“Who cares about cricket?” a college-age kid asks snickering friends as they walk past Hit Wicket in Cambridge.
Later, dining there with a group of Indian-American friends, the same subject comes up and several resoundingly answer, “Uh, the rest of the world!”
That bodes well for this Inman Square sports bar, which opened in June. It claims to be the first establishment in the United States centered around the other bat-and-ball game, the one spread by the once worldwide British Empire. In addition to showing the matches on eight big-screen TVs (including one 80-inch monster), the place primarily serves street and finger foods from New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, England, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and of course India.
But the place needs enough people who care about cricket to keep going. Hey, Cambridge is a diverse, open-minded population, right? And the location, next to Puritan & Company and across from Tupelo, is fit for walk-in traffic. But at dinnertime on a Friday night, the large dining room and zigzagging bar are both sadly empty. The apologetic waitress explains that it fills up based on cricket matches. Sure enough, midday game-time check-ins over the weekend confirm better results.
“We hope that once the word spreads that the food is good, people will come in all the time,” says Shubha Ramesh Kumar, an India native who launched this first restaurant venture with her friend Nada Heredia and two family investors, adding that they also show Red Sox games and soccer tilts. “But right now, it is centered mostly around big [cricket] games.”
What will really attract the crowds is good food. The menu, put together by the managing partners and chef Stacy Blount, hops around the globe, and the results are all over the map, too.
One of the best-selling items, Aussie meat pie ($11), is larger and not quite as tasty as the hand-held wonders served by Sam Jackson at his KO Pies outposts in Southie and East Boston, but still pretty darn good. Pierce the flaky crust for a stew of juicy ground lamb, red onions, and thyme, served on a bed of pea mash. A bartender warns us that it comes with “a schmear of ketchup on top,” though it actually covers much of the surface.
Three options from the “light entrees” menu are also solid: South African bunny chow ($12), sliders ($8 for four), and Trinidad roti wrap ($10). The bunny chow is a bread bowl filled with garbanzo masala, chicken masala, or shrimp; the shrimp is cooked perfectly and served in a steaming curry. Unfortunately, one in our party likens the whole-wheat bread bowl to Wonder Bread. We order potato sliders (other options are spicy chicken, jerk lamb, or a combination) and paneer roti wrap (also available as Goan chicken, ground lamb, scrambled eggs, or a combination), which are tasty options for those avoiding meat. “I’m personally vegetarian and I’ve gone to a number of sports bars and just walked away eating fries and salad,” says Kumar. “I wanted to change that experience for a vegetarian or vegan who wants to watch a game.”
A few items are less well received. Tandoori-style chicken salad ($8) isn’t as good as it should be, with underwhelming white chunks in a tasteless salad of mixed greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, and mint-yogurt dressing. Masala pappad ($3), a crispy lentil wafer with red onions, cilantro, carrots, and chaat masala, is fine but falls apart easily, making it nearly impossible to eat. Plantain chips ($4) and fries French ($4) — yes, that’s what they’re called — are both over-salted yet still fairly good. Sun-dried lentil crisps ($3), however, a concoction of lentil and ash gourd dipped in yogurt, then deep-fried, are hard and burnt. A number of us don’t finish an exploratory bite.
The lentil crisps’ aftertaste is washed away with vodka puri ($9 for four pods), a combination of a shot and a popular Indian street food. To make them, date chutney, pani puri mix, mint, cilantro, and potato are combined in single-bite puris, which are filled with vodka. They’re spicy, eye-watering, and somehow both off-putting and enticing at the same time.
For dessert, jamuns ($6) are fried saffron dough balls drenched in rose water syrup on delicious ginger ice cream from nearby Christina’s, and Lankan chocolate Marie biscuit pudding ($6), tea biscuits layered with chocolate custard and strawberries. The pudding is short on berries, but the dish is still enjoyable.
An Indian friend says the Indian food is nontraditional, by and large. She has never seen masala pappad with vegetables or pani puri with vodka. Likewise, sliders and paneer wraps are American-Indian fusion (paneer wraps are getting quite popular in New York; they’re available here only at Chutney’s).
So can this food lure in curious Cantabrigians and perhaps turn them on to cricket? Time will tell if locals can embrace this overseas sport — and the sports bar where you can watch it.