Iberian Comfort FoodBy Winnie Yang
Unbeknownst to many MIT students, a rather sizeable Portuguese population resides here in Cambridge -- lucky for us, I might add. Near the corner of Columbia and Hampshire, about halfway to Inman Square, there’s a little brick storefront adjacent to a gas station. It may not seem like much from the outside, but once inside, one feels immediately transported to some little neighborhood eatery that could be nearer to the Mediterranean than to the Charles River.
The room is dimly, yet warmly lit. Terra cotta dishes neatly lined up on the butcher-block tables and along the walls add charm and even a quiet elegance, and all the while, festive folk music plays in the background. The bar at the front of the establishment is seldom unoccupied, and the cheerful waitstaff often chat with some of the patrons seated there, as well as with each other, in their native tongue. The authenticity doesn’t stop short of the food, thankfully. The Portuguese are authorities on comfort food, and Atasca does the cuisine justice. There is no shortage of meat, rice and potatoes here, all richly flavored and textured.
Our waiter brought us a dish of mild black olives and a basket full of rather dense, bland bread that improved significantly with a liberal helping of olive oil. To start with, we ordered a slew of small plates that are much like the tapas or pincheros of Portugal’s cousin to the northeast. PasteÍs com tasca ($6), for example, combines veal croquettes, cod cakes, and shrimp dumplings on top of a black-eyed pea salad. All of these savory morsels are similar to the croquetas I had at many a tapas bar in Spain: crunchy, deep-fried exterior and tasty, mushy interior. The littleneck clams come poached in a deliciously briny broth, laden with garlic and with a hint of white wine and lemon. The polvo na caÇarola ($6.50) is an impressive octopus salad: really tender bits of the cephalopod marinated in a light vinegar, tossed with chopped red onions for piquancy. The squid and fried cubed potatoes ($6) are excellent as well, as unlikely as the pairing might sound. Both are immersed in a tangy, unidentifiable broth that compliment each perfectly. My personal favorite is the queijo com pÁtÊ ($5.50): chargrilled white cornbread, accompanied by a chorizo spread and a fresh creamy cheese (reminiscent of fresh mozzarella in terms of texture, but a bit more pleasantly pungent). The dish is simple, yet incredibly satisfying. The smooth texture of the cheese and the pÂtÉ contrasts nicely with the crunchy bread.
The main courses are also quite good, if not as impressive as the appetizers. The galinha al verde pairs chicken in a nondescript brown sauce (that reminds one of so many Chinese renditions of chicken) with a vegetable risotto. Uninspired, but well-executed. The febras de porco À minhota ($13.95) is excellent: pork medallions smothered with a white wine and garlic sauce, accompanied by thinly sliced fried potatoes and seasonal vegetables. The standout, however, was my caldeirada de peixe ($14.95), a hearty stew, replete with chunks of potato and fish and bits of onion and carrot, all in a spicy broth. On another occasion, I had the amÊijoas na cataplana ($13), an equally satisfying stew of mussels, clams, fish, peppers and chorizo.
A word of warning: the offerings here are rather paltry for vegetarians. While choices abound for the meat-happy, Atasca offers only two meat-free main courses: a broccoli risotto and seasonal vegetable risotto.
One should also note that the servings here are quite generous -- so much so, that I was too stuffed to even attempt dessert. Fortunately, that gives me a reason to return (although the superb dining experience doesn’t hurt much). I’d also like to try a tasca-style meal (analogous to the Spanish tapas) next time, as every small dish seems to surpass the last in tastiness.
Overall, Atasca is an excellent establishment; I’d even go so far as to rank it in my top ten favorite Cambridge restaurants. Bottom line: better than your Portuguese grandma makes.