Husby thinks he’s heard me say “potato frite” and he’s excited. Potatoes, especially European-style preparations, are one of his major food groups. But we’re going to PotatoFreak, and banish the idea of an edgy little spot. PotatoFreak has wattage to light a highway, a big dining room with hardly any diners, yellow and brick-red walls lined with a local artist’s work, and loud Pink Floyd and Aerosmith on a tinny speaker.
Leave Union Square and its cool places behind you, pass under McGrath Highway and hope chunks of decaying steel don’t fall on your car, and you’re in a much grittier part of Somerville. PotatoFreak is tucked away in Cobble Hill Plaza, a small strip mall a few miles and light-years from Union Square.
But they can really turn out a spud. Rosti potatoes (spelled rostie here), the grated Swiss potato cake, is made in a huge pan, so a perfectly domed cake fills a dinner plate. Unlike in its country of origin, where rosti are pancake-like, these rosti ($9-$13.50) are plump, stuffed with cheese and beef, shrimp, pork, chicken, or bacon, then cooked until golden and crisp, and the cheese inside melts invitingly. A single rosti can serve at least two.
The California rosti reveals ham, bacon, and mozzarella, the filling not quite enough for all that grated potato. Bacalao, the Portuguese dish made with cod, is an ideal filling for the shredded dome. Smoked steak rosti, stuffed with mozzarella and the Brazilian specialty, churrasco, a shredded beef mixture, is quite good. Churrasco appears in other dishes and this spicy mixture goes well with a number of things.
In a quesdailla ($6.50), you can get the beef inside a crisp wheat tortilla with chili peppers and a side of mild salsa. When we ask for something hotter, we get little plastic packets of to-go hot sauce. Rosti comes with a small fresh iceberg salad with homemade dressing.
Brazilian-born Leo Pimenta opened PotatoFreak 18 months ago with his wife, Geralda, who comes from a restaurant family and encouraged him in this venture.
There are times when an all-potato diet is just the thing. Hair-of-the-dog, sort of. To that end, there are Sunday buffet brunches here ($9.95 per person). Hot, satisfying, cheesy potatoes and coffee seem to be a match made in heaven.
For dinner, our giant baked potato (fillings $6-$8, toppings $1.50) — like a spud on steroids, not some dainty little slipper of a tater — is mixed with shredded beef (something like churrasco, but not as spicy), and topped with cheddar and fries. Potatoes garnished with potatoes. Three of us go at it and can only finish half, but we like it.
Potato skins ($5-$5.50) aren’t just the skins, but a generous half potato, topped with bacon and cheese, spinach and tomatoes, or garlic and herbs.
A Spanish tortilla ($6-$7) is not an eggy affair, as the real one is in Spain, but a modified version of rosti, which the restaurant seems skilled at making. It’s not as domed as the rosti, and quite crisp.
We like what Pimenta, who is an affable host, is up to. And we wish hipster Somervillians would consider going a mile or so east to find this spot. On our way back through Union Square we eye a Kappy’s billboard advertising Spud vodka. Apparently Pimenta isn’t the only one who thinks this is potato country.