Ethnic Eats

Answering the call of the gastronomically adventurous, ethnic restaurants invade the Square and offer a culinary extravaganza of...

"I always get the khorma--only because I'm into nuts," says lean Thong.

Thong, a former employer at the Harvard Medical School, is a regular a Dehli Darbar, one of the Square's newest Indian restaurants.

For Thong and other gastronomically adventurous Cantabrigians, it's just one of many restaurants in the Square offering alternatives to the regular burgers-pizza-fries fare.

Falafel, baa ganoush, crab Rangoon, chicken vindaloo or salmon roe--you name it and the Square has got it. Ethnic food is the latest in trendy cats and its lucrative entry into one of Cambridge's more competitive districts seems to be proof of its staying power.

Students have discovered that these places offer a flavorful alternative to bland, deli eats reminiscent of dining hall food, and regulars say the fare is a cheap way to satisfy hunger pangs.

"Romantic and Delicious'

"I come here because its very very good, very reasonable, and convenient," says Frank sanchez, a masters student at the Kennedy School, while waiting for his order at Sabra Grill.

While the Middle Eastern take-out's easy accessibility is definitely a draw, Sanchez says the Falafel sandwich and lentil soup are the real reasons he frequents place.

And he knows how he likes his chick pea concoction.

"I want the falafel not to be greasy, I want the stuff that goes in the sandwich to be fresh, and I want it well-seasoned, and that's about it," says Sanchez.

Albert Y. Hsia '92, who frequents Sab's Grill and Sushi in the Galeria, also has a very keen culinary palate.

"Bad sushi seems refrigerated for a long time, and you can't really taste the distinct parts," Hsia says.

Sab's has occupied its first-level place in The Garage since October, says employee Patricia Deeney.

Delhi Darbar, like Sabra Grill and many of the Square's other ethnic restaurants, has attracted a faithful following already.

Dunster residents Eleanor Z. Kincaid '95 and Nicole P. Armenta '95 have frequented Darbar since its opening.

"In the last six months we've been here five times," Armenta says. "It's really close to the river houses."

Kinkaid says they usually order the restaurant's vegetarian dishes. "All the vegetable dishes are very good. They're more dependable," she says.

Rebecca Batash, a Cambridge resident, says she eats at Siam Garden, a Thai restaurant across the street from Quincy House, because its exotic fare lends a bit of mystery to her life.

"It's interesting...It's romantic and delicious," says Batash.

Batash says her persona; favorite is the beef sattee. "The peanut sauce is key," she says.

The Place is also a favorite amongst Quincy residents who often stare longingly at the restaurant from their perch in the dining hall.

"Siam Garden is the best Thai food in the square. The best rice--it's fluffy--and the names are really cute, and it's right across from Quincy," says Quincy House resident tutor Jessica Korn.

Quick, Easy and Tasty

Other ethnic food regulars say the takeouts are accessible and offer a quick, easy and tasty way to satisfy hungry family members.

Amal Rizkallah, 41, says she's a friend of the owner at Sabra Grill and sometimes picks up dinner for her family there.

"I don't have time to cook," says Rizkallah, a medical technician and supervisor who says she works a double shift. "Sometimes I take some for my children, to make them not feel that something is missing.

Her personal middle eastern dish of choice is the "chicken shawarma--the grilled chicken breast sauteed and grilled with Tahini sauce," says Rizkallah.

And like Rizkallah, many regular customers at various ethnic eateries say prices are very reasonable for a filling meal.

"I have a Cambridge adult education class," says Penny Shaw at Cafe Fiorella. "I come here partly because I don't I want to go into a real, real expensive place. I want something better that the Algiers, though."

And contrary to popular belief, Sab's patron Hsai says sushi can also be inexpensive.

"It's pretty cheap and it's pretty good," says Hsia. "These sushis cost the same as cucumber rolls elsewhere," he says.

Personal service

Owners of the ethnic restaurants say they've been in the business awhile and are known for their specialties.

"My family has been in the restaurant business a long time," says Jaspal Pabla, one of three owners of the restaurant. Pabla's family also owns the Cafe of India down the street, Shalamar of India in Central Square and the Kashmir in Boston.

And Wong promises, "If I Put chili in (the food), you're going to fly out of here, not walk out."

Just across the way from Young and Yee is Cafe Fiorella, a "nouveau Italian" place.

Manager Maria Milo points to customers proudly running through their situation and backgrounds like a proud parent.

"I know everyone who comes in here--those people over there are tourists," she says, pointing to a group in the corner. "And she's a student," she says, indicating another customer.

"This area attracts a lot of different people for a lot a different reason."

Young and Yee, like its south of the border counterpart on Church Street, has been serving the Harvard community for a while, long before other ethnic places cropped up.

Perry Wong, self professed "owner and the dish washer," says he's been running the popular operation for 33 years, most of it spent greeting customers from his post in the front of the takeout/eat-in joint.

Young and Yee offers more than does the usual Chinese take-out, according to wrong and customers.

"The Kennedy's daughters sat in that seat right behind you," Wrong says, pointing to one of the green vinyl booths that accentuate the restaurant's easy-going atmosphere.

Wong says he's seen an established clientele and many famous Harvard graduates, come and go.

"People who graduated 40 years ago come back. People from all over the world. I've had a really happy 33 years, just meeting people," Wong says.

New food, Traditional Feel

Some regulars have frequented their favorite ethnic joint for years, endowing the places with a bit a of tradition.

One group of regulars at Young and Yee is the Christ's Church choir. Choir members have eaten there every Thursday for the past eight years before choir practice.

"My first time here was 35 years ago. My older brother came when he was in college," says choir member Madelyn Armstrong.

"Sometimes there's up to 12 of us, and we spill into the other booth," agrees fellow chanteuse Camilla Titcomb.

Most members agree "the hot and sour soup will blow your brains our," and the exotic orange flavored rice is a good alternative to the usual pork-fried version.

"And the chicken livers are wonderful, though you're not going to sell lot of people on them," say Armstrong.

Although the group has eaten at other Chinese restaurants, "we do seem pretty well wedded to Chinese," says member Clayton Wilcox.

Penny Shaw says she has been eating at Cage Fiorella for as long as she can remember, and she's seen it through several different phases.

The cafe used to be a French Bakery before it was purchased by its current owners about four years ago, Milo says. It was recently re-styled six months ago, she says.

The restaurant, dotted with tourists and adult education students, has some of the best soup in the Square, Shaw says. "Their soup is really excellent. Sometimes I come in for soup," Shaw says.

Ironically enough, Wong says, the Asian tourists are harder to please than unmitigated Cantabrigians.

The tourists have "an Old World mentality" and a "set way of doing things," Wong says.

He says he tries to accomodate their tastes, "though certain items don't go over--chicken feet for example.

Alex Tetradze, manager of Troyka, also says native Russians rarely frequent his Ukrainian hot spot, "We have mostly students and professors," says Tetradze.

"Sometimes Russians do come but not very often," he says.

Troyka, which has served standard Russian fare for the past three years and ten months, decorates its walls with an old world flare, Tetradze says.

"We try to create... some kind of club. With portraits of famous Russians, artists composers, stage-directors, writers, composers," he says. "We try to create something like the Russian Tea Room."

The restaurant invites Russian poets and actors, as well as other members of the Russian community to come and speak on occasion he says.