I live in Cambridge, and I love my city, its staggering diversity all tucked away in assorted nooks and crannies. But I realize that for many of my suburban friends, a trip to The City is a big deal, sometimes overwhelming. Hopefully, this will help. Here are some healthy meals, all under $10, for your next foray into the urban environment. Travelling North-to-South…
Christopher’s Restaurant, Mass Ave. in Porter Square:
Home of the organic hamburger and the organic beer, since well before it became cool. The tofu stir-fry over brown rice is good, but the Yuppie Nachos with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes are better. The Boston Phoenix called Christopher’s “the best place for vegetarians and carnivores to peacefully coexist.” It’s also the best place for college students on first dates to peacefully coexist with parents and kids, rock musicians and senior citizens. Sit at the bar, or grab a table next to the fire. Artwork on display changes monthly.
Henrietta’s Table, Harvard Square:
Lunch or dinner is out of our price range, but breakfast just sneaks by. Where else can you get white table linen for less than $10? The coffee is fairly-traded. The bacon, humanely-raised. The eggs, free range. The mushrooms, shiitakes. Butter comes in golf ball-sized scoops, not those little wax-papered pats you peel open with greasy fingers. Everything sings “QUALITY.” Plus: best hash browns ever. And David Mamet wrote a children’s book about Henrietta! Yes, that David Mamet.
Veggie Planet, Harvard Square:
Veggie Planet is part of Club Passim, where Jonie Mitchell got her start. Nightly folk music, with low cover charges. Veggie Planet offers a variety of multi-ethnic curries, bean dishes, roast veggies, goat cheeses, etc, all of which are available a) over brown rice; b) over white coconut rice; or c) baked on a whole wheat pizza crust. Their vegan “Caesar” is remarkable, made with brewer’s yeast, kalamata olives, and chewy tofu croutons. I say this as someone who is not vegan.
Petsi’s Pies, Putnam Ave Location, Between Harvard and Central Squares:
Okay, I won’t call their pies health food. But if you’re not a purist (and I’m not), you can enjoy their very nice soups and sandwiches and frittatas. They serve an impressive salad, mounds of fresh dark greens tossed with an understated vinaigrette. Loose teas from MEM Imports in Somerville are simple, but world-class. This is my local coffee shop; it feels like home, a little slice of community. I’m writing this at one of their tables. When they read it, I bet they’ll give me a cookie.
Dado Tea, Mass Ave between Harvard and Central Squares:
I stepped into Dado for the first time a few weeks ago, drawn by the glorious wash of sunlight streaming through their big front window (outside, it was below zero; inside, I would tan). Then I saw the menu. Maybe you have to know herbs to be as impressed by this as I was, but their house blend tea is Longan fruit, Chrysanthemum flowers, Goji berries, and Tremella mushrooms. Liquid sunshine, steaming in a cup. Food is upscale Asian fusion tea shop fare: natural and organic wraps, gorgeous salads, whole grain Bi-Bim-Bap, soups, bubble tea and smoothies.
Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center, Mass Ave. in Central Square:
I’ve walked past the GBBCC hundreds of times, but never gone in. I mostly blame the décor, which could best be described as “Buddhist Institutional.” But when I mentioned I was writing this, Aaron (the new guy in our kitchen, and a food writer check out his blog at www.teaandfood.blogspot.com) insisted I try their lunch special. For $6.95, I got a bowl of soup, a portion of brown rice, and four (4!) side dishes, stuff like root vegetables, mushrooms, and sesame-spiced tofu. I had a quiet table at which to read my book; I left feeling light, clean, and satisfied.
The Middle East, Mass. Ave. in Central Square:
The Middle East opened in 1970 as a simple neighborhood Lebanese joint. Today, it’s one of the most important small live music venues on the East Coast. The food, however, remains the same. No organics, but no junk either (well, there are French fries…). Plenty of spiced vegetarian bean dishes. Their pumpkin kibby is better than Debra’s. And what other nationally-recognized night club makes their own yogurt on premises? After 8:00, the music comes through loud.
Toscanini’s, Mass Ave. in Central Square:
How did an ice cream shop make this list? Maybe it’s because they serve our granola at their Breakfast at the Big Table on Sundays. Mostly it’s because I’ve always felt that truly exceptional food is just good for us, no matter what the Nutrition Facts panel says. The New York Times says that Toscanini’s vanilla is the best on the planet.