An Inman Square deal: Paella, salsa and all that jazz, by Perry Garfinkel, April 26, 1977

“Think of the great Squares of the world. Trafalgar. Times. Red. Pi (r). Lawrence Welk.

Now add to these Inman.

Huh? Surely not, you ask, that low-key, low-life corner at Cambridge and Beacon Streets, awkwardly situated on the Cambridge – Somerville line in the no man’s land between a growing Portuguese community and Harvard neighborhoods. I can hear the grumbling already: this man must be mad.

In truth, I thought the same of this assignment, but how wrong I was. And I now offer apologies to Mr. or Ms. Inman.

You might call Inman the poor man’s Harvard Square, except that that’s not fair because Harvard almost pales by comparison. Or you could call it Central Square‘s little sister, but Inman resolutely divorces itself from that glorified bus depot.

No, Inman has a funky heart and soul not to be found in those other Squares; in spirit as much as location, it is a place apart. And this pleases the Square‘s singular shopkeepers, restauranteurs and bar owners just fine: it means for one thing that rents are affordable, and for another, that customers are going out of their way to get there, and thus are the kind of clientele whose word-of-mouth recommendations outdistance ads or radio spots.

For starters, an astonishing variety of international foods is concentrated in this two-block span.

My favorite is the Turtle Cafe (1271 Cambridge St., 354-8599), which serves well-prepared fresh food but doesn’t try to disguise the fact that the table covers are made of plastic. A recent menu featured Greek-style chicken stew with rice and zucchini ($3.50), Virigin Islands bluefish ($4.25), and veal escallopes ($4.50), plus a daily vegetarian entree. And while you’re relishing their rich desserts, you can ponder the mural of Idea and the Turtle.

Across the street is the Boca Loca Mexican Kitchen (1300 Cambridge St., 864-5350). Take-out orders there run from 60 cents to $3.75. I recommend the Luna Combo of cheese enchilada, rice and refried beans for $2.65.

Almost next door to the Turtle is a restaurant that offers every style of Chinese cuisine but specializes in Burmese, The Golden Horde (1281 Cambridge St., 547-4129), owned by the Shi family, who are from Burma, is not for the most sophisticated Szechuan freak. It is merely decent and cheap and offers large servings, which combination is not bad in any Square.

A few doors away is Casa Portugal (1200 Cambridge St., 491-8880) – where you can experience the sounds as well as the tastes of that country. On weekends a Spanish and a Portuguese guitarist will serenade you with fado music, over Valenciana rice ($5.25) or Zingara, which is fried veal, ham and mushrooms in a white wine sauce ($6.75). Ole.

Or ‘Oi veh,’ for those New York City refugees who just can’t get into this eclectic diet. The S&S Restaurant (1234 Cambridge St., 354-07777) is as good an imitation of a New York-style deli as you’ll find in New England. And they don’t insult your intelligence by spelling deli with two ‘l”s.

And speaking of New York, Aram’s Pizza (1238 Cambridge St., 868-9749) makes them the way I remember on the street corners of Queens and Manhattan — minus the urban soot. ‘We’re Number One,’ boasts Walter, the Armenian gentleman who owns the place. ‘Just ask in City Hall.’

There is no need to mention Legal Sea Foods. It is famous for fresh fish at, uh, fresh prices. But next door, in a brand-new store, is the Legal Sweet Shop (239 Hampshire St., 661-6513), where such sinfully rich desserts should be declared illegal. They make ice cream or frozen yogurt sundaes with fresh fruit toppings for 79 to 99 cents. But it’s those voluptuous pastries, pies, muffins and cakes that will seduce your sweet tooth. You can start with a cream cheese brownie for 50 cents and work your way up to an entire peach crumb pie for $3.95.

Once you’ve filled your stomach you may want to catch the sounds of Inman Square. And I’m not talking about the fire engines or buses. There are no fewer than three bars within 50 steps of each other, each a showcase for distinct styles of music. I had already known of the Inn Square Men’s Bar (1350 Cambridge St.,) which is no longer just for men. Two years ago, Harvey Black, a mild-mannered social psychology researcher at BU by day, bought the place and started bringing music in. He has featured such acts as Spider John Koerner and Kate and Ann McGarrigle. The music tends to be loud and funky.

I did not know of the 1369 Jazz Club (1369 Cambridge St.) and, being a jazz aficionado, am somewhat embarrassed by that admission. I showed up on a Monday night and caught an 11-piece band called — would you believe — Decahedron Plus One. Brothers John and Rick Merrigan bought the bar 14 months ago when it had a reputation for being a two-fisted watering hole, but the night I was there, all was silent attention during the bass solo. ‘These are sophisticated listeners,’ whispers John. ‘There’s no place like this in Harvard Square.’ They have Sunday jams for musicians from 5-8 p.m., and Monday is a for a salsa band called Estellas Latinas.

Diagonally across the Square is one of the best examples of the future of Inman Square. John A. Reilly — better known as ‘Jack’ of the usually crowded Jacks on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge — has turned an erstwhile Italian restaurant into Ryles (212 Hampshire St.), a quiet bar that hosts trios and ballad singers. It’s tony stuff — not really typical for Inman Square — but Jack has the kind of sensibility that fits right in. (He also serves lunches of homemade soups, salads and entrees.)

It would be an injustice to the Square to overlook some of the shoppers’ specials. Sew Low (1261 Cambridge St.) has fabrics at ridiculously low prices: cotton and cotton blends from 99 cents to $1.29 a yard. (At prices like these you don’t mind their cinder block and plywood shelves, which is all part of Inman ambiance anyway.)

The Inman 5 & 10 Store (1357 Cambridge St.) is — well, they just don’t make ’em like this anymore. With two customers in the store at the same time, things can get tight. The special of the day on my visit was towels for a buck, and so what if they’re so thin you’d need five to dry yourself?

Now that you have boldly ventured beyond your usual stomping grounds, follow me one step farther: west along Beacon Street toward Kirkland to two little spots I hope never become too popular because they are perfect the way they are. At A Moveable Feast (93 Beacon St., 547-4480), owner Regina Karp cooks up wonderful foods for take-out; quiche pates, marinated salads, cakes and pastries. Mushroom quiche go for $5.95, mocha buttercream cake is $5.75 and country pate is $5.75 a pound. But whenever I’ve gone there, she’s not in, so take note of the hours: Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Friday 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m., and Saturday 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.

Across the street weaver Diana Baker runs Wandering Eye (108 Beacon St). The little shop, which does not hide its being a converted grocery store, offers a rainbow of colored Mexican and Guatemalan blouses, belts, skirts, purses, shawls, baskets, reasonably priced.

And by all means, before leaving Inman Square, catch a glimpse of the inspiring words on the wall at the Meher Baba Information Center (7 Inman Square): ‘Don’t worry — be happy.'”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of Boston Public Library, The Boston Phoenix, Vol. 6, Iss. 17, “An Inman Square deal: Paella, salsa and all that jazz,” by Perry Garfinkel, April 26, 1977

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