BY EDMUND MOKHTARIAN
When I’m really in the mood for a feast—the kind that’s going to leave me reeling in a fit of foodie bliss—there’s always one cuisine I can rely on: Southern, real Southern. Unfortunately, or so I thought, I’m in Boston.
But then I found Hungry Mother, somewhat of a local cult classic and right in Cambridge. This tiny restaurant, nestled in an inconspicuous corner on an equally inconspicuous street, brings Southern cuisine from down home to the city. The Kendall Square-spot serves up everything from cornbread and boiled peanuts to grits and catfish—the exact remedy I needed for my insatiable craving for the heavy, the starchy, and the fried.
But Hungry Mother isn’t a shack; inside you’ll encounter a restaurant packed to the brim with foodies. It’s not a hole-in-the-wall, though some diners come for the homey, unassuming vibe. And while it keeps things simple with bland white walls and small, cramped tables, every one is packed with a mouth-watering display. Plus you get to drink out of a mason jar.
Regardless, it’s the food people come here for. Southern cuisine tends to suffer from a negative stereotype. Because it uses simple, traditional ingredients, it can’t be elegant, complex, or novel. Hungry Mother, though, flips that all on its head, and adds its own spin to the classics, for flavor-through-the-roof results.
Take, for instance, the brilliant chicken fried Vermont quail ($13), my appetizer for the night. Normally, you’d get a bird breaded, fried, and served with something starchy. Here, however, the quail was nearly perfectly counterbalanced with Mutsu apples and Tabasco honey. The outside was crunchy, but never too much. Instead, I could taste the quail, which literally burst with natural juices as I bit into it. The Tabasco honey gave the dish a lightness to help take my mind off the grease from the fry job, providing a slightly spicy kick at the end that left my tongue tingling. The apples were slightly mushy from their exposure to the sauce, but their sourness played off very nicely against the sweetness of the honey. Finally, there was just enough salt to leave me smacking my lips. In one dish, then, I got sweet, crunchy, sour, spicy, savory, and greasy. This is not simple Southern cuisine.
Next up was my cornmeal catfish ($19), again elevated to a higher level with an assortment of delectable, if not slightly odd, accompaniments: dirty rice, mustard brown butter, and chow chow (American pickled relish). I have to admit, this dish was a bit more of a stretch for me, a bit overloaded with gratuitous ingredients. The sour-sweet chow chow was piled needlessly on top of the catfish more for presentational flair than actual tasting delight. Regardless, once I sliced the catfish, soft as butter, and saw the steam burst out, I knew I was in for a treat. The catfish was, in fact, cooked perfectly, and the cornmeal dusting gave it an interesting grittiness to contrast the melt-in-your-mouth texture of the fish itself. While the season-less catfish occasionally veered towards the bland, the dirty rice compensated with earthy mushrooms, refreshing spices, and smoky, slight spicy ham that left my mouth puckered with its delicious grease. The sauce, too, was a success, combining the tangy, the sweet, and the creamy in one, though the mustard at times overpowered the other ingredients. Nonetheless, the dish passed with flying colors, and I’m not even a fan of catfish.
The one disappointment of the night came with the dessert, a plum pie ($10) that seduced me with its irresistible-sounding accompaniments: Greek yogurt, candied walnuts, and frangipane (almond filling). This dish goes to show the tension inherent in a restaurant like Hungry Mother. The chefs try to stay true to their roots while at the same time spreading in a new direction. It can work wonders, but nothing on this dish could mesh with any other part. The plums had an interesting sourness, but the thicker yogurt suppressed those plums with tartness. The scarcity of the candied walnuts, the only significant source of sweetness on the dish, didn’t help. Worst of all, though, was that the pie itself was technically flawed—something I honestly didn’t expect after the technical excellence of the other dishes. The crust and plums were both tasteless to the point that I wondered how ripe the plums had been. I do, however, give the dessert credit for its dough, savory, nutty, and salty, as well as an incredible yogurt sorbet/ice cream.
Still, for a three-course meal, I can’t complain. The dessert underwhelmed, but Hungry Mother gave me a phenomenal meal. Here in Cambridge, you can still find Southern good enough to hold its own against many of the selections on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Hungry Mother can be found at 233 Cardinal Medeiros Ave. in Cambridge.
Edmund Mokhtarian is a food critic and blogger. At his blog, The Food Buster (www.thefoodbuster.com), he reviews restaurants, bakeries, wines, and chocolates from around the nation and the world. For more reviews and photos of the Boston food scene, check out The Food Buster.