A street food spot that even the food nerds don’t know about
East Boston may be one of the best neighborhoods in the city for dining out, and over the past decade or so, it’s really started to get noticed. But while some restaurants there, such as the original Angela’s Cafe on Lexington Street, are frequented by a mix of industry folk, food writers, people in the know, and locals, many others are so far off the radar that you’ll probably never, ever hear of them. One such spot is El Palmar, a Mexican and Salvadoran eatery in Day Square that’s a solid place for cheap eats but is truly a neighborhood restaurant where few outside of Day Square even know of its existence.
El Palmar sits among a strip of businesses where Bennington Street meets Chelsea Street that includes the wonderful Spinelli’s pastry shop, and as people who frequent Spinelli’s know, the storefronts here actually have their very own parking lot with a handful of spaces. Looking at the restaurant from the outside can bring about a sense of not quite fear, but perhaps caution, as the window out front is blocked by a poster that completely covers it so you can’t see in at all (and anyone who is familiar with dive bars knows that this can sometimes be a very bad thing). But as questionable as it looks from the parking lot and the street, El Palmar really is a simple, laid-back spot that is frequented by everyone from families to couples to groups of friends to solo diners, and it is by no means a rough-around-the-edges place at all. The brightly lit interior is set up in a simple manner, with about 10 tables, a counter area for takeout orders, and walls that have a number of flags hanging from it, including the flags of a number of Central American, South American, and Caribbean nations.
Like so many restaurants in East Boston, El Palmar tends to focus on street foods found in Mexico and El Salvador, though there seems to be just a bit more of a leaning toward Mexican fare here than at some of the other nearby spots in Day Square, Central Square, Maverick Square, and elsewhere in Eastie. One highlight is the burrito, which, much like a favorite spot in downtown Boston does (Villa Mexico), is grilled, which gives some char to the tortilla, adding some extra flavor—and the burritos at El Palmar are stuffed with a slightly crumbly queso fresco, which gives a bit of additional texture inside. The tacos served here are as simple as can be, served in a classic street-food style with the ingredients placed on top of a slightly charred corn tortilla, and the beef tacos are particularly good as the grilled meat has a smokiness and just enough fat left on to add some extra flavor. El Palmar’s version of guacamole is chunkier than some, and it also has more of an onion flavor than the smooth versions you might find at other places, so it may not be for everyone but overall, it’s quite impressive. As is the case with chips and guacamole, it can ruin your appetite in a hurry (but in a good way). The enchiladas Mexicanas rojas plate features a rich red sauce, a mix of cheeses, and rice and beans on the side, while the enchiladas verdes picantes spices things up a bit with hot peppers included in the salsa verde. A few Salvadoran dishes at El Palmar include hen soup, pupusas (with a couple of options being tilapia and lorco, with the latter being an edible flower), fried plantain, and a traditional Salvadoran breakfast with scrambled eggs, onions, tomatoes, chiles, plantains, and avocados, all served with tortillas. El Palmar doesn’t have a liquor license, but it does offer such beverages as a mango smoothie and a very refreshing melon drink.
Chances are, you’ve never heard of El Palmar, but no worries, since no one else really has, either. Is it the best option for Mexican/Central American food in East Boston? Probably not, especially with the likes of Angela’s, La Hacienda, and Mi Pueblito nearby. But its head and shoulders above your typical Mexican-American chain restaurant and actually does compare favorably with the places mentioned above, if not quite at that level. And the fact that it is utterly unknown gives it extra points, at least if you’re a food nerd looking for hidden gems night after night. Eastie is a special place for dining out that is finally starting to get its due, and El Palmar is a good one to include on any list of places to check out when in the Day Square area.
EL PALMAR. 290 BENNINGTON ST., EAST BOSTON. ELPALMARBOSTON.COM
Marc is the founder of @hiddenboston, a textbook editor, a hike leader for @AppMtnClub, and a food and travel writer and commenter for DigBoston, NBC/NECN, WBZ, WMFO and indie617.