Who doesn’t love a bargain? Especially if you’re a penny-pinching college student or a newcomer who’s eating out a lot while getting settled? Rhode Island’s official state cuisine is Italian — or Italian-American, in most cases — and it’s a natural for large portions at low prices. But other down-home "ethnic restaurants," like those based on Southeast Asian cuisines or the cooking of Latin America, have the same immigrant tradition of stretching out the protein with starch (pasta, rice, tortillas) and lots of veggies (let’s call tomato sauce a veggie in this context).
The following recommendations are drawn from a variety of cultures and types of food, although there are many other spots to explore in this tiny state of ours. They include, but are not limited to: Casa Brasil (Brazilian, East Providence); El Paisa (Colombian, Central Falls); Café Paradiso (Greek, Cranston); Lemi’s BBQ (Hong Kong, Cranston); Ocean View (Chinese, Narragansett); Madeira (Portuguese, East Providence); Ran Zan (Japanese, Providence); El Chapincito (Guatemalan, Providence); and Van Ghent (Belgian, Westerly).
Let’s begin with the most prevalent — the Italian-American restaurants — from humble pizza parlors to full-scale family eateries. Federal Hill is Providence’s "Little Italy," with restaurants of every stripe and price range sitting "side by each," as we say in Rhode Islandese. The longest-lasting and still one of the most popular is Angelo’s Civita Farnese (141 Atwells Ave., Providence, 401-621-8171). Though it has renovated and expanded in recent years, Angelo’s still has enamel-topped tables in the main dining room, along with the overhead model train (which runs along its track each time someone puts in a quarter) and old-fashioned letter-board menus posted here and there. Past favorites have been broccoli with cavatelli; stuffed shells; the meatball-sausage combo (which comes with fries); and "greens and beans" soup (escarole and cannellini).
Another down home Italian-American place worth visiting is in the basement of the Sons of Italy lodge near the East Providence Town Hall. Spirito’s (99 Hicks St., East Providence, 401-434-4435) has some of the yummiest marinara sauce and the largest, tastiest meatballs around. Dinner entrées (all under $15) come with soup or salad, and pasta or potatoes and vegetables, and the seven pasta meals (all under $11) are also accompanied by soup or salad. So you’re bound to have leftovers at Spirito’s.
Our third Italian-American bargain is Sam’s Restaurant and Pizzeria (149 Bradford St., Bristol, 401-253-7949). Sam’s is third-generation, begun in 1946 by Santo ("Sam") Macena. Stepping into Sam’s is like a trip to the ’50s: red-checkered vinyl tablecloths; a standing fan in one corner, and an old Coca-Cola cooler in another; and a few stools at the counter. Pizza is their thing, and favorites include the Milly V. (with escarole, olives, pepperoni, mushrooms, peppers and onions), and the Sea of Love (shrimp, scallops, quahogs, seafood flake). But the homemade dinners are also delicious, from linguini & veal to aglio olio capellini primavera (all under $8).
In a completely different vein, you can find two good veggie places at either end of the state: Garden Grille (727 East Ave., Pawtucket, 401-726-2826) and Crazy Burger (144 Boon St., Narragansett, 401-783-1810). Garden Grille first established its reputation on its "garden burgers" and "tempeh burgers," though they are not house-made. More recently, its vegan options expanded significantly to include wraps, sandwiches, quesadillas, pizzas, and entrées such as stir-fried, steamed, or wood-grilled veggies over organic brown rice. Crazy Burger also has burgers, some vegan, some not. They run the gamut from turkey, lamb, beef, and salmon to five vegan variations, some with tempeh, some with tofu, some with nuts and lentils. My favorite is the "wild & crazy mushroom burger," with three kinds of mushrooms mixed with rice, on a sesame brioche, smothered in wild mushroom gravy. Crazy Burger also has fish, chicken, veggie, and vegan entrées, and an award-winning Key lime pie.
There are many, many good Asian restaurants scattered around the state: Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thai. And there are several, including Apsara Asian (in Providence) and Siam Square (in Pawtucket), that do a super job of the latter four cuisines. But the one we return to most often is Four Seasons (361 Reservoir Ave., Providence, 401-461-5651). We’ve enjoyed the Vietnamese nime chow, which are fresh spring rolls with rice noodles, shrimp, Asian mint, and bean sprouts — you dip the whole thing in a peanut sauce; pad Thai, noodles with a choice of vegetarian or several meats and seafood items; Vietnamese sweet and sour soups, which easily feed four; lemongrass chicken; the "home-style bean curd"; and string beans with spicy garlic sauce. No matter how many dishes you order, your bill will be astoundingly cheap.
Three other Asian eateries to which we’ve repeatedly returned are: Not Just Snacks (833-835 Hope St., Providence, 401-831-1150); Thai Star (1058 Chalkstone Blvd., 401-421-5840); and Saigon Café (823 West Main Rd., Middletown, 401-848-2252). Not Just Snacks, a good declaration in its name, is also a reference to Not Just Spices, the shop across the street where it all began. We loved discovering new-to-us dishes, such as batatawada, a kind of potato fritter; khasta kachori, spicy fried patties; and malai kofta, vegetable dumplings with a mild curry sauce over rice. Their versions of sambhars (a tomato curry sauce, with rice patties or lentils) and thalis (in vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions) are enticingly good. Once again, you sample to your heart’s content without straining your budget.
Thai Star is, predictably, Thai cuisine, and Saigon Café is Vietnamese. Thai Star has been a standard for us with their curries, especially massaman curry (I like it over tofu, but there are many choices); coconut soup, chicken soup, pad Thai, chicken and peanut combinations, and tamarind fish. Saigon Café has a wide-ranging menu, from the hot, sweet and sour Vietnamese soups to the traditional grilled shrimp paste on sticks of sugar cane, and "hot pots," simmering pots of lemongrass broth fired up at your table, to which you add veggies, tofu, meats, and/or seafood. Don’t miss the three kinds of mung beans with gummy-worm-like jellies mixed in.
Other low-cost meals can be found at the Middle Eastern eateries serving falafel and pocket bread sandwiches. The veteran is Pick Pockets (231 Old Tower Hill Rd., Wakefield, 401-792-3360). Four Lebanese-American brothers head up Pick Pockets, with Khaldoun Mahmoud in the lead. Their falafel, shaped from ground chickpeas and deep fried, are herbier and crunchier than most, without being greasy. With olives, pepperoncini, lettuce, tomatoes, and tahini sauce over it all, the falafel pita wrap is more than one meal. Pick Pockets also offers a "veggie," with hummus and tabouleh; a "crazy veggie" (like a salad in a sandwich); and a "grilled veggie" (with cold grilled vegetables and feta). Their signature "Pick Pocket" has lightly breaded eggplant slices, roasted red peppers. and fresh mozzarella, with Romaine and balsamic dressing (there’s also a chicken version).
Among the groundswell of Latin American restaurants in the state, the ones that bobbed to the surface this time are the modestly named Bolivian Restaurant (1040 Chalkstone Blvd., Providence, 401-521-1000), Mexico (948 Atwells Ave., Providence, 401-331-4985) and Tina’s Caribbean (206 Broad St., Providence, 401 621-7779 and 109 Broadway, Newport, 401-324-6849). Bolivian Restaurant wowed me with their (bone-in) chicken rice soup; luscious layer cakes, with fresh fruit fillings; intriguing drinks (from corn, dried peaches and ground peanuts, for example); mashed yucca with queso blanco; and the meat medleys called parrilladas, with steak, sausage, ribs, chicken breast, pork chops, and/or tripe.
Mexico itself has some unusual dishes not typically found in Tex-Mex or Cal-Mex restaurants: fried beef tongue with tomatoes and onions; shredded and seasoned goat meat; cow’s feet in a tostada; shredded or fried pork in tacos or burritos. Everything at Mexico has spices and herbs that transport you south of the border. Don’t forget to order the cold almondy drink horchata to counteract the heat.
Most of the food at Tina’s Caribbean is not hot-spicy, except for the jerk chicken or pork. There are unusual flavors, however, that will lift your spirits like a tropical breeze, particularly the sweet, twice-fried plantains; Jamaican patties, in beef, chicken or veggie variations; and the Bob Marley special, which scrambles ackee (a yellow Caribbean fruit) and soaked salt cod with onions, peppers, and rice.
The last three "cheap eats" suggestions are pure Americana, and Rhode Island’s interpretation of that: Quito’s (411 Thames St., Bristol, 401-253-4500), Bluebird Café (554 Kingstown Rd., Wakefield, 401-792-8940) and L.J.’s BBQ (605 Douglas Ave., Providence, 401-274-1227). Quito’s has gone a little more upscale in its prices lately, although the lunch portions of seafood, the sandwiches (including clam, shrimp, and scallop rolls), and the fish & chips are still under $11. Location is always key, and this overgrown clam shack sits at the end of a dock in Bristol Harbor, a picturesque piece of water with sailboats nearby and Prudence Island in the distance. The fried clams and the f&c are some of the best to be had, and the seafood stew, chockfull of scallops, shrimp and cod, is worth the drive (or bike ride — Quito’s is at the very end of the East Bay Bike Path, 14.8 miles from Providence, a memorable expedition).
The folks who run Bluebird Café started out in New Orleans, sold that Bluebird, and moved to Rhode Island. They brought their love of biscuits and grits, crawfish jambalaya, red beans and rice, Creole chicken, turkey gumbo, and other South Louisiana dishes with them. They also have a penchant for Southwestern cuisine and their huevos or pollo or verduras (veggies) ranchero fly out of the kitchen as fast as the cook can make them. Corn muffins and pecan pie are also a treat.
L.J.’s BBQ is to any other barbecue in southeastern New England what Durgin Park’s baked beans are to Campbell’s. It sets the standard, with dry-rubbed and wet-mopped pork ribs that are smoked over apple and hickory wood for up to 12 hours before being finished on the grill. Their pulled pork sandwiches and barbecued chicken are no slouches, either. And the sides of collards, yams, potato salad, mac/cheese, red beans, and rice or coleslaw are the real thing, as are their homemade pies. Save room for dessert and take some of the BBQ home.
Issue Date: August 27 - September 2, 2004
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