Welcome back to Comedian Confidential, in which Boston comics (or those with Boston roots) discuss their favorite restaurants and more.
Comedian Jay Larson, a Stoneham native, has teamed up with comedian Sean Patton for Esquire Network's Best Bars in America, a 10-episode television show that brings to life the list of the same name published in Esquire Magazine. The duo recently traveled to Boston for an episode that will air this Wednesday, July 16, at 10 p.m., visiting Drink, Brick & Mortar, Bleacher Bar, and more.
Here's Larson on his favorite memories of Boston food, from accidentally eating a stranger's garlic bread at Vinny Testa's to seeing clowns at Ground Round, and some more recent discoveries around town.
I hear you were at a couple of my favorite spots when you were in town, Highland Kitchen and Trina's Starlite Lounge.
We sure were. Highland Kitchen was awesome. We had such a blast; the bartender was the best. That was one of my favorite bars in the entire show. And Trina's is such a cool place. We went there for the industry brunch. Oh my God, that food was so damn good. We had a really good time in Boston.
How much do you get back here these days?
One or two times a year. My brother and his husband live in the South End, so I usually stay with them. And my sister lives in Belmont, and my mom is still out where we grew up.
Nice. Lots of good restaurants in the South End, too.
Oh my God, that's where we hang out. We go to B&G Oysters — their backyard kind of abuts B&G's backyard, so we go there, and then right across the street, Barbara Lynch has another restaurant — The Butcher Shop.
First of all, I'm in LA, and one of the things I miss food-wise — I miss belly clams. You can't get belly clams anywhere. There's one spot in LA you can get them, and I've had them, but it's just not the same as having them back East. And I miss the snow.
Oh my God, yeah. So we were at my brother's house, and it was just starting to snow. We get to The Butcher Shop at 4:00, sit down at the bar, and start drinking some wine — we didn't leave until midnight. The whole snowstorm happened outside, and we ate three different times, you know what I mean? Like, we eat, get dessert, then drink, then be like, "Should we grab an appetizer?" Then we'd wait, and then we'd split an entree...the bill was pretty ridiculous, and luckily it's not my town anymore, so my brother-in-law picked up the tab. [Laughs.]
Have you been to any of Barbara Lynch's other places?
When we were in town doing the show, we went to Drink; that was a pretty cool experience, being able to go there.
I never really got a chance to have my Boston experience, living in the city and being able to enjoy it, so I have to rely on friends to take me to places when I'm home, you know? Of course, I know Pizzeria Regina — we grew up going to Pizzeria Regina, and we grew up going to Kelly's, because my mother was from Revere, so we'd go there for roast beef. Then they opened another Kelly's in Saugus, and my buddy would be like, "We're going to Kelly's," so I would get that when I was home. Oh, that's another thing — they don't have roast beef joints out here.
How about the other way around — are there foods that you've found out there that you don't think Boston does well or doesn't have much of?
One thing for sure is that East Coast Chinese food is completely different from West Coast Chinese. In Stoneham, there was this great Chinese restaurant called The China Moon — first of all, that's a great name. The China Moon? Come on. So for me, East Coast Chinese would be pork fried rice, spare ribs, chicken fingers, chicken wings, and crab rangoon with great duck sauce and hot mustard both on the table when you sit down. You just don't get that here in LA; it's completely different. It's a little more...dare I say, "elevated," I guess? Sometimes you don't want to be elevated; you want old-school. I want pork fried rice. I don't want to dance around what this is.
The other thing out here — I just think a taco is a taco, but Mexican food in LA is kind of a no-brainer. If I'm in Boston, I'm not going to get Mexican. I'm just not. Growing up on Route 1, me and my buddies would go out to Border Cafe. It's pretty awesome; that was our spot when we were in high school, you know? We'd go to the Saugus one. I remember I took my buddy who was from Croatia to the one in Harvard Square, and back then, I hadn't lived in LA, and I'm like "Dude, this is Mexican food, dude." I just think it's a completely different ball game, now that I see it.
But I'll tell you right now, I've had some of the best burritos out of a food truck, and I'm not talking some trendy food truck where some guy who's got a culinary degree wanted to do a food truck. I'm talking about greasy food trucks, you know what I mean? They put out four or fives chairs in front of it and a table with big vats of radishes and salsa and pico de gallo and salsa verde, and tacos are like 50 cents or a buck. That's a food truck.
Aside from Kelly's and Pizzeria Regina, do you remember any other places you used to eat when you were a kid?
When I was a kid? Ground Round, girl!
Oh my God, Ground Round. Do you remember they had the sundaes that came in the little baseball caps?
Oh yeah, of course. I had a collection of them. We would go there as a family, and they had a clown that would come around. It was pay-what-you-weigh on Thursdays, I think. Literally 86 cents you're paying a meal for a kid. It was pretty amazing.
There's a place that we go when I'm home just because it's a great place in the summertime — the Barking Crab. You can get belly clams, and it's on the water. But ultimately, if I could have my choice, I'd eat in the North End.
Do you have a favorite there, or do you just like to wander?
Well, there's this one place that my buddy took me to, Giacomo's. It's really hard to get into — there's always a line. My good friend went to BU, and he put himself through college flipping burgers at this restaurant near BU. We were shooting a web series with my great aunt at my house, and then we stayed in Boston, and he's like, "You gotta come to Giacomo's." We get in line, and they come out and go, "We got two, we got two!" and we're like, "Yeah, we got it!" We sat at the counter looking in on kitchen, and we just had the best meal.
So now whenever I'm home, I try to go back there. We were home for my wedding — my wife and I got married in my mother's backyard in Stoneham, and we were staying at the Westin. We were walking with my brother through the North End, and my buddy Anthony who lives in the North End met us, and he goes, "We're going to get this woman who watches our baby during the day." This woman came out, and we talked to her, and she asked where we were going. We told her Giacomo's, and she goes, "Oh! That's my family's restaurant!" We're like, "Really? Could you put a word in for us so we don't have to wait in line?" and she goes, "Ah, we don't even do that for, like, the Red Sox!" We got there and were in line for literally a minute when they asked if we were her friends and said, "Come on in, we have a table." They brought over appetizers, and I was like, "This is where it's at!" You can just walk around the North End and stumble upon any place and have an amazing meal.
It's nice that all the menus are outside. You can make your way through and figure it out. People have plenty of opinions, particularly on cannoli at Mike's and whatnot…
My in-laws are Mike's fans, but I go to Bova's. It's my spot — you know why? It's cause I get pizzelles. Those are my favorite. You can get pizza or calzones at night, but I always go in and get pizzelles, and they're the best. I just love it there.
The North End is such a cool part of Boston. People have such a weird interpretation of what they think Boston is, until you have a chance to go explore and see ins and outs. It's such a great town. It really has something to offer for everybody; it's a really, really cool town. And the sports are just so hardcore, which I love. I think it's awesome.
Has anything particularly embarrassing or bizarre ever happened to you in a restaurant?
Yeah, I got a great one for you. Vinny Testa's! We went to Vinny Testa's when I turned 19. I never had a fake ID...I went to college in New Hampshire, where everyone was just in the woods and everything. So we're at Vinny Testa's, and we're waiting for our table. It's packed, and I'm standing near the edge of the bar, right at the corner, and they come over and put out garlic bread. I'm like "Oh, this must be their version of pretzels." So I go to this woman, and I'm like, "Oh, excuse me," and I reach over her and take a piece of garlic bread. She gives me this look, like, "What are you doing?" And I'm like, "What's this lady's deal?"
Then the bartender comes over and drops down their salads. The garlic bread was an appetizer for her, and I literally reached across her body and took her appetizer without even thinking anything of it. She literally never said anything, just gave me a look, and that was it. Then they called our table, and my buddy was like, "Dude, that was their garlic bread," and I'm like, "Yeah dude, I didn't know...I just thought it was for the bar," and they're like, "Well, you're just a jackass."
Then we sat down at the table, and there was like ten of us, all 19. The bartender comes over and goes, "What can I get you guys to drink?" Before anyone could say anything, I'm like, "How about a round of Heinekens?" and he goes, "Will do, be right back." My friends go, "What are you doing?" and I'm like, "I'm having a good time is what I'm doing!"
What do you want to tell people about Best Bars in America? Why should they tune in?
You have two comedians going around the country, drinking at some of the...well, here's the deal. We have dive bars, we have upscale bars, we have unique bars. We went to a bar in Chicago where they serve one cocktail in an ice egg — your cocktail was inside of an egg made of ice, and then you smash the ice open to get your drink. In Portland, we went to, like, a whiskey library, where you feel like you're in a library and you're drinking some of the best whiskeys. I think it's a great way to find out about cities. It gives us and our viewers an opportunity to see and explore some places that they might never had heard of unless they live nearby, and they might see a drink on the menu and be like, "Oh my God, that sounds awesome and I want to try it."
This show is a great way for people who are traveling to be like, "Oh, we should go check out this bar or that bar." There are dive bars; there's something for everybody. Say you're traveling somewhere for a wedding, and you get in on a Thursday, and the rehearsal is Friday night. You're like, "Well, what are we going to do during the day Friday?" Boom, this is what you do. You go to some fresh place that I got drunk at and told you about.
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[Photo: Jay Larson/Provided]