Hankering for tripe soup and a tongue burrito washed down with a cool glass of sugar-cane juice? You can grab these, for here or to go, on Broadway in East Somerville.
The bustling, polyglot neighborhood is the city’s most internationally flavored precinct. Spanish, not English, is the lingua franca. The half-mile stretch of Broadway from Sullivan Square to the McGrath Highway is packed with tiny food markets, shops, and restaurants. Many of their customers are recent immigrants from Latin America, especially El Salvador.
Somerville foodies — with a been-there-done-that attitude toward Davis Square to the west and Union and Inman squares to the south and west — are starting to take notice. Helping draw their attention is an increasingly popular annual event, the East Somerville Foodie Crawl.
“This is our fourth annual Crawl,” organizer Carrie Dancy Niemy said of the event that drew close to 1,000 visitors to Broadway two weeks ago.
“We have authentic, affordable restaurants here from all over the world,” said Niemy, who is executive director of East Somerville Main Streets, an economic development organization. “We could have had a food event under a tent, but we wanted to get the visitors into our restaurants to meet the people who run them. This is a unique place. That’s what makes it worth a trip.”
At the Foodie Crawl’s 6 p.m. start on a weeknight, long lines of mostly young, mostly English-speaking visitors materialized outside nearly all the participating restaurants. The $25 fee ($20 in advance) paid for an all-you-can-eat affair. A paper bracelet let people wander in and out of more than a dozen restaurants on Broadway over the course of 2½ hours.
Each establishment set up a buffet table offering representative fare, from pizza and fried rice balls to taquitos de pollo and fried yuca with grilled pineapple. At Fasika, an Ethiopian restaurant, for example, spicy chicken stew and lentils were served with injera, a spongy Ethiopian flat bread.
“Our customers come from all over: Newton, Brookline, even New Hampshire,” said owner Befekadu Defar. “Most of them are not Ethiopian. This is a very mixed neighborhood with a lot of ethnic groups. It’s become a destination for people who want to buy different kinds of ethnic food.”
At Maya Sol Mexican Grill, visitors snaking into the restaurant from the sidewalk waited their turn to chomp on envueltos de chayote, turnovers containing thick, succulent slices of green tropical squash wrapped in chicken skin — fatty and good.
Despite its official name, Maya Sol’s menu is heavy on Salvadoran favorites. East Somerville is home to several thousand Salvadoran immigrants, many of whom arrived during the country’s 12-year civil war, which officially ended in 1992.
Reminding them of home are pupusas de queso con loroco. These, said Maya Sol manager Carlos Argueta, are cheese tortillas stuffed with organic flower buds from Central America. “Everyone orders them.”
Another establishment serving home-cooked Central American food, Taco Loco, is known for having a line out the door at all hours, with or without a foodies crawl. Co-owner Carlos Morales credits fresh ingredients.
“At a lot of restaurants, I see the same food the next day,” Morales said. “Here, we put in the trash all the food left over at night. We send a guy out to the market every day to buy produce and meat.”
We thought of that as we enjoyed a mushroom quesadilla, whose chunks of mushroom had a just-picked chewiness.
A recent addition to Broadway’s restaurant row is Rincón Mexicano, the only Mexican-owned restaurant on the strip. Recent immigrant Lorenzo Reyes, the chef and owner, specializes in authentic Mexican dishes like flautas (crisp, chewy tortillas containing cheese, potato, and shredded meat). Some of his recipes, he told us, came from his grandmother.
English was clearly a second language in many of the restaurants. In Gauchao Brazilian Cuisine, patrons sitting down to dinner conversed in Portuguese over the sound of a TV blaring a Brazilian soap opera.
A block away, at one of Broadway’s older restaurants, Vinny’s Ristorante, the TV was tuned to the Cooking Channel. Chef-owner Vinny Migliore learned to cook so that he could turn his variety store into an Italian restaurant in the 1980s.
“I took a basic chef class two nights a week at Bunker Hill Community College,” he said. “I wasn’t going to start a restaurant if I had to depend on a chef, because they’re all temperamental, you know?”
Vinny’s had one of the longest lines of the evening, possibly because people waiting for the homemade ziti, eggplant parmigiana, arancini, and pizzettas could serve themselves as much as they wanted.
A drawback of marathon dining is that one’s enthusiasm for food flags after the first dozen stops. Partly for this reason, we made a special visit a few days earlier to La Brasa, one of East Broadway’s newest and hippest restaurants.
Chef-owner Daniel Bojorquez formerly worked at Boston hot spots l’Espalier and Sel de la Terre.
A native of Mexico, he lists Peru and the Middle East as culinary influences. As we sat at a table made of unpolished floorboards in the industrial-chic space, we watched Bojorquez and his staff work in the large open kitchen, which was dominated by a huge wood-fired oven.
We doubt the recipes here came from anyone’s grandmother, involving as they did charred pork belly, green soba noodles, tomato fondue, apricot salsa, and grilled grapes. Start to finish, it was superb.
La Brasa and an upscale pub that recently opened next door, the East End Grille, are sure to draw newcomers to this end of Broadway year-round. But will the mom-and-pop takeout joints serving burritos and flautas survive as East Somerville becomes increasingly gentrified, what with new subway stops and mega-developments at Assembly Row and elsewhere?
“We’re not looking to bring more large-scale developments into our traditional neighborhoods,” said Somerville’s director of economic development, Ed O’Donnell. “We like the neighborhoods the way they are.”
Nonetheless, East Broadway’s small businesses will flourish only if they can appeal to a broader customer base. To help, the city has embarked on an $8 million streetscape redesign, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant program administered by the city.
Nearing completion are new roadways, new signs and store façades, and new green spaces, all intended to spur restaurants to invest in their own upgrades. Brand new sidewalks twice as wide as the old ones are poised to trigger a boom in outdoor dining.
“Look at how Davis and Union squares have become dining meccas. That’s what we’d like to see Broadway become,” said O’Donnell.
“We’re encouraging restaurants to draw in more than the people in their immediate neighborhoods,” he said. “There’s no better draw than to see other people walking on the sidewalk and sitting at tables eating and enjoying life. It makes you feel comfortable. It makes you feel safe.”
Doug Stewart and Coco McCabe can be reached at dcstewart@