Dollar for dollar Momofuku Ssam may be the best restaurant Ive been to. Restaurants held in similar esteem around the world will run you up to $500 a head. We ate a flawless meal for $50 each. Liz and I went there with a group of 10 so that we could order the Bo ssam – a slow-cooked pork butt that needs to be reserved in advance and is only for parties of 6 or more. The restaurant only takes reservations for the bo ssam and for 6-10 people, and only at certain times of the day. But plan ahead and you will be rewarded with porcine riches the likes of which you will not find elsewhere. With 10 people the servers recommended ordering some other dishes to begin with. We obliged and got a variety of courses, as you’ll see below: cured hamachi, pig’s head, fried chicken, rice cakes, steamed buns, country ham (not pictured) and oysters (not pictured). Every bite was delicious with the standouts being the rice cakes and the steamed buns.
cured hamachi – edamame, horseradish, pea leaves
crispy pig's head (newman's farm, mo) – lime pickle, frisee
Hard to discern exactly how the head was prepared, but the flesh was a melange of unctuous pig-face parts deep fried to a crisp and served with refreshing citrus flavors which cut the fat just right.
spicy pork sausage & rice cakes – chinese broccoli, crispy shallots
For me, this is the winning dish at Ssam. I have been there three times now and have ordered it each time. I’ve always loved the texture of rice cakes – a spongier, chewier gnoccho – and these have a slight crisp around the edges that make them irresistible. The spicy pork, shallots, and broccoli, all hold their own and contribute meaningfully to the flavor. Perfect.
bell & evan's fried chicken – ramps, morels, egg
This was just egregious carnivorism. When fried chicken is on the menu at a nice restaurant, you know it’s got to be good.
steamed buns – pork belly, hoisin, cucumbers, scallions
I love how damn simple these things are. Not too many flavors and not much to them, but the combination is perfect, the pork and bun just melt.
Finally the bo ssam. The accompaniments were trotted out first:
bo ssam accompaniments: kimchi three ways, bibb lettuce, rice
Then came what we had been waiting for. At first glance we didn’t think it would be big enough, but soon enough we were struggling to force down this impressive piece of pork.
The bo ssam comes with several tongs and you just rip the meat off the bone. Rip is the wrong word, though, since a gentle tug will be plenty to get this tender pork on your plate. Then you put your pork in a piece of lettuce, top it with some of the sauce and rice, wrap it up and throw it down.
wrap it, eat it, love it
For dessert we headed next door to the milk bar for unnecessarily large pieces of delicious cake.
On a separate occasion I visited Momofuku Ssam for lunch. The $25 fixed price option of buns, spicy rice cakes, and thai iced tea parfait is an absolutely incredible deal for the quality. Highly recommended.
Tupelo and Hungry Mother are two of the most celebrated additions to the Cambridge eating scene over the past year. That they are both southern inspired suggests a niche in the Boston area that was screaming to be filled at least since the closing of Bob the Chef’s over on Tremont. By most accounts, Tupelo and Hungry Mother are doing a fine job, and our experiences at both restaurants largely confirm this. So a traditional like/dislike review seems less appropriate in this case than a comparison of these largely similar establishments. If you’re in the mood for some catfish, fried oysters, roasted chicken or grits where should you go? Here’s recommending Tupelo.
With appetizers at $5-8 and entrees for $12-15 Tupelo beats Hungry Mother’s prices ($8-11 apps and $18-25 entrees) by a sizable margin, without sacrificing anything when it comes to the food or atmosphere (though Hungry Mother does trump Tupelo in terms of drink selection and quality). Tupelo’s fried oysters with green tomatoes ($8) stacked up against Hungry Mother’s fried oysters ($11) and I preferred their catfish ($14.50) to Mother’s ($18).
Most of Hungry Mother’s offerings stray a bit too far from the comfort food and too close to the French for my taste. The dishes tend to be a bit more “refined” than at Tupelo, but in a totally vanilla way. There is nothing comforting or interesting about the rainbow trout dish below. Other entrees on the menu are similarly uninspired e.g. french style gnocchi (I’m not sure what makes these gnocchi French, but anything that would make them less Italian can’t be good) and veal strip loin. These items do not jump off the menu. Tupelo’s entrees, on the other hand, sound unhealthy and delicious: beer battter crepes, daube of beef with hominy mashed potatoes, bourbon maple bbq chicken, new orleans gumbo. The one disappointing part of Tupelo was the biscuit. There are few breads I like more than a good biscuit, but this version was dry and bland. Other than that, Tupelo satisfied on all counts.
Hungry Mother's fried Chesapeake Bay Oysters
Tupelo's Crispy Catfish with fresh green tomatoes, parsley potatoes, and pickled jalapeno aioli
Hungry Mother's cornmeal catfish w/low country red rice middlins, andouille sausage, green tomato relish
Fish was good, but the middlins were quite bland, which was an issue the last time I had this dish.
Hungry Mother’s grilled rainbow trout, fingerlings, red vidalias, bacon, almond-brown butter
Tupelo's Half Roasted Chicken, Bourbon-Maple BBQ chicken with cheddar grits, sweet onions and quick dressed greens
The half-chicken was moist and sticky and salty and sweet and went great with the dense cornbread and the cheesy grits. This is what I want if I’m in the mood for southern flavors.
Tupelo's Brown Butter Pecan Pie with Toscanini's Tupelo honey ice cream and blackberry sauce
The pecan pie was delicious though i read somewhere that it might be off the menu now. The rest of the desserts looked equally good, so there should be no shortage of delicious ways to finish your meal.