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Cottonwood Cafe is Cambridge's culinary treasure

THE COTTONWOOD CAFE

Porter Exchange, Cambridge.

By Aaron R. Prazan
Staff Reporter

If you ever need to buy a good lock, there is a distributor that has really good prices one doorstep from the Porter T stop. Leaving the locksmith's, you may glance to your left and see an innocuous cafe on the corner. While it may not be the reason you came to Porter, it should be a reason to stay. Fronted by a turquoise sign with stylized white letters, ubiquitous plate glass windows, it is an easily missed landmark. Many pass without a second thought, but they are missing out. I encourage you to tear yourself away from Athena or the comfort of your room and take advantage of that storefront's top notch cuisine. It is the Cottonwood Cafe and it is a gem, offering some of the best food and surroundings in all of Cambridge.

The interior of the Cottonwood gives so much more than the sign implies. Blue and turquoise lights bathe the room in cool color. Throne-like upholstered wooden chairs cradle the diner between weathered armrests with oak peeking through the paint. Jon Carlos, the musician, drifts from table to table, crooning high Spanish ballads for tips. Beyond the frets of his guitar leap orange flames and swirling drafts of fragrance-filled steam from the open kitchen. Also sitting smartly in the center of the room is a gleaming bar serving only the best spirits. Indeed, the plain glass exterior hides an unexpected opulence and a perfect place to eat well.

To be sure, the Cottonwood pulls no punches, mellows no flavors in order to appease the inadventurous eater. Snake bites, one of the tastiest and most popular appetizers, are an example. Consisting of a jumbo shrimp riding a whole jalepeno pepper in a saddle of Monterey Jack cheese, all fried in a light breading, snake bites are not watered down. They are hot and, as if mocking the customer's blistering lips, served with a fresh pico de gallo that is also not for the meek. It is an excellent combination and one of the most memorable dishes I've had in recent times. After getting "bitten" I pleaded for bread and was offered steaming cubes of cornbread. I learned the bread was filled with more jalepenos. The Cottonwood never goes for the expected.

The rest of the food was just as consistently unique. Paella is a Spanish seafood, vegetable, and rice dish. It had more ingredients than I cared to count, most notable of which were fresh asparagus, artichokes, colossal olives, black beans, and a myriad of fresh seafood. Sweet mussels with not a grain of sand and steamed chunks of swordfish were highlights. The dish was also very rich in saffron, the world's rarest spice. The paella was beautiful and, according to the menu, a "healthy choice." Though satisfying, it was the least flavorful of the dishes I tried, maybe because it was sans fat. Another "healthy choice," Salmon Veracruz may be a better pick for the dieter. It was extremely juicy and came with a great tomato-pepper sauce.

Barbacoa was a another good meal, but was certainly made without strict regard to health. It consisted of grille d shrimp and barbecued chicken with a bourbon based sauce. Perhaps the best thing about Barbacoa are the roasted bananas it comes with. Who knew that bananas went well with shrimp? Don't knock it till you try it. After dinner, I had the pleasure of trying a novel dessert, chocolate nachos. Definitely different, they must attract a lot of attention, since the dish seemed to come out of the kitchen at least every three minutes. The nachos require the help of at least two, if not three people to finish.

All in all, the Cottonwood Cafe was exceptional. Some of the dishes were better than others: Of the four I tried, Barbacoa was the favorite, but many of those I missed looked to be excellent. The menu is also in constant transition. The specials change every two weeks to keep up with chef Rich Sierra's new ideas. One other complaint is the service, which is not the fastest. The Cottonwood is not a quick meal but a slow indulgence, so don't expect to be finished in less than an hour. The Cottonwood Cafe is a great place to take parents, both to impress them with your good taste and to have them foot the not-so-economical bill; meals at the Cottonwood are priced in the mid-teens.