I'm really starting to love Central Square. We end up around there fairly frequently for music: Joel's gypsy punk band, the Somerville Symphony Orkestar, plays downstairs at the Cantab every few months, and he and his trombonist sat in for a song at a Humanwine show at the Middle East a couple weeks ago. Last night, our folk band, The Bowties, had our first gig (aside from an April house party) downstairs at the Cantab.
On at 11pm, we had plenty of time to kill after our 7pm load-in. We walked around in search of dinner, but nothing was looking good and my rock star heels were pinching my toes. Every restaurant we passed was either too heavy or too expensive for the occasion. We wanted cheap and light; we didn't want to be weighed down on stage.
I had done a quick Yelp search for cheap restaurants near Central earlier in the day. Near the top of the list was a North African restaurant I'd never heard of: Baraka Cafe.
To avoid describing yet another restaurant as a "hidden gem," I'm instead going to break out the thesaurus and look up each word separately to find new phrases that might not mean quite the same thing, a la Eugene Hutz's character in Everything Is Illuminated. Today's phrase: clandestine paragon. Yes, that'll do.
Well, Baraka Cafe is certainly a clandestine paragon, and it just so happens to be right down the street from the last hidden gem that I described, Rangzen. Baraka is a bit further down the street, moving away from the main part of the square, and it's in an unassuming strip of shops including an auto shop. When you step inside, though, you feel suddenly transported to Tunisia (cue Night in Tunisia here.) It's tiny and charming with an uneven wooden floor, brick walls, art and photos of northern Africa, and sparkly tablecloths (yes, sparkly.) Dinnerware is carefully stored in a beautiful, imposing piece of furniture that looks like a family heirloom. If you peak into the kitchen through an arched wall opening and doorway, you'll see a giant stove that looks like it came out of a fairytale. (You'll get a great look at the kitchen if you use the bathroom. You'll have to squeeze through the cramped archway to the kitchen, and the bathroom is right there. Real estate is tight.)
Baraka Cafe won a 2003 Boston Magazine Best of Boston award for their cherbat, Algerian-style lemonade. What's so special about the lemonade, you might ask? Well, it's pretty magical (and not in the spiked-with-alcohol-or-drugs sense). It's flavored with rose petals and spices; we tasted cardamom pretty strongly (in a good way). I'm not sure if the rose petals add flavor, but they certainly contribute aesthetically, and the spices sneak in on the aftertaste, adding a real complexity to what would normally be a simple refreshing drink.
The entrees were spectacular. We were both unfamiliar with Tunisian/Algerian food, but it seems to supplement the best parts of northern Mediterranean cuisine (such as kabobs) with some African flair (harissa, grilled breads). Joel got Couscous Brochette, in which the couscous is served casserole-style with vegetables (some strangely tasty eggplant, for one) and skewers of assorted meat. I got Melfouf la Kasbah: skewers of assorted meat (this time, it was chicken, amazing merguez sausage, and either lamb or beef) served with salad and pommes frites in a slightly spicy harissa sauce. The pommes frites were shoestring-style and tasted great with the sauce.
There are plenty of other interesting dishes on the menu. The classical bastilla torte, for example, requires 36-hour notice. Its description: filo pastry layered with almonds, cinnamon, saffron, parsley, marinated squab or free-range chicken with figs, mint, parsley, orange blossom infusion. I really want to try that one!
The service was friendly and the pace was relaxed. While it was a bit cramped and hot (fans, no air conditioning), it wasn't uncomfortable; it felt like we were dining in someone's home - someone who cooks really well.
Baraka Cafe has been hiding just outside of Central Square for twelve years. I guess other people caught on a long time ago, because it was packed, but if you're not from the neighborhood you could easily never come across it. Do yourself a favor and go find it. I'm adding it to the top of my list of restaurants to take out-of-town visitors who want something unique and non-touristy.
Notes: cash only, no alcohol (doesn't matter...get the lemonade!)