Off the Beaten Path Food Tours Showcases the Unique Neighborhood of Union Square, Somerville (4.5 stars)

Union Square in Somerville has been in the news quite a bit recently since it is now the proud owner of a brand-new T-stop along the Green Line.  Once an insular neighborhood between East Somerville and Inman Square, Union is poised to break out and gain a new image all of its own.  It is therefore no surprise that people would begin to be curious about what culinary choices such a unique place might be hiding.

Off the Beaten Path Food Tours were started by a couple, Lizzie and Sam, who currently live in Somerville.  They saw the many great restaurants that surrounded them and wanted to give them the attention they deserve.  And so, they organized food tours to enlighten people on the many under the radar spots in the Cambridge and Somerville area.  Union Square is one of their destinations.

You are requested to meet at Bloc 11, a coffee shop built into an old bank.  The architecture of its former business is apparent when you see that an enormous vault door still exists, allowing a customer to eat inside one of two vaults.  This is a good place to pre-game and grab a nice, caffeinated beverage to get your energy up for the walking tour that you are about to embark upon.

We met our guide James in the outdoor seating area of the Café.  Like a true friend he was waiting there with donuts.  These sweet treats came to us from across the Street at Union Square Donuts.  We sampled a vanilla donut, an apple spiced donut, and glazed donut holes.  Starting the tour off with dessert reminded me of a phrase one of my college professors used to say.  “Life is short, eat dessert first.”  Plus, sugar can help give a little more energy for the walking tour.  Union Square Donuts has now expanded to Assembly Row, plus a location in Boston.

Our first stop was Machu Picchu, named for the ancient mountain citadel of the Inca’s.  It has become well known for its roasted chicken, which we sampled here as we learned the amazing story of how this restaurant came about.  The oven was imported from Peru.  It took over a year to get the permits to do so.  However, this is the secret to the succulent chicken, since it is slow roasted for 12 hours.  The results are meat that melts in your mouth.  Accompanying this dish was a juice made from blue corn, giving it a red wine color yet a subtlety sweet flavor with hints of lemon and cinnamon.  We received a final treat of cookies, made again with a fine corn meal making them more like a pastry then a crunchy cookie.  They were light with a creamy caramel center with just enough sweetness for an after-dinner treat.

Then we headed to the heart of Union Square, where we were given a history lesson of the area.  The Union part referred to the fact that the Union Army recruited soldier there in the Square.  This was most likely done because Prospect Hill is the site where George Washington raised the first American Flag above Boston, making it a symbol of patriotism.  A massive mural on a building memorializes this event and a flag still flies atop a stone tower that over looks the square.  We saw other murals as well that reflected the rich and diverse cultures that have come to know this neighborhood as home. 

We headed down an alley which one might think only hosts a parking lot.  However, this is a true hidden gem of Somerville.  Down this seemingly normal driveway lurks many venues you might not know about.  Event spaces like the Jungle and Warehouse XI are known for music and performances.  But also a few bars and restaurants are here as well.  This space is reminiscent of Europe where an alleyway might lead to a quality restaurant, but you would never know from the outside street. 

A roll up garage door opens to reveal the hidden food counter of Littleberg.  Nestled in a former car port is a takeout place that serves all vegan cuisine.  We were treated to an excellent fried zucchini with a cream sauce for dipping.  Then we sampled a naan bread again with a cream spread for flavor.  For those that do not dig on meat, this is the place to avoid it yet get some delicious foods.  They are partnered with Back Bar next door.  Grab your food and then get your drinks. 

Next up we went to Barra, which I discovered is the Spanish word for Bar.  Who knew!  This restaurant replicates an authentic Mexican small-town eatery complete with local foods.  We were served a handmade blue corn tortilla quesadilla.  It was stuffed with thick creamy cheese and fresh avocado.  The most unique item to try on the entire tour were the chapulínes.  These are fried grasshoppers, chopped up and used to add flavor to the foods.  Had you not known that they were insects, you might easily mistake them for a normal seasoning.  They were salty and crunchy and reminded me of imitation bacon bits.  If you are adventurous, give these a try.

We were also given a tall glass of agua fresca, a hibiscus infused juice again made with blue corn as a sweetener.  This was a very tart drink that I personally watered down until it was just the right level of sour for my taste.  It is easy to imagine this concoction with gin or tequila making for a fine cocktail.

Our final stop was Remnant Brewery, located at the Bow Street Market.  The market in and of itself is a hidden gem.  Once a car garage, the space has been transformed into a marketplace of shops, food stands, and places to drink.  We happened to attend during Octoberfest, so a large celebration had taken over the entire place.  Beer was being served from taps outside, so it had a festival feel as live bands played.  I would expect normally to just end the tour at the brewery, however ending with a big outdoor party was an unexpected bonus.  I had tried Remnant before and always enjoyed their selection of craft beers, so soaking in the atmosphere was just fine. 

Off the Beaten Path Food Tours offer a great evening that allows you to explore places you might never find on your own.  For a tourist in the area, or even for a local who thinks they know every place to eat, you will be pleasantly surprised at what you find.  And for those who want more, there are tours in Cambridge that showcase the many murals of the town.  And in Harvard Square there is even a chocolate tour for those that love sweets.  So next time you need to find a new spot for some great food, remember to go Off the Beaten Path!

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