Somerville is a city in transition. The three-time All American City Award-winner is currently experiencing a boom, becoming a new Somerville. A place that comes $30,000 over asking price. The one with all the beards. But not everything moves at the same pace. Part of the city still clings to an era when Ford built motorcars in Assembly Square and you could place bets in the basement of the pub. There’s an intriguing blend of old and new going on in East Somerville, the forgotten corner of town east of the McGrath Highway. At its center is a half-mile stretch of Broadway from Route 28 to Sullivan Square, which is unremarkable at first glance. Despite a recent municipal makeover of fresh asphalt, shrubbery and sweet bike lanes, many of the storefronts have gone untouched for decades, leaving the place feeling as if it’s lost in time while the flashy developments of Assembly Square cast long shadows. But dig a little deeper and you uncover a resilient and diverse neighborhood with phenomenal places to eat.
One example of the old Somerville is the Mount Vernon Restaurant and Pub. Not much changes here and that’s a point of pride. I chat with owner Martin Henry over a bowl of steamers (pictured above). I pull plump clam bellies from their skins, rinse and douse them in drawn butter as Henry tells me about the history of the restaurant. His father opened the place back in 1935 as a small bar with roast beef sandwiches. Now, Mount Vernon seats up to 400 people and features an overflowing menu filled with New England classics. “We’ve been here a long time. I think we’ve done pretty well over the years,” he says.
Mount Vernon is famous for its twin lobster special. It’s so popular that the restaurant goes through 25 tons of lobster a year and people come from all over the world to eat it. But Henry says I have to come back for something else. “Our roast beef is the best roast beef around. Guaranteed.” We shake hands and I promise to return on his recommendation.
A newer phenomenon in East Somerville is an embarrassment of taquería riches, a topic that could fill an entire episode of Greater Boston (Emily Rooney, let’s talk). I only have time to visit one spot today, and I’ve got a hankering for pupusas, so I go to the cozy Taco Loco. Besides the black market pupusas sold in a bodega on Medford Street, Taco Loco has my favorite in the city. I order one with queso and loroco, a lavender-like flower, peppered within the thick cornmeal tortilla. Spicy curtido and a mild salsa rojo round out the dish. I rip the pupusa apart with my hands, slopping it in salsa and pushing the whole gooey mess into my mouth, washing it all down with thirsty gulps of mango juice.
It’s one of those crazy 70 degree November days, so I take the opportunity to walk along Broadway, trying to make sense of the neighborhood. What impresses me most is the overwhelming diversity of food options, including Creole, Italian and Ethiopian restaurants, two Brazilian barbecues, six taquerías, two Irish bars, a small plate restaurant with a wood-burning oven, a pastry shop specializing in whipped cream cakes, an ice cream parlor that’s only open in the summer, and a café serving egg sandwiches and irresponsibly large iced coffees.
I finish the day with dessert because my sweet tooth knows no limits. (I’m currently on candy bag number three as I write this.) You know those moments when you need chocolate? Like a lot of chocolate, but you don’t want to eat an entire cake or a pint of ice cream? I recommend the Brazilian treat, brigadeiro, dense fudge balls made from powdered chocolate, condensed milk and butter, all rolled in chocolate sprinkles. They are tooth-achingly sweet—beyond delicious—and I know just where to get one. Pastelaria Vitoria is a Brazilian market and sandwich counter a block from the highway. Chocolate gets under my fingernails and sprinkles fall on my lap, as I try my best to savor my brigadeiro and talk myself out of ordering a second.
Riding my sugar high, I head home for a much needed siesta. (Food writing is harder than it looks.) As I walk, I consider how East Somerville, the isolated neutral zone before you hit Charlestown, provides such varied options for curious eaters—and how I’ll likely be back tomorrow for tacos.
Mount Vernon Restaurant and Pub - 14 Broadway, Somerville, 617-666-3830
Taco Loco Mexican Grill – 44 Broadway, Somerville, 617-325-3830, tacolocomexicangrill.com
Pastelaria Vitoria – 192 Broadway, Somerville, 617-776-4303