How many ironic beards can you count in Central Square? How high can you count? In the neighborhood restaurants and bars, it sometimes feels like a convention of ZZ Top-loving lumberjacks has landed. Attack of the hipsters! I would watch that zombie movie.
On a wintry night, walking down Mass. Ave., everyone is bundled in flannel and wool; in the dimly lit dining rooms, patrons mope over sour beers and small plates. Then, suddenly: flamenco music! dancing! caipirinhas! Beneath a black awning, a set of windows offers a glimpse of something different. La Fábrica Central beckons.
Part restaurant, part jazz lounge, part nightclub, it opened a year ago, the latest project from Hector and Nivia Piña — who also run Boston’s Merengue (Dominican food), Vejigantes (Puerto Rican), and Doña Habana (Cuban) — along with attorney and former Cambridge vice mayor Dennis Benzan. The food at La Fábrica enfolds a whole region in its embrace. It is described as “Latin Caribbean fusion.” Chef Giovanna Huyke was a longtime cooking-show host in Puerto Rico and has written multiple cookbooks; she was previously in D.C., at now-closed restaurant Mio.
Inside, things feel tropical. The place is all aqua accents, cool tile, and repurposed wood, green fronds unfurling from planters. There’s a bar at the front, right where the musicians play, and you could sit here all night soaking in the atmosphere and the rum Old Fashioneds. There are Pisco cocktails, and shots that are almost intriguing enough to convince you that doing shots is a good idea. The Mamajuana is made “by allowing rum, red wine, and honey to soak in a bottle with tree bark and herbs” — so, Dominican Jäger? (The Wikipedia entry notes that some recipes include sea turtle penis shaft, for its aphrodisiac properties, but presumably not here.)
At some point, someone is going to start frying something in the kitchen, and it will smell like heaven, and your plans to move on for dinner will suddenly seem absurd. Because Huyke’s crew is making pastelillos, turnovers filled with seafood, ropa vieja, or goat cheese with tomato jam. There are several different kinds of ceviche, yuca fritters, chicken chicharrones with cilantro salsa. There’s a whole red snapper, fried and served with tomato-coconut sauce, that’s transportingly delicious. And that’s just the beginning.
At one table, a young couple celebrates her birthday, dressed to the nines, giggling like kids over the sparklers on her cake. At another, several generations from several different families share a meal. A group of high school students celebrates an academic achievement. At the bar, 20-somethings talk about political organizing and philosophy, switching between English and Spanish. There are people here of all ages, colors, and backgrounds. For this, as well as for the food, La Fábrica Central stands out.
It’s one reason to come here. In December, the Globe’s Spotlight series on racism stated, “There are only a small number of restaurants in which black diners report they can dependably find other black people.” To different degrees, that’s true for most people of color. Local restaurants remain largely white spaces. Plenty of people will tell you, a la comedian Michael Che, that this is the most racist city of them all. That’s not going to change when we don’t eat together. We need to eat together.
It doesn’t hurt, either, that much of this delicious food traces back to Puerto Rico, a place that deserves some extra celebration right now, as recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria continue.
And where else in Central Square are you going to find Flamenco Night and live Latin jazz, or order a whole roast pig with all the accompaniments (call ahead), or sample Huyke’s own recipe for the creamy, boozy, coconutty drink Coquito?
So pull up a stool. Settle in. Once you smell the chicharrones frying, I promise you’re staying for dinner.
450 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge, 857-706-1125, www.lafabricacentral.comDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.