i was just asked by a newcomer to recommend some local restaurants for a visiting parent, and i practically jumped through the telephone with excitement to recommend all the eats in downtown lowell. i realize this list is going to be woefully inadequate and patently unfair because it's going to miss so many good options and lean unabashedly towards my personal favorites, but i figured as long as i was compiling i ought to be sharing, so here goes!
i'll also pause to observe that i do know that "adventurous" is not for everyone. i know a lot of folks like a menu full of food they recognize, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. (this is also further complicated by the fact that in a city like lowell, "food they recognize" varies just about as widely as "food", but i'll take it from the cliche middle-american perspective that is the lowest common denominator i can think of, and work out from there). folks also might prefer a full wait staff and bar, so let's divide these into categories that can help narrow the choices, since getting out of a restaurant with the greatest meal you've ever had for $10 is just one of many laudable objectives when it comes to eating out.
the best meals i've ever had in the city of lowell (tied) are between viet-thai, (vietnamese), downtown across from city hall, and phien's kitchen, (laotian), out on westford street in the highlands. yes, phien's kitchen is not downtown, and otherwise out of consideration for inclusion in this little beauty contest, but if you haven't stopped in there for a meal, you are sadly the poorer for it and have no idea what you are missing, and i simply can't resist the shout-out. no tablecloths or fancy decor, and cash-only at the till, but some of the most amazing food anywhere at any price, and when you factor in the price, you won't be able to believe you've hit that kind of jackpot. and by all this, i do mean, anywhere and for any price. the larb can be made as spicy as you can stand it, and the food is hot and so fresh you will almost drown in your own saliva on the first whiff of it. i'm partial to the beef tongue, (remember this is the "adventurous" category), but right here and right now i will tell you that the purple sticky rice for dessert is going to be one of those things you remember for a long, long time, and you could feed it to the most finicky child or set-in-their-ways old person (there are no palates harder to please than the very old and very young) and they would love you forever, and clamor incessantly to go back. phien's kitchen--almost to tyler park, and out of this world. this is one of those places to which if you have a gourmand for a friend, and want to show off, you bring them. and if you bring your own wine, (i bring my own beer, but that's me), you can have a three-star michelin taste experience for not much more than just the change rattling around the innards of your sofa.
of course, if that all sounds like too much or too far to go, don't forget viet-thai. best vietnamese spring rolls i've ever had, and the fried calamari appetizer ROCKS. i go for the pad ke or mee pad noodles, (your choice of mix-ins and heat), but you can't miss anywhere on their menu. and it's right across from city hall, and newly expanded so there's always a seat. bring a party of 10, and offer to pick up the check--i'll bet it isn't much over $100 all-in--and they'll all believe you're incredibly rich, and incredibly tasteful.
of course, mentioning these two places it's necessary to point out that, as passionate about these two as i am, there are many equally passionate fans regarding the southeast asian restaurant on market street, and i honestly can't fault their tastes either. not byob, (i believe they serve beer there), southeast asian adds to their essential deliciousness the convenience of being able to sample from not only vietnamese and laotian, but burmese, thai and cambodian, too. another winner.
in the interest of time, and your diminishing patience with my verbosity, here's more of the list with less commentary:
columbian: delicias paisas right over the bridge on bridge street. another asterisk for not being technically downtown, the empanadas are not only just a buck, but to die for. the special plate with the pork belly and every kind of protein you can imagine plus a fried egg on top is amazing. not so much english, but well worth the effort to point and gesture to some of the best food around.
italian: ricardo's can't be beat for authentic lowell history (kerouac drank there under previous name and ownership) and for portion sizes, and the flavors are all there, too. it's busy, so reservations might be prudent on weekends, but the jazz is pleasant and the service very, very good.
greek: i'm an athenian corner guy, and i know that there are plenty of olympos people around town, but i'm taking the asterisk on technical downtown-ness here, and going with the folk festival barbecue tie-breaker. you also can't beat the music on thursday nights where a greek guy, an armenian guy and a turk all play together in what has to be one of the most eloquent expressions of new-country people overcoming old-country politics anywhere in the city or anywhere else for that matter. they also had steve o'connor's book signing the other week, so there's that, too. on the table, their bread is the best in the city, and that alone makes it a must-go for me. the rest of the menu rocks, too.
portuguese: friends is very, very nice. quiet, savory and delicious. (mmmmm, linguica and chorizo!) very reasonable prices, too. nice little date spot.
brazilian: i've got to take an asterisk with this one, because i understand taboca's went under new management recently, but even if things have slid since the zenith, there is everything to love about endless brazilian barbecued meat on a sword coupled with a bountiful buffet of every kind of salad and fresh fruit and vegetable you can imagine. (mmmmmm, buffalo cheese).
traditional american: cobblestones is what most folks think of when they think of a top-notch and quintessentially american restaurant. you've got your steaks and your salads and your complete bar experience, and in an ambiance that impresses every time. gracious building. attentive, friendly wait staff. good food. it's a great place, and a great restaurant.
japanese/sushi: this genre polarizes like none other, and i can't for the life of my understand why. etsogo serves up sushi that takes no back seat to what you'll find in new york or san francisco, and if you haven't tried their dynamite appetizer (that's what it's called, and that's what it is--"dynamite") you haven't lived yet in downtown lowell. it's served warm, and they respect it too much to allow you to order it to go, so GO! it's amazing. there's of course an asterisk to those who like the mood and the cocktails at the blue taleh, but solely on the merits of the sushi and not the drinks, etsogo wins for me. (though blue taleh is not a bad second to have, if seconds there must be--i'd happily enjoy it every time if it were the only option).
french: la boniche is the top nosh in the city, and if you want the best service and food in the city, and can afford the freight, this is your destination. this is the kind of place you go for special meals with special people, and they'll always make sure you feel like you got every penny's worth. (too bad i can't eat there every day...) you'll definitely impress your gourmand friend with this one as a follow-up to phien's kitchen.
mexican: mr jalapeno gets the nod here for authenticity. and they have big trouble play every year for a benefit. and the food is awesome. of course, if the category were expanded to encompass tex-mexican, then mambo grill would share the nod here for general deliciousness, or when only an over-the-counter burrito will do. and you can sit down at the mambo for the frequent music, too. the beauty of both being right across the street from each other is that you can know you want those flavors, and still head out without having to make up your mind until the very last possible moment.
pizza and subs: i'm a sammy's guy, and i'm a sammy's guy because their calzones are the cheesiest and most delicious to be had anywhere, and that's how i roll. the pizza is greek style as opposed to italian, which causes me to mention espresso pizza for that, (i'm all about the crust, and espresso's crust is the real deal), and if it's decadence from a deep fryer you want, then i'll also mention suppa's across the river in the heart of umass lowell's north campus for a steak stick, which is all the ingredients from a cheese steak sub, wrapped in pizza dough, and then submerged in the fry-o-lator until it become pure love on a plate. (they all deliver, so all your bases can be covered).
chinese: this one is important--china star on broadway just past the market basket is worth the trip. (and they deliver, of course). chinese restaurants are often like fast food burger joints in terms of the gustatory predictability and mediocrity. unfortunately, many of us forget what a real burger tastes like (more on that in a second) and what real chinese food ought to be. yes, i know, real chinese food in china is not what we've come to consider real chinese food here, but, that point aside, china star takes a huge leap ahead of the competition in terms of freshness, tastiness and variety. (you can buy pork belly by the pound, and whole roast ducks for two more extreme examples). this one is it as far as i'm concerned, and nothing else comes close.
honorable mentions: speaking of burgers, the beer works is behind the tsongas, and a bit of a walk, but their burgers and other food (the nachos are ENORMOUS and enormously good) get the boost from the good, fresh beer, so make it worth the effort. centro is universally praised, but, believe it or not, for all the eating out i do around here, i've yet to get to try it myself.
have some favorites of your own you'd like to mention? add a comment!