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MIT student blogger Yan Z. '12

A Short Dining Guide to Cambridge by Yan Z. '12

Where to find food within walking distance of MIT, other than in my fridge.

It’s unfair, I admit: I’ve rhapsodized aplenty about Manhattan’s food dives while glossing over the restaurants at MIT’s doorstep. What’s worse is that one year ago, I vowed to leave no restaurant within walking distance of 77 Massachusetts Avenue uneaten at, pardon the grammatical ugliness. Fulfillment proved to be elusive, expensive, and less compelling than getting problem sets finished on a Friday night instead of chewing slowly over two-hour, three-fork dinners in French restaurants with napkins pre-folded in topologically confusing structures (not that I needed to see any more of those, really). Honestly, I can’t count the nights when nothing was more satisfying than the mouth-drying sodium-shock of defrosted vegetables ($2.00 per 16 oz.) doused in oyster sauce and Sriracha, digging for leftover cornbread and lentil stew in pika‘s fridge (too many potatoes per 16 oz., depending on the cook), reheating homemade cooking experiments from last weekend (1-10 units of bragging rights per 16 oz., depending on difficulty of recipe and whether or not it contained the LN2 that you accidentally borrowed indefinitely from your lab, or whatever), or scouring the Infinite Corridor for pasta salads and cold trays of curry leftover from catered dinners (1 sprint to campus from Random Hall per 16 oz.).

But enough about my autobiography-in-progress. Chances are, if you’re arriving on campus within the next week, you have an interest in avoiding starvation in ways that do not involve the Ben Salinas Delight (last Wed. night’s snack, if you’re interested). In my infinite kindheartedness to this year’s incoming class*, I started to compile a list of memorable-but-not-necessarily-recommended-eateries around MIT but suffered a minor aneurysm from food nostalgia overload and decided to stick to just restaurants on the Cambridge side of the river. (Boston deserves a separate blog post. Or six.)

*Seriously, I not only started the MIT 2013 Facebook Group but even refrained from changing the group name to “Harvard Class of 2013” and posting “Welcome to Harvard!” on the day that MIT matriculation decisions were due. It took some serious self-control.

View Dining around MIT in a larger map

Let’s start with grocery stores.

1. Star Market: The closest grocery store to most of the MIT dorms, Star Market is your generic, jumbo-sized, ten-flavors-of-Triscuits supermarket. The fruit is an order of magnitude cheaper than at LaVerde’s in the Student Center, and sales on staples like cereals, breads, sandwich meat, canned soup, and frozen vegetables are routine. The downside is that the incomprehensible store layout turns shopping for dried split peas into a labrythine task involving three aisles and a compass. Also, one of the employees doesn’t know what peppermint bark is.

2. Trader Joe’s: Fantastic bread. Fantastic frozen risotto. Fantastic granola bars. The temptation to spend your entire Saturday morning browsing the 3948294 varieties of mustard while downing free shots of coffee is dangerously irresistible. Remember this warning before you get on the MIT Weekend Grocery Shuttle (loops around to most of the dorms and ends at Trader Joe’s/Whole Foods).

3. Harvest Co-op: A scarcely-mentioned, community-owned grocery store on Massachusetts Ave., Harvest has the cheapest prices on the following: bagged spinach, loose oranges, bagged apples (sometimes), soymilk, Sabra pine-nut hummus (the Shawshank Redemption of hummus: spectacular and life-affirming.) You can usually get better prices on fresh produce than at Shaw’s, depending on the weekly sales.

Restaurants in Central Square (North of MIT along Massachusetts Avenue):

– Toscanini’s: Famous for eclectic ice cream flavors like Burnt Caramel and Banana Gingersnap Molasses and Burnt Banana Ginger Molasses with Snapped Caramel (not really), Toscanini’s is MIT’s canonical provider of late-night ice cream (other than JP Licks, of which we shall not speak*). The three best flavors in the humble opinion of this critic are Tiramisu (picture below), Lemon Expresso, and Khulfee. Belgian Chocolate, Earl Grey, Burnt Caramel, and Vienna Finger Cookie are also noteworthy.

[*Clarification: I have nothing against JP Licks, but the whole JP Licks vs. Tosci’s debate at MIT is worth a blog post in itself. Or six. The best thing to do is to try both of them for yourself. Life is hard, I know.]

– Pepper Sky’s: Serves the best Thai curries within a stone’s throw of MIT, unless you can throw a stone all the way to the Boston University vicinity. I recommend the Duck or Seafood Choo Chee.

– Thailand Cafe: Serves the worst Thai curries ever, but it’s literally next door to Random Hall and delivers comparatively cheap late-night fare, which turns out to be edible sometimes once you remove the brown paper bag. However, the Cumin Braised Beef from the secret Sichuan menu (ask for it) is unreasonably delicious.

– Bertucci’s: One word- rolls. Skip the salad, pizza, and pasta; just get an eternally-refilling basket of the complimentary bread rolls, and you’ve got the perfect date. Fine, you can get the three-cheese ravioli too if you want. But only after the eighth basket of rolls.

– Mary Chung: Confucius says, “Every campus has a Chinese restaurant within three blocks.” Mary’s is where you will buy dinner for your friends on their birthdays if you’re too lazy to plan a party or bake a cake or remember their birthdays until 8 pm on their birthdays. The Dun Dun Noodles with Shredded Chicken (or without, if you’re vegetarian) are unregrettably tasty, whether you were ever born or not. Wait, that made no sense.

Kendall Square (Slightly east of MIT proper, close to the T stop and East Campus):

– The Black Sheep at the Kendall Hotel: It’s expensive and dressy as any decent hotel restaurant, so you probably should stay away, but let me assure you that the Yucca Mashed Potatoes are the greatest permutation of root vegetable that I’ve ever witnessed. Black Sheep takes the humble potato and transforms it into an earthy study in textural contrasts, tempering the ambient starchiness with crunchy, buttery morsels. But you still should stay away.

(Ignore the shrimp and vegetables in the foreground; the potatoes didn’t just steal the show, they were the show. And it was a good show. You should go see it.)

– Cuchi Cuchi: Flamboyantly gourmet and culturally ambiguous, Cuchi Cuchi refuses to refer to their “international smaller plates to be shared” as “tapas” in the same way that MIT refuses to refer to “the other school in Cambridge” as “Harvard University.” Self-denial issues aside, Cuchi Cuchi serves up semi-haute cuisine that manages to be both flashy and flavorful. It’s pricey, but keep in mind that the wallpaper is probably more visually entertaining than some Broadway shows. Great for bringing a crowd for a splurgetastic celebration (graduation, birthdays, passing 8.012 with a C-, etc.). I’ve had nearly everything on their menu as of May, and the standout dishes are the Bliny (Pancakes w/mushroom filling; topped w/sour cream & caviar), Caspian Heaven (Roasted Fingerling potatoes, crispy oysters, creme fraiche, salmon roe & champagne sauce; picture below), and the Tiramisu (caffeine-loaded and bitter, like the upperclassman down the hall).

– Clover Food Truck: The brainchild of a visionary MIT graduate, Clover Food Labs is revolutionizing the way that mankind buys food from the back of a truck. I assert that only at MIT will you find a food truck parked in the alley behind MIT medical whose slogan is “Everything will be different tomorrow.” I originally interpreted this as an inspirational message about world peace and environmental sustainability and banning chickpea sandwiches that aren’t at least 30% hummus, but I think it actually means that their menu changes daily.

Anyway, whether or not Clover wins the Nobel Peace Prize, I will remain a staunch advocate of their menu (local, seasonal vegetarian food cooked from scratch that will rarely cost you over 5 bucks) as well as their business model (involves Twitter and a friendly, candid blog from the owner that gets updated more frequently than the MIT homepage sometimes.)

Last Monday, I ordered the Chickpea Fritter, mostly because I liked the word “fritter.” Lots of nice consonants.

It was essentially falafel snuggled with red cabbage in grain-rich pita bread. Tasty, but could have used more hummus. Keep in mind that I say this about 90% of the things that I encounter on a daily basis. Ex:
– “Hey, how’s the 8.03 textbook?”
– “It could use more hummus.”

Other choices include the BBQ Seitan Sandwich:

And the Egg and Eggplant, the sandwich that I would have picked hands-down if only it also contained eggfruit. Alas, the egg triumvirate remained sadly incomplete.

Miscellaneous (One of the locations isn’t in Cambridge, and the other isn’t within walking distance of MIT except by European standards of “walking distance.” Let’s just agree that to first order, this item belongs on the list of Cambridge Eateries within Walking Distance of MIT.)

Elephant Walk: A few weekends ago, Jess Lin and her family met in Cambridge for family bonding time over lunch at Elephant Walk in Cambridge, a French-Cambodian restaurant specializing in making colonialism taste delicious. I’m obnoxious on Saturdays, so I tagged along.

Starters were glorified spring rolls, which were completely forgettable. Skip it if you’re ever given the chance.

In brilliant contrast, the second course was a bright, tangy Cambodian chicken soup with sparkling tones of lime and lemongrass. It was like drinking broth in C Major.

For her main course, Jess ordered the unpronounceable Croustillants aux Poires et Crevettes Flambées aux Vin Blanc (Translation: wontons layered with warm Bartlett pear, topped with shrimp with flaming bees and white wine. Pardon any minor errors.). All observable evidence suggests that Jess was ready to take this dish on a honeymoon by the time she finished.

I was less enamored with my main course, the Curry aux Crevettes (curry with Corvettes. I guess the Corvettes made it an expensive dish). Although the sauce was fragrant with the rich creaminess of coconut milk, it lacked spice. Unlike law-obeying citizens, the heat of a good curry should punch you in the face.

Jess’s dessert was a passion fruit mousse. By the way, there are far too many double ss’s in the previous sentence.

Bottom line: Elephant Walk has one of the most inconsistently wonderful menus that I’ve ever seen. Great concept, poor execution, just like the Soviet Union except for the great concept part. Considering the price (around 20 bucks for a three-course lunch), I’d rather stay at home and dumpster-dive through pika’s fridge.

Speaking of which, yesterday’s Franken-lunch of pika leftovers turned out to be a quinoa carrot avocado salad with corn, squash, and zucchini, tied together with a touch of golden raisins and honey mustard. Call it an edible requiem for bygone summer afternoons.

But it could have used more hummus.

37 responses to “A Short Dining Guide to Cambridge”

  1. Yan says:

    @ Broder:

    Just to clarify, I’m a fan of JP Licks as much as Tosci’s. I just didn’t want to get into the whole JP Licks vs. Tosci’s turf war on this blog. The tax scandal is a fair point, but it personally doesn’t bother me enough to lower my culinary esteem for Tosci’s.

    @ Shawn:

    I’ve never been into the Cambridge Whole Foods, but quark cheese might just be the necessary motivation. I hope I get a free piece of hadron cheese with my purchase.

    @ Chris:

    Thanks. I thought about Rangzen (the Tibetan place), but they were somewhat disappointing when I visited. Martsa’s in Porter is way better for Tibetan food. Legal is too touristy, but Border is pretty good, except for being near Harvard and all that.

  2. Mom '12 says:

    Great post. And right on time for the frosh – @Jenny ’13, you should apologize to your parents immediately and let them know they are right, this is the last week you will eat until May. My daughter DID starve, and we have tried all summer to return her to her normal proportions. It’s been hard work, but someone had to feed her.

    Anyhow, if there are other parents reading this week, Yan didn’t mention The Miracle of Science at 321 Massachusetts Ave, which is more of a parent-friendly establishment, ie they serve BEER with their salads and pretty good burgers.

    The chalkboard menu is a periodic table of the elements (with the heavier ones being stuff like chocolate cheesecake. Too cute right?). But it’s air conditioned, relatively quiet and we’ve enjoyed several good meals there.

  3. BD Outsider says:

    Cool stuff, but if I want to stick with Halal food, most of the food is out of reach.

    I wonder if someone could do a post on Halal food places around MIT. Ahmed hasn’t posted in a long time, maybe he could do a post on halal food?

  4. hamsika '13 says:

    thanks, yan! i was pretty worried about finding good food to eat…are all the dorm dining halls only open in the evenings?

  5. Anonymous says:

    Didn’t you find tiramisu to be a tad icy? Or is that why it’s your favorite?

    Khulfee and lemon expresso are winners, though!

  6. Jenny'13 says:

    Brilliant post! I can’t recall how many times in these past few days that I’ve reassured my parents “I’M NOT GONNA STARVE!!!” This will fosho help me out!

    Thanks smile

  7. Evan '10 says:

    Yan, I’m afraid I have to disagree with your taste in ice cream parlors. Not only is JP Licks both speakable and delicious, but I will be forever disgusted at Tosci’s for their business practices (specifically, failing to pay $167k in taxes, and then begging the community to cover their backs).

  8. Mehmet 14? says:

    Harvard Sq. is home to a lot of good restaurants worth mentioning too, like the Border Cafe, Bartley’s (too touristy but they have fine burgers) Pinocchio’s, The Upper Crust, etc.

    BTW JP Licks is way better, at least in my opinion :D

  9. shawn '11 says:

    Darnit, you made me hungry and I’m out of chicken.

    Also, you missed Whole Foods. I consider that an unforgivable sin, since they are they only restaurant I have ever seen that carries quark cheese–a type of cheese that everyone should buy because of its amazing name.

  10. Piper '12 says:

    This has been a lifesaver this past term.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Hey it is Ramadan!Ok.You can’t know this…

    It is great post especially for me.But you forgot Turkish Restaurants.It is unforgiven :D

    Oleana Restaurant:Turkish Vegetarian Restaurant

    Boston Kebab House:Turkish Meaty Meals House

    Sultan’s Kitchen:Turkish Plain Foods and Sandwiches etc.

    Sabur:Turkish Meditarrenean Restaurant

    Saray Restaurant:Turkish Fast-Food (Lahmacun,İskender,Döner) and a dose of every kind of Turk meals.

    Pasha:Turkish Desserts,Appetizers and Kebabs.(Sütlaç -Turkish Rice Pudding- is great here.)

    There is some more but I found (it is only my idea) these better than others…

  12. Oasis '11 says:

    I agree with Evan ’10. I’ve boycotted Tosci’s ever since their shameful tax evasion scheme.

    I think you covered all the restaurants near MIT really well – a few others:

    -The Tibetan restaurant right next to Pepper Sky (it’s great! go sometime :D)

    – Koreana on Prospect? (I think it’s both meh and quite pricey, though)

    – Cosi’s in Kendall (it’s a chain but hey – who says no to great salads? raspberry and it really did feed me many, many school days – it’s a good place to get lunch around 2-3 or dinner from 8-9 since it usually empties out. just avoid 12-1 like the plague)

    – Legal Sea Foods in Kendall (for all the parents raspberry)

    -The mini Jtown in Porter Square

    – Border Cafe in Harvard Square (blog about the blackened catfish and all the free chips you get with salsa)

    And yes, I very much agree with you on Elephant Walk (there’s another one in Porter Square in the opposite direction from jtown if you’re not inclined to cross the river)

    AMAZING photography. smile sigh. so much to eat. so little time.

  13. Harvard Sq = Cafe Pamplona (good food with a cool history) AND AND AND BERRYLINE (best froyo ever). Don’t go to Boston without having BerryLine. There are three of them around Boston/Cambridge area. One in Harvard Sq, the Fenway, and Porter Square. Eat there.

    Also, Vanilla Malt at Tosci’s is my personal favorite. It tastes like a frappe… but isn’t!

  14. I definitely forgot to mention Veggie Planet. They have wicked good pizza/rice dishes. They’re located in the alley sort of way next to the Harvard Coop in Harvard square. They are cheap, healthy, and wicked good. I suggest the Mexican pizza. I’m Pavlov’s dog all over it just at the thought of their food.

  15. Anon says:

    So when I saw JP Licks in your blog I thought of Lulu’s kitten. :D

  16. anon e moose says:

    wtf, why no border cafe and pour house?

  17. Anonymous says:

    clover has some good prices. Now what about the coffee shops?

  18. Yan says:

    @ Anon e moose:

    Read the title.

  19. Yan says:


    By which I mean: keywords “Cambridge” and “within walking distance.” Border Cafe technically qualifies, but I decided to avoid Harvard Square altogether.

  20. Piper '12 says:

    Pour House is closer than Harvard Square (to EC, anyway – it’s not a far walk).

    Unless Google Maps lies.

  21. Mikey says:

    Great post! Between the blog post and the comments, there’s a really great list going on. I’d definitely second Mom ’12 on Miracle of Science (one of my favorite places to eat/drink ever), as well as Tavern on the Square (just north of the Central T stop). Both places serve alcohol, but also have great food (although at a moderately higher than average price).

    One place I’m surprised you didn’t mention was Hi-Fi! One of the few places in Boston open til 3am. Pizza and wing dings, baby. (N.B.: Hi-Fi is best consumed between 1am and 3am, and is not for those concerned about their heart/circulatory system.)

    Other places I enjoy in the area:
    Royal East (across the street from Cuchi Cuchi)
    Rendezvous (PROHIBITIVELY expensive, but really really good food)
    FourBurger (really tasty burgers–beef, turkey, veggie, salmon, and sometimes bison–at a relatively inexpensive price. The sweet potato fries are amazing, and if you have room for dessert (I never do at that point), the homemade chocolate-chip cookie ice cream sandwich…okay my mouth is full of saliva now)

    Cheers to good eats!

  22. Yan says:

    @ Wings/Mikey/Etc.

    For the last time, y’all, I was sticking to only restaurants on the Cambridge side of the river. Boston is a whole different monster to deal with.

  23. Yan says:

    @ Hamsika:

    I think the dining halls are only open for dinner on weekdays.

    @ Anon:

    Honestly, I wasn’t paying attention to the temperature. It tasted like an expresso cloud. Enough said.

    @ Vicky:

    Berryline is a tad too dainty for me. I’m not a fan of paying five bucks for a cup of air-filled frozen yogurt with five kiwi slices on top. For the same price, I’d prefer Ankara (where, if you order a carrot cake frozen yogurt, some employee gets an actual slab of carrot cake and pounds it into your yogurt. It’s as hardcore as frozen yogurt gets).

    But I’d recommend it with the warning that Berryline is to Little Women as Ankara is to Gladiator. Choose at your own risk.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Re: “Honestly, I wasn’t paying attention to the temperature [of tiramisu]. It tasted like an expresso cloud. Enough said.”

    I didn’t mean icy as in cold (by all means, give me a subzero temperature scoop any hot summer day!). I meant the flavor physically had the consistency of shards of ice.

  25. Shreya says:

    The pictures, oh.

    *drools and dies*

  26. Anonymous says:

    “Flavor” as in “a substance that provides a particular taste,” not “flavor” as in “taste.”

    Time to take your hypochondriasis pills.

  27. Yan says:

    “flavor physically had the consistency of shards of ice”- parsing error: too much synesthesia for my language channels to handle. Please try again later.

  28. yuki'12 says:

    For those from California, if you are into yogurtland’s plain tart, berryline is the place to go but yes it is expensive…

    once a month treat is not a crime though.

  29. yuki'12 says:

    Forgot to mention one thing: If you want korean food, don’t go to Koreana. It’s very americanized. If you want good korean food that would be anything close to LA or S. Korea’s you should go to Brookline on Harvard St. You can take the MIT boston west to ZBT(I think) and walk 5-10 mins to Harvard St. You should eat at Color or if you want korean influenced chinese food(YUM), go to Byuk Kyung II.

  30. (With regard to An Unofficial Guide to MIT’glish. (The post was not allowed on this date.))That was wonderful. I’m so excited to be going to a place that has people like me. Thank you for this primer to the MIT’glish. I’m sure it will be extremely useful to me in the future. I am awaiting your second edition eagerly, preparing my mind to give vacuous responses in all situations that will conme before me and about to launch myself into the Cambridge dining guide. I can’t wait to come back to Massachusetts. (It will have been about 10 years since I last been there.) I look forward to reading the rest of your material with eager anticipation. ( All mistakes, both conventional and completely unconventional should be disregarded. Unstructural as they are, they are isotropic in nature, or at least that is my belief but I haven’t the resources to plumb the depths of my brain.) It is also a noteworthy point that the disclaimer was almost equal in length to the rest of the post, but this is standard behavior for me.

  31. PC says:

    I arrived at MIT two days ago – and went to Pepper Sky’s, Tosci’s, and Mary Chung’s. Thanks so much for posting this. As an outsider, it’s hard to tell what’s “good” in the area.

    Additionally, thanks for all the suggestions in the comments as well!

  32. wow… I think I love you……..

  33. Yan says:

    @ PC:

    Impressive! I’m glad I could help. You should invite me next time.

  34. moose45 says:

    What was the last restaurant that was within european walking distance? You elaborated on Elephant walk then ended the blog.

  35. Tell me your favorite place to eat and I will definitely eat there.

  36. HAHAHAHAHA!! Check out Marginalized Mongolid’s post!! He loves you Yan. I think you should seriously consider him.

  37. Yan says:

    @ Moose:

    I was referring to the 2nd location of Elephant Walk.