BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
Cambridge dining is not yet at the level offered in Boston, mostly because graduating students with substantial food knowledge are constantly being replaced by doe-eyed newcomers who make easy prey for bad restaurants. There are nonetheless a number of gems near HLS. The times given assume you are walking to the restaurant. Except for the Somerville restaurants so identified, all restaurants are in Cambridge.
$ – entrees $10 or less
$$ – entrees $10 – 15
$$$ – entrees $15 – 20
$$$$ – entrees $20+
SANDWICHES/BURGERS (5-10 minutes from HLS)
($ bar, $$$$ main restaurant)
1 Shepard St. (617) 354-8980
This is one of the best upscale restaurants in Cambridge, and it’s getting better – recent additions to the menu like an earthy rabbit pate or firm, moist veal sweetbreads are worth paying for. The best value, however, is the bar menu; the $10.95 Cuban sandwich, a luscious combination of pork tenderloin, black forest ham, bacon, red-pepper aioli, and crunchy French bread brushed with butter and then grilled. It is served with plaintain chips and a small salad and is, quite simply, the most delicious thing in the entire world. The writer had to have an EKG after one such sandwich, but it was still a bargain. The sandwich and all Chez Henri’s food is available for takeout.
Darwin’s LTD ($)
148 Mount Auburn St
The best sandwiches in Harvard Square. The bread is thinly-sliced and a bit too insubstantial for the ingredients, but the fillings are great – try a Story with first-rate mozzarella and prosciutto, or a Hubbard Park with shaved carrots, hummus, apples, avocados and a honey mustard dressing. Good macaroons and other desserts as well.
Oxford Spa ($)
102 Oxford St. (617) 661-6988
Not a bad place to sit in the sun, have coffee and indulge in a good sandwich or two. The best sandwich is the Moo Bah – rare roast beef piled high on a French roll with roasted red peppers and goat cheese.
74 Winthrop St. (617) 876-4897
A rare source of good late-night eating in Harvard Square; so popular with Harvard students they accept Crimson Cash. The cheesesteak and hamburger subs distinguish themselves with great meat quality and a piquant onion-and-pepper relish. The Sicilian pizza slices are also a good bet – the crust is an airy network of brittle strands of pizza dough, a real marvel and a great way to relax after too much substance abuse.
R.F. O’Sullivan’s ($)
282 Beacon St., Somerville.
A good alternative to Bartley’s, O’Sullivan’s is closer and cheaper. Its blue-collar atmosphere is not mere show; ordering a burger rare at other restaurants means a hint of pink in the middle; here your meat will be red and dripping with deliciousness. The buns are up to the task of containing the meat, although the fries are more like oversized, too-starchy potato wedges. If you want to be intoxicated by something other than the taste of red meat, $10 buys you a Long Island iced tea containing four shots of alcohol.
SANDWICHES/BURGERS (15-20 minutes from HLS)
Formaggio’s Kitchen ($)
244 Huron Ave, (617) 354-4750
An amazing cheese shop. The staff is passionate, coaxing and nurturing large cheese wheels in the cheese cellar until they grow up and get sold to hungry passersby. Formaggio’s offers an amazing selection of unpasteurized cheeses, smoked meats, artisinal honeys, exotic butters, etc. Start with a baguette from Sel de la Terre and end up with a sandwich better than anything you could ever find pre-made. Along with Evergood Market, the best place near HLS to shop for food.
Gargoyles on the Square
($ bar, $$$$ restaurant)
219 Elm St., Somerville
The main restaurant is a touch pricey, although the appetizers are excellent, especially the Rhode Island-style calamari, which achieves a moist, soft texture without being too oily. The bar features a good list of sandwiches around $10, the best being a seared rare tuna sandwich with wasabi and avocado, served with amazing vinegary pan-fried sticks formed from rice. Gargoyles blares its music rather loudly, so arrive before 8 or so to ensure seats at the bar.
Hi-Rise Bakery ($)
208 Concord Ave. (617) 876-8766
Hi-Rise bakes its own bread (and mills its own flour for said bread), and they are amazingly flavorful – the best possible thing to toast and put sandwich stuff between. Try the #22 – a great piece of pork tenderloin with generous amounts of fresh avocado, harissa and cilantro. The brunch items on Saturday and Sunday are even better – the toasted brown bread with blueberries will make you weep with joy, and the omelette sandwiches are perfect. Many of the desserts are overpriced, but the brownie sits quite comfortably in the ninety-ninth percentile of brownie quality.
Il Buongustaio ($)
370 Huron Ave. (617) 491-3133
Fantastic meatball subs on crisp Italian bread, as well as other fresh, wholesome sandwiches like buffalo mozzarella and prosciuitto. The pizza by the slice is bubbly and sports a perfectly sweet tomato sauce – nothing special by other cities’ standards, but it has no peer in Cambridge.
Miracle of Science ($)
321 Mass. Ave. (617) 868-2866
The best burgers in Cambridge are at this MIT bar, although you wouldn’t guess it from the cutesy menu chalked on the wall in periodic table form. The ten-ounce burgers are cooked with great heat, spurting juice into your mouth like ripe tomatoes while maintaining a charred crust. The fried potatoes that accompany the burger are a great improvement on normal fries, and the bun is so incredibly crisp and doughy, with a faint malted flavor, that it nearly upstages the burger.
TRADITIONAL ETHNIC FOOD (5-10 minutes from HLS)
Café Algiers ($$)
40 Brattle St., (617) 492-1577
A beautiful building to sit in and have a pot of Turkish (Algerian?) coffee. The food is a touch expensive, but the merguez, a spicy house-made lamb sausage served with hummus, is excellent even at $15. Popular with students, who like to self-consciously furrow their brows and look important while reading things.
57 JFK St., (617) 234-3988
Once a single restaurant in New York, Penang has reputedly shed some authenticity as it has spawned outposts of Malaysian cuisine all over the country, but the convenience of this Harvard Square outpost makes it worthwhile. The famed roti canai (thin fried bread with chicken curry) is limp and too sweet, but the steamed whole sea bass is excellent, and goes well with coconut-flavored rice. The coconut drink is a novelty, filled with spiraling pieces of fresh young coconut.
Porter Exchange Mall ($)
1815 Mass. Ave.
The food court at this underused mall is an odd concentration of Japanese food, and includes several eateries and a grocery store. The una tama don – an eel omelette over rice – at Itty’s is great; the eel sweetens the egg and improves its texture, and their flavors bleed just enough into the rice. Blue Fin is a good source of sushi. Adzuki bean doughnuts at Café Japonaise are a nice way to finish any meal here. The ramen at Sapporo Ramen is overpriced at around $8, which it attempts to compensate for by doling out absurdly huge servings of noodles. The dreamlike feel of the eerily clean, mostly empty mall is completely different from anything else around HLS, which improves the experience of eating there.
Sabra Grill ($)
20 Elliot St. (617) 868-5777
Great, cheap Middle-Eastern food; crisp chicken carved from a rotating spit works beautifully with garlic paste and tahini sauce in the chicken shawarma pita ($5.95). The special vegan sandwich ($4.95) is grilled, a
nd the heat fuses the flavors of hummus, spinach, zucchini and eggplant together perfectly. Steer clear of the falafel – it is bland and mealy enough to drive any vegetarian back to something more succulent and animal-based.
Tacos Lupita ($)
13 Elm Street, Somerville
Ignore the “C” sanitation grade on the window – you’re kidding yourself if you think any area Mexican food is any better – and try this highly authentic, often-overlooked restaurant. The $1.25 pupusas – fried corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, pork or both – are highly addictive, their richness nicely moderated by a topping of pickled cabbage. The $1.50 tacos are best with the most flavorful meats – roast pork and tongue. Much, much better than Boca Grande or Anna’s Taqueria.
18 Elliot St., (617) 868-1900
A good choice for a quiet dinner or the $7.95 lunch buffet, Tanjore is more softly lit and sleeker than your typical Indian restaurant. You’d have to venture far from Harvard Square to find better South Indian specialties: try the $4.95 idli sambhar, fluffy fermented cakes of ground rice served with lentil soup and coconut chutney, or a dosa, a rolled crepe-like pancake filled with well-spiced potatoes and meats such as chicken or ground lamb. The spicier curries like the lamb vindaloo are also worth trying.
Zoe’s Chinese Restaurant ($)
289 Beacon St., Somerville
Zoe’s is by far the best delivery option for HLS students. This place cooked for Cambridge resident Julia Child when she turned 65; the somewhat oily Szechuan dishes Zoe’s mostly serves probably fit quite well with her taste for fatty French food. As long as you order with potential oil content in mind, you can have an extremely delicious, authentic meal here. Standout dishes include ma po tofu – large, soft chunks tofu sautéed in chili oil with bits of ground pork – and lion’s head meatballs, generous pork meatballs served with a rich broth in a clay pot. If it’s late at night and you yearn for braised whole fish, their menu is available at www.campusfood.com – deliveries may be ordered either at the website or by calling the restaurant directly.
TRADITIONAL ETHNIC FOOD (15-20 minutes from HLS)
Magnolia’s Southern Cuisine ($$$)
1193 Cambridge St.
The chef here was a protégé of famous Cajun innovator Paul Prudhomme, and it shows; key lime pie, popcorn shrimp, fried green tomatoes, hoppin’ john and jambalaya are all pitch-perfect. Steer clear of more complicated entrees, as they are generally drowned in overly sweet sauces; a meal composed of appetizers is always a strong choice here.
Punjabi Dhaba ($)
225 Hampshire St. (617) 547-8272
This late-night Indian place sports an infectiously cheerful atmosphere, fueled by large crowds and blaring Bollywood musicals. The tandoori chicken ($6.95 per half chicken) is incredibly succulent and moist; vegetarian dishes like the baingan bartha ($8.95), a heaven of smoky mashed eggplant, will warm the cockles of your heart during cold Inman Square nights. Traditional Indian desserts are inexplicably cheap at $1 or $1.25 – the best is the gajjar halva, a warm cake made with carrots, milk, sugar and clarified butter.
T – Red Line to Kendall
The Helmand ($$$)
143 First St., (617) 492-4646
An upscale rendition of Afghani cuisine that feels vaguely regal, Helmand should; it is run by the sister of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Strengths include kaddo, a baked Sugar Pie pumpkin with yogurt and meat sauce that literally melts in one’s mouth (the recipe is available at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1998/10/28/FD78824.DTL ) and grilled lamb, although the aushak (a leek ravioli) is a bit bland. The sauces for the grilled breads are a very nice touch. Popular with couples; reservations are a good idea.
CREATIVE/FINE DINING (5-10 minutes from HLS)
Chez Henri – see above
The Elephant Walk ($$$)
2067 Mass. Ave. (617) 492-6900
‘Division’ rather than ‘fusion’ cuisine, the Elephant Walk refuses to integrate its Cambodian and French roots, maintaining separate kitchens and discrete sides of the menu as it tries to preserve both traditions. It’s a nice gimmick, but the upshot is that you should eat Cambodian appetizers and mains and have a French dessert. The Amok Royale, a seafood custard steamed in a banana leaf, sweetens the seafood in a novel and delightful way, although it gets old after it is half-eaten. Cambodian fish preparations are also good.
118 Beacon St., Somerville
EVOO (standing for “extra virgin olive oil”) tries to rise above its drab surroundings with heavy curtains and halfhearted attempts at decorating. It does a much better job with the food, which is excellent across a very broad range – tea-smoked lamb with kim chee is perfect, and the kim chee is better than at any Korean restaurant in town, while a terrine of foie gras rivals most French restaurants’ creations. An inexplicable tendency to oversalt prevents the cooking from being uniformly excellent, but it usually reaches that level. The seven-course blind tasting menu for $50 is a very good value.
CREATIVE FINE DINING (15-20 minutes from HLS)
134 Hampshire St. (617) 661-0505
Perhaps the best chef in Cambridge, and the only one nominated last year for a James Beard award for Best Chef, Ana Sortun clearly has a great time playing around with Arabic and Mediterranean concepts. An excellent place to overawe your date. A lamb bourek appetizer is brilliant – the thin layer of fried lamb on a crisp pita bread with fresh parsley blends perfectly with a tangy, acerbic yogurt sauce. A soft shell crab spanakopita is also excellent, as is shrimp saganaki with warm, gooey feta cheese. Avoid the spreads – carrot puree is passable, but the walnut and bean puree tastes just like refried beans without the can, and the whipped feta cheese spread evokes mediocre deviled eggs. Desserts are frequently too sweet; stick to the exceptional baked Alaska.
T – Red Line to Central Square
798 Main Street,
Salts is unusual among upscale restaurants in its heavy Eastern European influence; mushroom pierogis and rabbit sausage are very hearty and extremely satisfying, although some of the meat dishes are a bit bland. This sort of dining is much more suited to cold Boston temperatures than anything France or Italy ever dreamed up. The restaurant itself is quiet, formal and intimate.
DESSERTS (5-10 minutes from HLS)
Herrell’s Ice Cream ($)
15 Dunster St.
The legacy of Steve Herrell, who rocked the world in Somerville in the 1970s by introducing the concept of Mix-Ins (crushing other ingredients into ice cream). His brand of dense, high-butterfat ice cream with ready availability of mix-ins has been copied to great success by Ben & Jerry’s, who impishly hawk their ice cream down the street. Relentlessly stoner-friendly, especially the seating area in an old bank vault with the ceiling and walls painted to look like the sky. The volume discount also favors those with drug-induced appetites; $3 gets you a very paltry amount of ice cream, but a $6 brownie sundae – sporting a dense brownie, rich, homemade hot fudge, freshly whipped cream, and multiple scoops of luxuriant ice cream – is so difficult to lift that the guilt from eating it can be overwhelming. Try the pumpkin and sweet cream flavors.
L.A. Burdick Café ($)
52-D Brattle St, (617) 491-4340
Good if overpriced pastries pale before Burdick’s hot c
hocolate. The $4 concoction is made with steamed milk and liberal shavings of Burdick’s handmade chocolate, either milk, dark, or white. Dark chocolate is by far the best, and makes for one of the richest beverages I have ever tasted.
Toscanini’s Ice Cream ($)
1310 Mass. Ave., (617) 354-9350
Slightly better ice cream than Herrell’s, but without the charm – it projects a sullen art-house/heroin-chic vibe. The burnt caramel and espresso flavors are wonderful, however, and it is the only place in town to get Guinness ice cream (uneven in quality, but better than it sounds). The lack of seating gives the edge to Herrell’s as the weather turns colder.
DESSERTS (15-20 minutes from HLS)
Ice Cream ($)
1255 Cambridge St
With the absorption of Denise’s by JP Licks, Christina’s has no real competition for ice cream supremacy in Boston. Fresh mint ice cream tastes like Christina’s has taken the most perfect sprig, the platonic ideal of fresh mint, and boiled it down to its barest essence, then infused its ice cream with that. One assumes Christina’s borrows heavily from its spice shop next door. The same is true for every one of the dozens of flavors, even vanilla – the creaminess and richness of the ice cream is simply unmatched. Christina’s offers mix-ins and the like, but there is really no excuse for adulterating the flavor of the ice cream.
If you have any questions about these places or want more food recommendations for Cambridge, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.