner.
Kushiyaki of Wagu strip loin at O Ya
9 East Street, Boston | oyarestaurantboston.com | 617.654.9900
O Ya bills itself as an izakaya, a casual Japanese sake bar that serves food. That’s like saying the Pentagon is a rather large office building: New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni recently named it America’s best restaurant outside of Manhattan. I can confirm that O Ya brings incomparably fresh seafood, an array of extravagant and rare ingredients, and a jaw-dropping inventiveness to nigiri-zushi, sashimi, and other raw and cooked dishes of Japanese provenance. Every dish is food-magazine-cover gorgeous, dazzling on the tongue, and frightfully costly.
“But MC,” you protest, “I thought you were talking about bargain steak places.” And I am, in the sense that I think O Ya is a superior value to our top-flight steak houses, even though its exotic steak dishes are quite costly. Chef Tim Cushman and his team are ambitious artists. They aim to lead their customers down a path of small moments of quiet delight. Allow me to tell you about just three of the 12 courses that comprised my recent omakase (chef’s choice, $100), mostly single pieces of sushi and sashimi, languorously paced to let me contemplate each bite.
My lone steak course, kushiyaki of Wagyu strip loin ($45), was three kebab-sized chunks of pampered, pedigreed (Kyushu Kagoshima) Japanese beef, simply grilled on a skewer and topped with faint smears of roasted minced onion and yuzu kosho, a salty citrus-rind paste. This followed a solitary piece of salmon tataki layered with hand-torched slices of baby tomato, smoked salt, and onion aioli, yielding a subtle interplay of velvety fish, crisp fruit, and granular salt — a harmonious chord of textures and flavors. Served last was foie gras grilled in a sauce of aceto balsamico and chocolate, then layered with a raisin and cocoa pulp: rather dessert-like in its custardy, candied richness, an effect underscored by a sip of aged sake reminiscent of oloroso sherry.