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Atasca

50 Hampshire St., Cambridge, Mass.

East Cambridge

(617) 621-6991

The Cambridge restaurant scene is blessed by the presence of a vibrant Portuguese community clustered around Inman Square and South Somerville, about a half hour stroll from MIT’s campus. The flavors of Portugal are splendidly rich with many dishes showcasing the nation’s top quality seafood and meats in hearty sauces crafted from fine olive oil, garlic, and a variety of earthy spices and herbs.

But for the busy student, even the thirty minutes to Inman Square can seem daunting, particularly on one of Boston’s many frighteningly cold evenings. Fortunately, Atasca, a casual and delightful Portuguese restaurant on Hampshire Street, serves up a taste of Portugal’s delectable cuisine just north of Tech Square, a mere fifteen minute walk from campus.

Atasca’s warm yellow lighting and creatively decorated walls adorned with a beautiful array of blue and white Portuguese ceramics interspersed with wine-cork wreaths create a cozy and inviting interior that immediately warms your senses, as enticing aromas of roasted garlic and fresh chopped parsley waft through the air. On a Thursday night, the restaurant was pleasantly occupied and my date and I were seated promptly by a friendly and professional host. On the first page of the menu, guests are greeted with an impressive selection of petiscos (tidbits, in Portuguese), which are starter plates for sharing.

After some friendly argument, we settled on the Queijo com Paté (Portuguese white cheese with chourico pate and grilled garlic corn bread), a truly outstanding appetizer that set an excellent tone for the meal to come. The bread itself was maybe the best part, brushed with richly aromatic garlic-infused olive oil and grilled to perfection on an open flame. The light charring of the bread was well complemented by the mellow flavors of the soft Portuguese white cheese and the luxuriously creamy pate.

A glance at the entrees reveals that seafood is clearly the star at Atasca, whose menu features a grand variety of fish, shellfish, shrimp, squid, and other delights of the ocean cooked up in different styles and sauces. Feeling like something heartier than seafood, we opted for the Peito de Galinha com Queijo San Jorge (tender chicken breasts sautéed with San Jorge cheese, linguica and white wine, served with a broccoli rabe risotto) and the Febras de Porco (marinated pork loin medallions sautéed with white wine, garlic, and a touch of mustard served with fried potatoes and vegetables). All the dishes were served in generous portions and a few bites of the juicy meats served in hearty, flavorful sauces made it clear that Atasca’s chefs do not skimp on quality either.

The chicken was just tender enough to hold up to the melted San Jorge cheese topped with sliced linguica, a creative pairing that was possibly a bit too salty for some tastes. The risotto accompanying the chicken, which was more like a pile of vegetable rice that seemed like a weak afterthought, was perhaps the only disappointment of the night. But if the risotto underperformed, the three hefty but succulent slices of pork loin in an indulgently rich sauce more than made up for it. In classic Portuguese style, the potatoes — excellent for soaking up the mouthwatering sauce — were cut thick and gently fried to create a delightful texture contrast between the pleasantly crispy outside and the creamy interior. Meanwhile, the vegetable medley of asparagus, carrots, and onions was grilled masterfully to bring out the natural sweetness of the vegetables and served to lighten the otherwise heavy dish.

Too stuffed for dessert, we strolled out of Atasca with highly satisfied stomachs and wallets, our leftovers dangling heavily from my hand in a plastic bag. Atasca’s dishes are filling and tasty, though the kitchen’s liberal use of salt and a Portuguese obsession with meat and seafood make the restaurant forbidden territory for strict vegetarians and anyone on a low-sodium diet.

The service was prompt and professional and the tastefully decorated eatery offers a distinctively comforting environment that is easily accessible from MIT. The restaurant also offers many of the dinner selections on their lunch menu at very reasonable prices of ten to fifteen dollars. I will certainly be back to sample Atasca’s plentiful selection of seafood, though if they continue to serve such hearty portions of their delicious Portuguese classics, I fear I may never have room for a taste of their tempting desserts.