The Comfort of O Cantinho (long)
In distant times, my honey and I started the “fond phase” of our relationship—the time in which we fell stably in love as opposed to the first dizzying infatuation phase—partly by going to the Atasca on Broadway. It was small and cozy; the food was good. I was living nearby, in a part of Cambridge where I once stepped out to find a long line of Catholic church marching bands from Portuguese parishes around Eastern Massachusetts, in a somber procession that wound through the small residential streets. We are non-Portuguese folks from outside of New England, so Atasca served what seemed to both of us like a cool new cuisine, and also something very local and old.
We went back regularly, without much interest in the slick newer Atasca down by Kendall Square, embedded in the first floor of one of Kendall’s many anonymous-looking biotech buildings, with an Atasca Mini Cooper parked out front. We didn’t want to romanticize Portugal as some bygone place—Portugal and Portuguese people are a part of the biotechnological world along with Spain and Switzerland and Cambridge—and the interior was not as slick as the exterior, and the food was just as good. But the GenSysTechBioAmLogix Atasca just didn’t seem like home in the same way.
On more casual nights we sometimes went to O Cantinho, the little café on Cambridge Street owned by the same folks. We got delicious simple Portuguese sandwiches with yummy fried sliced potatoes (potato chip shape, French fry taste) on the side, and loved O Cantinho as one of those small good things that could cheer us up and make us feel at home after long exhausted days away from the neighborhood. I favored the spicy chicken sandwich (galinha) for its smoky flavor; my honey liked the ham with São Jorge cheese.
I soon started a rotation in a medical clinic nearby, full of old Portuguese ladies with seemingly infinite layers of black clothing which kept rubbing and rustling under my stethoscope if I tried to preserve modesty while listening for lung sounds. In the summer, the back room where the clinicians worked often had big baskets of figs or grapes that the patients—most of them Portuguese people from the Azores–grew in their back yards and brought to their clinic visits in an old-fashioned show of appreciation. While I was working there, my medical mentor and I sometimes went down to O Cantinho for special lunches.
Then, as faithful Cambridge/Somerville area chowhounds will know, Atasca closed. And the Atasca folks started serving a slightly abridged version of the Atasca menu at nights at O Cantinho. Initially we felt disappointed. First, our evening casual sandwich option had been taken from us; and second, the stern waiter of the Broadway Atasca displaced the friendly teenaged girl who had been the O Cantinho waitress, his face now even more stern and glum with his exile from his former kingdom.
But as time has gone on, we’ve become used to the O Cantinho arrangement, and now we love it again. We get our old Atasca favorites there, and we’ve even changed up our routine a little. We used to only get small plates to share (about four for the two of us left us stuffed). Now we usually get two small plates, with some combination of the plate of tomatoes with white cheese; the pasteis (little fried cod-filled and shrimp-filled dumplings of goodness) and the squid with polenta squares. Then we get a main course of the salt cod, baked with onions and peppers and more of those fried potatoes. It’s simple and warm and tasty and filling. I wish I could give a better report of all the available food (posts about Atasca might give you more extensive reviews of the overlapping menus); but for us, the point of going to O Cantinho is partly the comfort of our routine.
The stern waiter has moved on, hopefully to a new kingdom or at least the biotech Atasca; now the main waiter is a grandfatherly fellow who radiates kindness, or one of several efficient but smiling women in their thirties and forties; and the teenaged girl is back. And for dessert we always get the pasteis de nata, satisfying little custard tarts. (You could just as easily walk down to Christina’s for ice cream, but we usually don’t.) We do miss the sandwiches—but they are available at lunch time, if you’re in the neighborhood then.
Sometimes they play a light rock radio station; other times they play Portuguese music or maybe even some Cesaria Evora. Sometimes it’s just quiet in there, with the buzzing of a refrigerator in back the only soundtrack. On the walls are paintings of what look to be members of the local community.
It’s just a little neighborhood place, and I hesitate to write about it so extensively because I don’t want it to be overrun. But we often go in there to find just a couple of tables of people there, and the sweet staff sort of standing around waiting for someone to show up. That’s an injustice, and perhaps posting here can help correct that. I don’t want this place to go the way of Broadway Atasca.
O Cantinho is probably not the glamorous or exciting restaurant you want when you are falling in love, or trying to convince someone to fall in love with you. O Cantinho is the restaurant you want when you are already in love, when you are content with the person you’re with and you want to go somewhere and have some cheap red wine and a big plate of salt cod and peppers and fried potatoes. O Cantinho is a little dish of squid; a cod dumpling; a custard tart. O Cantinho is comfort.
Thank you for the post. I just had my first O Cantinho meal for lunch. I got the marinated pork sandwich with fried potatoes, plus the house salad with sardines. (I was hungry.) All delicious. I was too full to have some dessert and coffee - the custards were tempting - but I'm sure I'll be going back very soon.
Also long-time Atasca (on Broadway) devotees. Sigh. If you're trying O cantinho for the first time, allow yourself plenty of time to find some parking-- lotsa restaurants, few spaces (near impossible on Saturday nights). Those restaurants that hog the precious few spots with their valet services piss me off; takes away from the li'l guys like O Cantinho.
You could try Cafe Casal at the bakery for the casual sandwich option and fresh pasteis de nata. Also the Brazilian store across from Atwood's (nee Overdraught) has from time and time had a cafe, which is supposed to open soon again. The Snack Bar also has beef pregos (small inexpensive steak sandwiches) as well as the pork equivalent, and a full portuguese menu as well as usual italian american subs.