Miso in a Mall

Up Mass Ave., past Harvard Law School, under a sign for Lesley University, through glass doors labeled “1815,” beside a

Up Mass Ave., past Harvard Law School, under a sign for Lesley University, through glass doors labeled “1815,” beside a City Sports, Gap and Barnes and Noble, is the last thing in the world you’d expect to find: cheap but good Japanese food. The Porter Exchange houses a grocery, bakery, tea stand, ice cream shop and six small crowded restaurants. On a weekend afternoon, the place is jam-packed. Rather than wait in line for seating, claim the bench outside Barnes and Noble. Bring a couple friends and order takeout from multiple restaurants—this saves time and money, as well as room for dessert.

Café Mami, a self-labeled Japanese bistro, is the most popular restaurant of the bunch. Lucky patrons sit on foldout chairs at communal tables, while a stereo behind the counter provides a hum of Japanese soft pop. The specialty here is the Tokyo Style Hamburg Set ($7), a meat patty served on rice with “Mami’s special homemade tomato sauce.” The best bargain is the Lunch Special, served Monday through Thursday until 3 p.m.—$4.76 for a bowl of miso soup, and beef or chicken curry served with unlimited rice. The curry is substantial, sweet and spicy—the slivers of carrots and thin shreds of pork are cloaked by a cinnamon-brown sauce and served atop sticky rice.

Sapporo Ramen, Mami’s immediate neighbor, far surpasses the ramen of late-night snacking renown. Here, the traditional noodle soup is served in big clay bowls, aromatic and steaming. The chefs begin boiling a huge pot of meat-based broth at 6 a.m. each day. Then a flavoring is added: soy sauce ($5.75) or miso ($7.75). The noodles, which come packaged in dry chunks, are kept cooking in a large wok over an open flame, and are scooped out at serving time and ladled into the broth. The cook adds toppings from small plastic containers: mushrooms, scallions and bits of minced pork.

Tampopo specializes in tempura, the Japanese frying technique originating in Portugal. Avoid the teriyaki and stick to what Tampopo does best—the basic tempura combos with rice and miso soup ($5.50-$8.50). The tempura is consistently above-average, combining fresh ingredients, light batter and flavors that are enhanced by the soy-based dipping sauce. Noteworthy choices include the nasu (eggplant) and sweet potato. However, avoid the tempura rolls. The consistency is doughy, and the rice overwhelms any flavor.

Ittyo used to serve only noodles, but has recently expanded its choices to include Japanese mainstays from edamame ($2.49) to Donburi (rice bowls $5.99-8.49). Be prepared, as in all Porter Exchange restaurants, to drink your miso from the bowl. The food at Ittyo is unoffensive but unremarkable—come here as a fallback if the busier Mami is too full.

The only space in the Exchange that never looks crowded is the Asian BBQ Korean Restaurant. It appears homey enough, with wooden tables and chairs, small window-shaped mirrors and fake plants lining the wall. The specialties are the Dop Baps, or Korean rice bowls ($6.95). The food is not fantastic—there’s a reason this one is empty. Great barbeque requires great meat, and the base ingredient here is chewily sub-par. For the price, however, it’s okay, and the eccentricity of the menu merits at least a passing glance. I have yet to try the “Spice Kielbasa Stir Fry Dop Bap,” but the name alone has some palatable bite.

Kotobukiya, the Exchange’s sushi counter, is by far the cheapest sushi in the immediate Harvard area. Miso soup comes at $.99 a bowl, and each piece of sashimi is $.99 as well. One reason for the low prices may be that some of the fish arrives flash-frozen, a state deemed unacceptable at pricier restaurants. The tuna, salmon, and halibut are ordered straight from Boston, while the yellowtail, octopus, squid, flying fish roe and eel are all imported from Japan. The rolls are made fresh to order behind the counter. The fish’s texture is slightly tougher, but the taste is reliably pure. Kotobukiya and its $4.50 Eel and Avocado Rolls appeal to student palate and wallet alike.

For dessert, head to The Japonaise Bakery, poised right outside the entrance to the restaurant section. The pastries are delivered daily from the bakery’s home base in Brookline. Its well-lit glass cases contain curry doughnuts ($1.75) and An Pan ($1.30), a Japanese pastry filled with sweet red azuki bean paste. They also host classic French pastries such as croissants ($1.50), which are extraordinarily flaky and butter-filled. The bitter chocolate croissant is one of the best I’ve ever had ($1.75).

The Porter Exchange is not the place for a splurge, but it transports diners as individual restaurants rarely do. Ambiance and authenticity make it worth the short walk. For a picnic in December, complete with bubble tea and miso, make the trek up Mass Ave. You’ll be happy you did.

Porter Exchange, 1815 Mass Ave.

(617) 868-5457

Monday-Saturday 12 p.m.-9 p.m. and

Sunday 12 p.m.-8 p.m.