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Central Sq, Cambridge: new & better? (Summer 08)

It's a pretty densely-packed area (Cambridgeport-Central Sq.) and I see there hasn't been a thread in almost four months, since the 'Central Square Breakdown' thread in March. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/503360

I've not eaten in this neighborhood alot in recent years, so I'm looking for an update on mid-range/cheapish options (not Rendezvous, Central Kitchen or Green Street, all of which I've enjoyed in the past.) I'm dining with a college-age East European who's a budding gourmande; his (work) attire won't be suitable to the nicer yuppie joints.

He's had his first taste of Mexican - FIRST salsa & chips?! - at EL PELON Taqueria (Fenway) and first SE Asian, at PENANG (Chinatown) - FIRST shrimp!!! He wants to try sushi, but I don't think there's anything good nearby : correct? That can wait, but I'm open to suggestions: BLUE FIN (Porter Exch) ?

I'm not sure, but I'm short-listing the following CENTRAL SQ. RESTOS as weekend dinner candidates, and I'd like to know if anything new/improved/quirky should be considered.

RANGZEN : Tibetan ...Ate here 2 winters ago. How's it lately, in summertime?
BARAKA CAFE : Moroccan...I ducked in and spoke French with a Marocaine - too formal?
RIVER GODS : American...Great ambiance, hip, above avg menu.
ANDALA : Palestinian...I know it as a tea joint; don't know what to eat here.

I know he hasnt had falafel nor gourmet sandwiches like ASSBAR, but those are basic dining experiences IMO.

Thanks for your input!

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    1. Baraka Cafe formal? Not at all, unless something's changed recently I don't know about. Terrific, and quirky can be an understatement. No liquor though FYI.

      4 Replies
      1. re: tatamagouche

        Is there an outstanding dish at Baraka? What should we try?

        I'm having fun making my Byelo-Russian villager a guinea pig for new cuisines - I find Slav food incredibly dull (lived in the region for two year, and have visited Ukraine twice in the last 2 summers), so I'm genuinely surprised he'll try spicy things. I correctly presumed he'd be a foodie when he told me his favorites are stout (drink) and draniki w/meat (food):
        http://en.restoran.ru/spb/news/top_10...

        His English is excellent and he's highly educated - so it's a blast interrogating him on the different flavors & dishes we try. I should be filming vids!

        Southern BBQ will be a shock - need to find something in the Boston metro area, T-accessible.

        1. re: beacon_hill_boy

          There are varying opinions on Soulfire in Allston, but it's easy to get to, comfy, and I think pretty decent (and well priced). You could take a bus out of Harvard Sq. (70 something) for the Blue Ribbon BBQ on Mass Ave. in Arlington. Also varying opinions on East Coast Grill in Inman Sq. but that would be a fun experience.

          1. re: Joanie

            That bus from Harvard Square out to Blue Ribbon in Arlington is the 77 bus -- definitely worth the trip.

            I also like the East Coast Grill a lot for BBQ and am fine with Soulfire as well.

            1. re: bachslunch

              You could also take the 77 Arlington Heights Bus to Toraya (across from Arlington High School), and introduce your friend to some very fresh, well prepared sashimi.

      2. I agree, Baraka has no formality. Somewhat in the same vein as River Gods, there's Miracle of Science. Korean just up Prospect St. at Koreana. Has he had American fried chicken? Coast Cafe down River St.

        His work attire would have to be pretty dirty and ratty to keep him out of most Central Sq. places.

        4 Replies
        1. re: Joanie

          "His work attire would have to be pretty dirty and ratty to keep him out of most Central Sq. places." hahaha! I know what you mean ; )
          Still, he'll be in shorts and a tshirt. I don't know how customers dress at Baraka, I popped in at 4:45pm to speak with the woman (owner?) dressed in black.

          I never really favored Ethiopian myself - perhaps I'll give Asmara another try.
          I've never heard of Coast Cafe! Must research, then... Thanks!

          1. re: beacon_hill_boy

            Trust me, there are about 4 places in town where you couldn't get in w/ shorts and a t-shirt and another maybe 20 where you'd feel uncomfortable in that.

            1. re: beacon_hill_boy

              Mr and I went to Baraka last week and he wore shorts. Good thing too. It looked like they had an a/c unit over the door but it was not on. The fans were going but it was 20 degree hotter in the restaurant than it was outside. Not that I minded... the combination of the decor, dim lighting, the food, sweat on my brow, cash in Mr's hand (its cash only), the arguing in a foreign language coming from the kitchen, and the whirring of the fans gave it a kind of a Jack Nicholson in the "The Passenger" kind of feeling.

              I liked the place but I wish I liked the food better. We started with some h'rissa and bread that were both really good. For an entree I had a braised lamb special- good flavors but a little on the dry side. Mr. got the 3 kinds of meat skewers(Melfouf la Kasbah) and was really disappointed. He said the meat was either dry, or gristle-y or burnt or all three.

              We could have ordered poorly. I'd love to know what other CHers recommend here. Its close to my house and I would be willing to try again.

              1. re: heypielady

                River Gods? Order the burger and fries, or the God salad. Also, a pint of the Belhaven, if they still have it.

                For the OP, there's also Mulan, which is a little out of Central Square.

                Coast Cafe (on River St between 1-2 lights before River Gods) is great, but there's only three itty-bitty stools to sit at. I recommend the fried chicken (dark is better than white meat), meatloaf, pork chops, mac&cheese, collard greens, and mashed potatos. I usually get a chocolate chip cookie, but I heard the banana bread was pretty good. Although I grab a little plastic cup of Aunt May's hot sauce, they have occasionally had a super-hot sauce (Insanity? I forget) behind the counter.

                I also like Tamarind Bay, which is Harvard Square.

          2. I like Pepper Sky Thai for their noodle dishes like Pad Ki Mao, the yellow sunshine curry, and their really tasty limeade. No liquor license, though, but we usually just head to Green St afterwards for our cocktail fix.

            1 Reply
            1. Couple of others: 4 Burgers on Mass Ave., which is new (beer and wine). Basta Pasta, not really new but off the beaten track at at Western and Putnam (no booze; is it technically Central or Harvard?).

              I never go to Rangzen for dinner, but I love their lunch buffet anytime of the year.

              4 Replies
              1. re: digga

                Basta Pasta would technically be in either cambridgeport or riverside i believe, I forget exactly where it is. Closer to Central than Harvard though.

                Speaking of new places, I was riding up Prospect on the bus and it looked like the old japanese grocery was getting transformed into an eatery but it wasn't clear. Anyone know what's going on there?

                1. re: jgg13

                  To follow up on my 2nd paragraph, I forget what the space was being turned into ,but they weren't food related.

                  1. re: jgg13

                    I think you are talking about where the Improv moved to from Inman Sq.

              2. Follow-up report:
                We met at Toscanini's, where my friend has his first ever sundae! (a mini, pistachio,) We take it for granted, but these kind of desserts are almost unknown in the Russian-parts of the East Bloc. He really enjoyed that, very sweet & chocolate-y.

                BARAKA was closed at 5:30pm anyway (?) We looked in at Rangzen, but decided to wait to eat later. We walked through Cambridgeport to RIVER GODS: he really liked the atmosphere, and was excited to learn that Шашлык is called "skewers" - he was told by a Canadian language teacher "There is no translation for this food..." Shashlik is a Crimean Tatar word for marinated shish kebab :
                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shashlik

                Walked on to Harvard Square, quenching thirst on a hot night at TEALUXE with lemongrass slushies (not my fave.) I hadnt eaten at VEGGIE PLANET in awhile, and he hadnt eaten 'vegetarian' in the USA, so we split a large black bean pizza. This is one of my absolute favorites - the savory spiced paste on flat dough, fired in the oven is the perfect US fast-food for me. Funky Cambridge ambiance, too. My friend was amazed to discover that "vegetarian" doesnt have to be duul, bland & unoriginal: Belorussian hippies or American punk vegans have sadly frightened off too many diners with their terrible cooking. Veggie Planet proves otherwise!

                We ate at SUISHAYA the following night: he thought the miso soup was fish broth hahaha, that's not a first I'm sure. We shared two combos: eel, shrimp, crab, etc. and he was surprised it really didnt taste fishy at all. He said that - so far - of everything new and "exotic" that he's tried, SUSHI is his favorite new cuisine. (We didnt try sea-urchin, partridge egg, or salmon roe, fwiw.)

                1 Reply
                1. re: beacon_hill_boy

                  Sounds like it went well. I've heard good things about Veggie Planet. For someone with limited exposure to world cuisines, your friend sounds pretty adventurous. By the way, most miso soups are fish (and kelp) broth, plus miso and toppings.