BOSTON – “Best Restaurant” lists are typically highly divisive, and not without good reason. It’s not just a question of who has the best pizza in the U.S. (and yes, you should be convinced that was entirely rigged); or the best regional chef. Those arguments are meant to be entirely subjective and ultimately inconclusive. Chances are you know of at least two people who still swear they can find the best breakfast in America at Denny’s. Sober.
But listmakers? They’re largely anonymous. And as a result, above accountability. You have no idea on what basis they make their judgements about a restaurant. You’re not certain what they’re credentials are, or even if they’ve ever eaten at an establishment. In fact, for all ostensible purposes they could be functional algorithms. But they wield the power. They’re the tastemakers. They’re the barometer by which America’s gastronomic tastes can be measured. They’re the culinary equivalent of Oz the Great and Terrible. Just with travel expense accounts.
Should it shock you that only two Boston restaurants made it to Bon Appetit’s list of the 50 Best New Restaurants in America? Probably. But the two nominees might. No, the list doesn’t include the debut venture from Karen Akunowicz. And neither are thankfully anywhere near the Seaport. Both nominees are humble, understated and blissfully free of hype. Until now.
Tawakal Halal Cafe first started serving traditional Somali cuisine in Orient Heights in 2010. After taking a seven year hiatus and a move to Jeffries Point, they reopened late last year to a small but devoted throng of followers. Not simply because they’re the best Somali food in town; they’re actually the only one. But because anything you think your favorite Indian food restaurant can do well can be mastered by Tawakal—but always with a distinctly East African hue. No, I can’t recommend their beef with spaghetti. Doesn’t interest me in the least. But their take on biryani, their sambusas and even their chickpea wraps should remind you that cross-pollination is always a good thing.
I personally can’t say the same about DakZen. Mainly because I have yet to visit, and I’m not certain why. I have my own choices for Thai street food nearby, and I’m too stubborn to give them up. But it’s a noodle-centric menu. It boasts that it has less items “since the real good Thai food takes time to prepare.” It’s won numerous awards from the likes of Boston magazine and the Bon Appetit review opines that they “prove America needs another fast-casual restaurant.” Except… “the real good Thai food takes time to prepare.”
Perhaps they’re both right. They’re the taste makers after all, and it’s better to see casual Thai food nominated than a whimsical fusion of Italian and Mexican with $19 margaritas.
But they’re still anonymous.
Tawakal Halal Cafe is located at 389 Maverick St in East Boston. DakZen is at 195 Elm St in Somerville. For Bon Appetit’s entire list of 50 Best New Restaurants in America for 2019, visit Bon Appetit's 50 Best New Restaurants in America