A well-crafted alternative
Porter Cafe is a standout on West Roxbury’s restaurant row
On Centre Street in West Roxbury, food is happening. There are stalwarts like Anna’s Donuts & Coffee and the Corrib. There are “new’’ places that have been around long enough they could be considered stalwarts, too - West on Centre and Real Deal. Himalayan Bistro and Sticky Rice Cafe are among the businesses that bring an international flavor. Establishments like Sugar and Rox Diner have been so successful they’ve added outposts in other neighborhoods. A burrito joint and a barbecue place are in the works. If it weren’t for the mosh pit that is Roche Bros., you might think no one cooks at home anymore.
On this restaurant row, Porter Cafe stands out. Four years ago, this was the site of a terrible fire that started in the former Tai Ho. The block has been rebuilt, and Porter Cafe opened in June. It’s a small space, with about 10 tables and a long bar, dimly lit and with dark red walls. Owners Paul Murphy and Dermot Loftus have worked at places like Matt Murphy’s, Washington Square Tavern, and Beacon Street Tavern in Brookline, as well as pubs in Dublin (both are originally from Ireland). Here they highlight craft beer. Keeping the new operation scaled down and focused, they have created a place that works. Service is informal but very attentive. And the kitchen is open into the double digits, serving a friendly neighborhood crowd.
The partners also had the great sense to bring in Jimmy Whelen as chef. An alum of Tremont 647 and the B-Side Lounge, Whelen makes simple fare that is consistently tastier than you think it could be. He has the touch.
For instance, fish tacos are on half the menus in town these days. Whelen’s are better than just about any of them. The fish is grilled rather than fried, not traditional, but do you really care when these taste so good? Part of it is simply that Whelen, whom you can see working away in the kitchen, gets the food out quickly. When was the last time the fish in your fish tacos was piping hot? It is here. It’s folded together with tart cilantro-lime cream and salsa in a tortilla, two tacos per order. If you’re thinking of sharing, you might regret it.
Mussels are on every menu in town, and Porter Cafe is no exception. They transcend the ordinary here, for two reasons. One: They are in a Thai-style curry-coconut broth, lightly spicy, the kind of thing you don’t want to waste a drop of. Two: There is actually enough bread served with the dish to do this broth justice. Mussels are mussels (and here they are occasionally gritty). The liquid is always the best part of this dish. Enough with bowls accompanied by one tiny crust of toast. We want to dunk.
House-made sausage is light in texture and meltingly tender, served with braised cabbage. MoonBrine pickles, a product formerly made in Boston but now hailing from Portland, Ore., are battered and fried. They come with jalapeno-ranch dressing that’s not quite balanced, and the pickles tend to slip out of their doughy casing when you bite or cut into them. Macaroni and cheese arrives molten, in a skillet that’s still too hot to pass a half-hour later. The high heat turns all the fat in the cheese liquid, an unappetizing presentation.
A perfect burger makes up for it: an 8-ounce patty cooked to the right temperature, topped with cheddar and an onion relish, accompanied by a pile of nicely browned fries. A fried fish po’boy is just as worthy, light, flaky, and greaseless, on a fluffy bun with a pile of crisp slaw and more of those good fries.
Whelen also serves a mean steak frites - a chewy cut, quite rare and very flavorful, with watercress salad as a peppery counterpoint. More elegant is roast cod in a big white bowl, served atop a buttered leek sauce with roast cauliflower. Pork shank braised in red wine looks impressive, a glistening mahogany giant served with smashed potatoes and lovely roasted parsnips and other fall vegetables. The meat is a bit on the bland side, however. And roast Statler chicken would be a thing of beauty if it weren’t showered in handfuls of salt.
Porter Cafe emphasizes beer as much as it does food. There are more than a dozen craft selections on tap, and 50-plus additional choices. Local favorites from Pretty Things and Harpoon share the spotlight with Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale and Breckenridge Vanilla Porter, Peroni and Bud Light, chocolate stout and cider, and a raft of Belgians. There is something here for everyone, as long as everyone likes beer. Or wine: There is also a shorter, reasonably priced list. Just don’t expect cocktails. Or dessert. Those would just be a distraction.
Porter Cafe concentrates on doing a few things well, and do them very well it does.