What: Why do you think it’s called Beantown? Slow-cooked beans have long been a tradition in Boston; the dish is said to have originated with the Native Americans, who baked navy beans with maple syrup, venison, and bear fat in pits dug into the ground. At some point, early English settlers started stewing the beans and substituting salt pork and molasses, the latter of which was plentiful at the time (due to the area’s role as a rum producer in a triangular trade with Caribbean sugar cane and West African slaves). Of course, nowadays baked beans are mostly associated with the canned-goods aisle of your local supermarket. But while it’s not easy to find a good homemade rendition in a Boston restaurant, it’s not impossible — and it is worthwhile.
Good to know: Vegetarians, be warned: Boston baked beans are always cooked with pork unless specified otherwise.
Where: Since opening in late 2010, the Island Creek Oyster Bar quickly made a name for itself for its excellent, fresh, largely locally sourced seafood. Surprise: It also serves a terrific side of baked beans.
When: Monday to Saturday, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to midnight
Order: Go for the raw and cooked oysters, the local fish or fried clams, the Maine lobster roll, whatever—just get some “old-school baked beans” ($5) on the side. They’re made in-house the traditional way, with salt pork, molasses, some chicken stock, and Dijon mustard, and they come to the table piping-hot, subtly sweet, and — our favorite part — dotted with delicious hunks of fatty pork. It’s the perfect stick-to-your-ribs comfort food to pair with that delicate seafood and good local beer.
Alternatively: Historic Durgin-Park always has real Boston baked beans on its menu, cooked with similar ingredients according to its published recipe. Here, the beans are sweeter and smaller in size than those at Island Creek, and the pork plays a less prominent role in the bowl. Still worth seeking out, along with some of DP’s other classics, like Boston scrod and Indian pudding.