A Union Square culture maven dishes about where to find the best grub in the Square. By Nibble scribe Vera Vidal
“Music, dance and food are absolutely universal experiences that all cultures share and which unite us all. And yet it is the uniqueness of sound, rhythm, movement and flavor that creates a feeling of cultural identity” says Susan Robbins, owner of Third Life Studios and founder and artistic director of Libana, an ensemble that celebrates women’s creative contributions to international music.
I met with Sue at Third Life Studio, in the heart of Union Square. This venue is where you can find classes ranging from Hawaiian hula and Middle Eastern belly dance to African dance, Yoga and Balkan singing! Concerts are held there occasionally—like the Opensound experimental music series—and a Samba group rehearses there. Sue tells me she settled in Union Square for its vibrant arts community and multicultural atmosphere.
“ What makes this neighborhood so special is that you have a direct cultural link. It’s the first destination for many immigrants. This link is tangibly alive through the restaurants and markets.”
It was a heartbreaker for Susan to pick only five restaurants and markets as she loves many, so, softies that we are, we let her pick six! Here they are…
#1: India Palace “ The chef is amazing, the masala is always special, the naans are delicious,” says Susan. Her fave dish is lamb banzara, which features succulent pieces of lamb cooked in a clay oven and then mixed with a sauce of eggplant, aromatic herbs and spices. Being a regular patron for over 15 years, Sue has befriended the staff and owner, who even shared pictures with her of his wedding back in Punjab. Sue was able to explore her love of Indian food more fully on a recent performing tour with her group, Libana, to Northern India. One night in India, a Libana concert at Barefoot College in Rajasthan (where women from many countries were gathered to learn solar engineering skills) turned into a spontaneous musical exchange, as someone would perform a song or dance from her country, such as Kenya or Columbia, interspersed between Libana’s songs. “India is such a sensory culture, I see the cultural sense of spice as a metaphor for their constant sensory aliveness,” says Sue.
#2: Machu Picchu Charcoal Chicken & Grill “It is the best inexpensive quick delicious restaurant in the square. Their chicken marinates with a magical bunch of spices and the dipping sauces are also a highlight! It is a fun, informal place, where Latin-American music is always playing, either pop or traditional,” says Sue. No wonder she likes the tunes at Machu Picchu—it turns out Libana has a few Peruvian Quechua songs in their repertoire, which they perform with panpipes and charangos. For info on why this chicken is so darn tasty, go here: Paradise in a Polleria.
#3: Sweet Ginger “Everything is so fresh, never overcooked, the vegetables taste like they were just picked,” says Sue. Her favorite dish is the home-style crispy duck that comes with ginger and a spicy tasty home sauce. Beyond the food, Sue likes the vibe and peacefulness of the restaurant: “It is a warm and welcoming place, with its colorful walls and lighting and gorgeous photos of Thailand – it feels like you are in somebody’s kitchen; and the owner are so lovely and approachable.”
#4: Reliable market “This pan-Asian market has survived all the transitions in the area,” explains Sue, who shops there for sushi ingredients (including wasabi, sushi-grade fish, kimchi, fresh ginger and veggies) as well as frozen dumplings. The only thing she misses is the neon fish in the window; sadly this fish doesn’t light up anymore!
#5: La internacional “I love to watch the neighborhood Latin Americans and Haitians walk out with big bags of rice,” says Sue. “This place is the perfect mix between a convenience store and an ethnic market. I remember one day there was a huge box of dried salted fish and people were picking it up directly. It wasn’t packaged or plastic wrapped with a label on it and some hygienic certification. It is like markets you’d find in other cultures— and that makes this place special.” [Editors’ note: We’re guessing this fish is bacalao, or dry salted cod, which is popular among many cultures around Easter.]
#6: Capone’s After spending last summer in Umbria teaching a vocal workshop, Sue still pines for fresh Italian pasta served with locally picked truffles. Luckily she can get her Italian food fix at Capone’s. “ This is the other long-term store is the area, with the best pasta and sauces,” says Sue. “I make my own pesto in the summer but I never have enough to freeze it for the winter, so this is where I can always find some.” She continues, “Capone’s is a little bit of Italy and old world Somerville. It is the reminder of an older wave of immigration, when 30 years ago, there was a much larger Italian population. More recently, other populations have been growing— Union Square is the perfect place to observe this mix and evolution.”