The Best Soul Food In The Boston Area: The Coast Cafe

The best soul food in the Boston area

The best soul food in the Boston area

“Boston is known for having tons of great soul food spots,” said no one ever.

When I first moved here for college, I distinctly remember the disappointing realization that I was going to have very few options for authentic, homemade soul food. After several experiences at Harvard student organization events with Red Bones, a place which does a decent job of masquerading as a soul food spot, I was even hungrier for the real thing.

Then, one fateful day in 2008, my inbox was gifted with a message that set my fears at ease. One trailblazing pioneer, Ms. Natasha Alford, had done what seemed impossible, and discovered an amazing soul food restaurant mere blocks away from my dorm:

The Coast Cafe

How could I have been so lost? What dark haze of ignorance and complacency had kept this gem from my sight? Within hours of reading the email, I was on my way over with a few roommates, eager to cast our eyes upon this legend. After that day, Coast Cafe became a part of the weekend activity canon. Do some reading, grab a haircut, destroy the fried chicken plate. Sweet candied yams, wholesome collard greens, cozy mac and cheese, and chicken wings fried to perfection. Rinse. Repeat.

Flash forward 5 years…

I’m back in Cambridge and supposedly wizened beyond my years. However, caught in the hustle of work and moving around the city, I’ve missed something. It’s not until January, when I’m looking through a “Best Of Boston” list, that I realize something is amiss.  Some misguided heathen had declared the #1 soul food spot to be something other than Coast Cafe!

My eye twitched.

The next day, I cleansed myself of the transgression of omission and finally grabbed a fried chicken plate with candied yams, collard greens, and corn bread. The food was even better than I remembered.

I encourage everyone in the Boston/Cambridge region to please visit this place! Owner and chef Anthony Brooks and his staff have built an institution of great homemade southern food (against all odds in a place like Boston), and you absolutely must sample it. They also cater and have great lunch specials! It’s a tiny place  just a few blocks away from the Central Square T-stop, but with its great food and good people, Coast Cafe truly embodies the definition of a hidden gem.

Five Cooking Tips for the Inexperienced, Amateur Cook

different vegetable cuts

I grew up with a mother who consistently pulled off amazing stunts in the kitchen. My mother dabbled in every type of cuisine, creating foods that were delicious and still make my current imitations look like slop. Unfortunately, I rarely ever spent any time actually learning or practicing any of these techniques and recipes. It was not until I walked off the college graduation stage and into my row house kitchen, that I realized I would have to dig deep and work hard to have a culinary experience close to the one of my childhood. After three years of frantic phone conversations and failed experiments, here are a few things I’ve learned that have helped me become a better cook:

1. Plan weekend cooking projects
This is huge. It was always hard to find time during the week to really nail down my cooking skills. Instead, I used my weekends to plan entire meals that would help me practice a variety of different skills. For example, I was dedicated to mastering a traditional Haitian meal of rice and red beans, chicken stew, and fried plantains. Unfortunately, this is a meal that takes approximately 2.5 hours to make and requires a variety of different skills. By setting aside Saturdays and Sundays to cook, I was able to fine tune every aspect of the meal and  simultaneously cook enough food for the rest of the week. Which leads me to the next tip…

Griot and fried plantains

Haitian food spread with a special guest appearance by green bean casserole

2. Cook in bulk
The feeling of making a big pot of chili or a large, baked pasta dish is awesome. Cooking in bulk is great for your confidence as an amateur cook, and it also guarantees that you’ll have something to eat for the next few days. In addition, there are so many great tasting and simple recipes for dishes like chili and stew that are easy to follow for anyone in the middle of their first culinary foray.

Haitian rice and beans

Haitian rice and beans aka diri kole ak pwa

3. Stock and know your spice cabinet
Sorry, but salt and pepper are not going to cut it anymore. Investing in about 10-15 spices and herbs is an important step towards moving away from microwave food to flavorful and exciting ethnic dishes. Knowing the “spice palette” for different types of cuisine also lets you experiment. It can be what separates a basic chicken stir fry from a chicken curry or chicken teriyaki dish.

Indian goat curry spices

Mad spices and herbs for Indian goat curry

4. Avoid cutting corners often
Yeah, using a rice cooker is easy and painless. However, it’s also important to break out the pots and pans at some point and make rice without the help of KitchenAid. There are many skills that are transferable across types of cuisine and recipe difficulty and you just HAVE to learn them. For starters, learn how to properly cut veggies. I only learned how to cut kale a few weeks ago. Yes, it was annoying and took longer than I expected, but I picked up skills that make me a problem for the next leafy greens I run into.

different vegetable cuts

Different vegetable cuts

5. Don’t buy pre-packaged produce all the time
Do the math. That little plastic cup with peeled carrots is much pricier than what you’ll pay for the equivalent mass in raw carrot. Just buy the peeler and whatever other utensils you might ever need once, learn the techniques, and then bathe in the stacks of cash you’ll save.

sliced vegetables for a stir fry

Sliced vegetables for a stir fry

There are many other things you can do that will help you succeed in the kitchen. Sound off in the comments below with your tips and tricks!

Thanks Mom!

Thanks Mom!