Union Square Asian roundup
Assessing the culinary landscape sans the Elephant Walk
by Stephen Heuser
What happens when a neighborhood loses its most popular restaurant?
Somerville's Union Square has become something of a dining mecca in the last
couple of years, but its top draw had always been the Elephant Walk, the hip,
subterranean Cambodian-French restaurant that recently moved to more-spacious
digs in Porter Square. Suddenly the landscape feels different: there are still
a couple of higher-end restaurants (eat, Union Square Bistro), but no longer
that one anchor tenant, that fixed point of exotic quality. And those clean,
sparkling Asian flavors are gone.
Great Thai Chef |
255 Washington Street, Somerville
Open for dinner Sun-Thurs, 5-9:45 p.m.,
and Fri and Sat, 5-10:45 p.m.
Di, MC, Visa
Home Town Restaurant
9-A Union Square, Somerville
Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Or are they? Union Square, after all, is also home to a fine Portuguese
restaurant, a curry house, a taqueria, and, yes, a bunch of tiny Asian joints.
It turns out that none of them fills the void, but all isn't quite lost.
Great Thai Chef
Not long ago, this corner spot was a Middle Eastern restaurant
called Oasis, which served a mushy kind of falafel that was, inexplicably,
lauded as the best in the city in The Boston Food Lover. Now it's a
low-key Thai place with a great word-of-mouth reputation and an endearingly
There aren't a lot of Thai restaurants in Somerville, so the Great Thai Chef
fills an important niche. Unfortunately, judging from my meals there, it
doesn't fill that niche with much style or verve. You could see it in the first
dish, golden crowns ($4.25), a decorative finger food and a staple Thai
appetizer. At best, these zippy little pies have a crisp yellow rice-flour
crust filled with a tart mélange of chopped chicken, shrimp, and raw
vegetables. There was nothing overtly wrong with the golden crowns we got; they
just seemed kind of soft and dispirited, as if the chef were going through the
motions without much energy. Most of the dishes we tried -- and we tried many
-- had a similarly rote feel; maybe I'm spoiled by sharp Thai places in the
city, but it's hard not to feel that this one could be doing better. Pad Thai
($6.95) was serviceable but limp; a house salad ($3.75) of grilled chicken
strips over lettuce was fresh enough, but rather sparing on the chicken; beef
satay ($4.25) had a perfectly appealing sweet-grilled taste but an
off-puttingly rubbery texture.
Give the Great Thai Chef credit for bravery with spice; in New England, we
tend to get a toned-down version of what can be a sweat-inducing cuisine, and
some of this chef's work with chilies is refreshingly aggressive. Which isn't
the same thing as consistently aggressive; a chicken-coconut soup
($2.50), designated as spicy, tasted moderately tangy but was otherwise as
comfy as warm milk; a hot-and-sour shrimp soup ($2.75), on the other hand, had
a strong tang and lingered on the tongue like fire. Even hotter was the seafood
typhoon ($9.95), a toss of shrimp, mussels, squid, and tiny scallops seasoned
liberally with red pepper. The flavors, though, never quite came together. Red
chicken curry ($7.95) and pineapple fried rice ($6.96) don't stick in the
memory; a better idea might be to go for specials with clearly described
components, like the ginger pork ($7.95), which did have a nice zesty taste.
There's no liquor license at Great Thai Chef, though the staff doesn't mind if
you bring a six-pack from the liquor store nearby. We found our servers capable
but a bit disengaged; maybe smiling isn't what one does in the presence of a
Great Chef. The décor is pleasantly modern, with a bit of abstract art
and windows that give onto the traffic-snarled heart of the square.
Home Town Restaurant
Across the street, Home Town Restaurant (or "New Hometown
Restaurant," if you believe the menu) feels very different. For décor,
the place borrows the tricks of a late-'80s Asian nightclub: purple walls,
faux-walnut paneling, acoustic ceiling tile, matte-black tables. The big
picture windows in front would overlook Union Square if they weren't blacked
out to head height. A broad, elegant silk fan is displayed across the back
wall; hidden in one corner, mysteriously, is a half-size colonial-style
fireplace with a bronzed-wood eagle across the mantel, an orphaned bit of
Lexington in Seoul. Through a curtain to the bar I could make out the outline
of a wide-screen TV, off.
The menu calls Home Town a "Korean-Japanese" restaurant, which is sometimes a
sign that a Korean-owned establishment is trying to draw business with popular
Japanese dishes. But Home Town, to judge by a recent Tuesday night, has all the
business it needs, and in fact the menu doesn't make the usual concessions to
Japaneseness: no sushi, for instance, and the four "Japanese-style"
entrées (all teriyaki) are relegated to the back of the menu. The
kitchen was out of the one Japanese appetizer we ordered, gyoza.
Same for one of the Korean dishes, bulgogi. I think I caught Home Town on a
bad night; a waitress hadn't shown up, so the one working waitress shuttled
like a pinball from the kitchen to the tables to the bar. The first thing she
brought was six bowls of condiments, followed much later by appetizers and,
later yet, by main courses.
Which was okay, since the ritual onslaught of Korean condiments is one of the
great glories of Asian cookery. Korean food has never quite caught on here in
the same way other Asian cuisines have -- and not just because the inescapable
primary condiment, kimchee, is such an acquired taste. Korean cooking doesn't
blend tastes in the Western-friendly way that Thai food does, and it doesn't
have the delicacy or formal elegance of Japanese food. What it does have is
muscular and provocative contrasts (hot/cool, spicy/bland) and -- especially in
the condiment presentation -- some of the elemental precision you see in
Vietnamese and Cambodian food. Condiments vary from restaurant to restaurant;
here we got chunky pickled radish, full-flavored kimchee, cool marinated bean
sprouts, spiced mushrooms, and a soft substance similar to rice gluten, chopped
into sticks and served in a red curry sauce.
Our appetizers did eventually arrive. "Hometown Pancake" ($8.25) was a fluffy,
spongy, less greasy version of the sort of scallion pancake you find in
Mandarin restaurants. A dish of oshitashi ($3) was cold wilted spinach, dressed
with sesame oil and sesame seeds.
Instead of the absent bulgogi, which is a marinated
sirloin dish, we tried kalbi ($13.95), a plate of marinated and barbecued
short-rib meat. Like much Korean barbecue meat, this was slightly sweet, with a
mildly spicy flavor and a firm bite. A dish of ohzinguh bokum ($10.95) was
reasonably tender calamari that, like the Great Thai Chef's seafood typhoon,
was heavily spiced without achieving a lot of synergy. If you want Korean
cooking distilled in one dish, order the kopdol bibimbab ($10.95), a
sizzling-hot black stone bowl filled with white rice topped with segregated
ingredients (matchstick carrots, cool bean sprouts, a soft-fried egg, chopped
short-rib meat) that you are supposed to integrate with the rice as you eat.
Home Town also serves an interesting green tea, with a malty flavor so strong
that my friend said it was "like drinking a bowl of cereal."
Beyond the service, Home Town has its share of loose ends. The bathrooms are,
as at many otherwise well-maintained Asian restaurants, dismayingly
unmaintained. The bar had patrons, but the bar lights weren't on. And I had to
hunt down the pay phone myself; in case you need it, it's a tabletop phone
balanced on top of a karaoke speaker, just to the right of the front door.
Stephen Heuser can be reached at email@example.com.