How about a cultural food crawl around this grand city of ours? Start off with a coffee and tostadas at one of these eateries, serving the best Cuban food in Boston; spend your lunch hour devouring the best Thai food in Boston and end up having a dinner of sushi, udon, yakitori and creative bento boxes at one of the best Japanese restaurants in Boston—which we round up right here. Still feeling hunger pangs after all that? How about a midnight snack at the best diners in Boston?
Best Japanese restaurants in Boston
Clear out your bank account and then clear your weekend, because O Ya’s singular dining experience is one to be savored. Owners Tim and Nancy Cushman set a new bar for special-event dining with O Ya’s opening in 2007; even today the restaurant regularly wins accolades as the best restaurant in town, if not in the country (that’s according to the New York Times’ Frank Bruni). The sushi and omakase menu is a marvel of both flavor and presentation, with every morsel—from the foie gras nigiri to the bluefin tuna and smoked salmon sashimi—a delectable work of art. Those seeking to actually pay their rent this month can stick to the homemade soba or seasonal fish entrees, while high rollers would be remiss not to order the $280 A5 Aragawa style striploin (hey, at least it comes with frites!).
This South End sushi den is where you come for the flashy, loft-like setting and stay for the specialty rolls. Start (relatively) simply with the spicy tempura tuna or “real” California maki, then tuck in for a culinary adventure: rolls made with lobster tempura, truffles, caviar and wagyu beef, to name but a few outré elements. Steak and potato types might want to stick to the entrée side of the menu, which includes teriyaki ribeye, seafood risotto and a Chilean seabass. Don’t skimp on the drinks, either, especially since the eatery’s menu includes more than 50 sakes and cocktails like the literally smoking Yuzu Spirit, made with ginza suzume soju and liquid nitrogen.
With great loss comes great opportunity, and so it was when Ken Oringer’s long-venerated Clio shuttered its dining room doors, paving the way for Uni’s expansion. What was once a tucked-away sashimi bar has blossomed into a 100-seat izayaka, where you can now pair your nigiri with Japanese milk bread, ember roasted duck breast, King crab yakitori and wagyu beef dumplings. But the sushi is still a must, including the lobster BLT roll, the A5 wagyu sirloin nigiri and the still-incredible sashimi offerings upon which Uni built its reputation. The sake program includes unfiltered and nama (unpasteurized) varietals, and the late-night weekend ramen menu is still blissfully in place, elevated in style by the occasional celebrity chef appearance.
There are many reasons to be excited about Pagu’s recent debut in Central Square. For starters, the restaurant is helmed by Tracy Chang, an under-30 wunderkind who got her start at O Ya and has made a name for herself while manning Guchi's Midnight Ramen, an underground ramen pop-up. Secondly, the atmosphere is amazing: a sleek, two-story loft space made far homier by the familial customer service and complimentary satsuma oranges up front. Even the name is a treat: Japanese for “pug” and a homage to Chang’s own canine master, Phoebe. But it’s the food that’s the ultimate revelation here: ikura avocado toast, pork belly bao, sea scallop sashimi and comfort fare like Chang’s childhood fried rice. Order the prix fixe menu or go à la carte: if you’re feeling peckish, a pear ginger daiquiri paired with a curry crab croqueta will take the edge off nicely.
Every hipster hotel deserves a hipster izakaya, especially one helmed by the city’s best restaurateurs. Tim and Nancy Cushman, of the much-lauded O Ya, have brought a cheekier, more accessible concept to the modish Verb Hotel in the Fenway. Creative maki rolls share menu space with ramen, robata (grilled skewers) and impossible-to-categorize dishes like the bacon-wrapped, jalapeno-stuffed Doggzilla hot dog. The drink menu, saucy in all meanings of the term, includes frozen tiki classics, 20 different sakes and large-format drinks that come “from the tank” (think lethal Caribbean punch in a scorpion bowl).
This Downtown Crossing spot is all about razzle-dazzle event dining, with a small plates and sushi menu that’s ideal for date night. Standouts include lobster and pork belly okonomiyaki, maitake mushroom tempura and the Japanese wagyu steak skewers. A truly celebratory evening might demand the whole Maine lobster ryoshi-nabe (hot pot) and the Australian tomahawk steak for two—or perhaps a mess of makimono rolls chased with a few dangerously smooth aromatic cocktails.
Smart diners know to go where the chefs go. Cafe Sushi attracts many of the area’s best cooks as they look to kick back over affordable plates of perfectly prepared maki and nigiri. All the standards are here, from salmon skin rolls to hamachi sashimi, at prices rarely seen inside city limits. But the signature makimono is where things get interesting: ceviche maki, spicy salmon citrus roll, hamachi Ssam Jang temaki and oshiiyushi (pressed sushi), complemented by side orders of salmon roe and seared avocado. Then there’s the kama (broiled fish collar) menu, a rarity ‘round these parts and a revelation to anyone usually dismissive of lesser known seafood cuts.
Japanese food in the Italian-centric North End? An oddity indeed, yet Crudo is hardly a hidden gem. The glam, two-story space is all about surprises, from the undersung sakes to the cheekily named maki rolls. Creative dishes include a diced tuna taco and the Cru-OH! Lasagna maki (baked California roll with cream cheese, scallops, mayo and eel sauce), but there are plenty of classic pleasures, from the udon to the poke to the pork buns. Another surprise: the brunch menu, which somehow includes both lobster Benedict and lobster wonton, along with a full sushi list.
Peruvian meets Asian? Even seasoned diners scratched their head at Ruka’s debut, but the skepticism was misplaced—in fact, Peru’s foodways are imbued with Japanese influences, and Nikkei, an amalgam of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine, is already a gastronomic hit in Europe. The team from Yvonne’s has put together a revelatory dining experience, which might start with a sweet and spicy scallop ceviche and continue on to Sichuan king mushroom oysters with la brasa sauce. The smoked cobia with curly udon, miso-dashi butter, basil and spinach is a highlight, but the menu centerpiece may well be the whole crispy Japanese butterfish, served with a sweet chili panca sauce and best savored with a San Lorenzo, a delectable rum cocktail for two.
Obsessive chowhounds agree: Start to finish, this 18-seat gem gives you the authentic ramen experience. The staff shouts “Irasshaimase!” upon entry, then invites you to choose between two no-frills options: a bowl of pork ramen ($12) or a bowl of pork ramen with extra thick-sliced pork ($14). If you successfully finish your entire (enormous) bowl, you’ll receive a call out: “We have a perfect!” Most guests manage a “s/he did a good job!” meaning they made it through the noodles but not the broth. Yes, you might wait outside to get a seat, and yes, it’s still worth it—the restaurant’s name, after all, translates to “talk about your dreams.”