On a warm fall evening, it feels like the whole neighborhood is at Izzy’s Restaurant & Sub Shop in Cambridge. At one table, friends are sharing a plate of ribs and talking about the presidential election. Near the counter where customers order is a group of teens, happily munching Jamaican patties and other fried snacks from wax paper sleeves. Nearby, a couple with an infant is deciding what to order from the menu board posted above the counter. The lone server, ferrying dishes from the kitchen, is quick with a smile. If you’re not a regular here, you’ll be treated like one. The Maldonado family, who own Izzy’s, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Israel “Izzy’’ Maldonado explains how a family member’s restaurant in Puerto Rico inspired him to open his own place in 1980. Then in 1988, when a friend’s candy store became available between Inman and Kendall squares, Maldonado moved to that space and has been there ever since.
The recipes, Puerto Rican comfort food, come from his wife, Carmen Maldonado. “My wife loves to cook,’’ he says. “Without her I can do nothing.’’ His sister-in-law Maria, his son Alex, and daughter Lisette all help. You order at the counter, take a seat, and a server brings the food to your table; you pay at the counter when you’re done. There are about 30 seats in the place.
The key to navigating the menu board, especially without having an individual menu to study, is to know that all combination plates and daily specials come with rice, beans, and salad. Be sure to look for the handwritten index cards on the bulletin board for additional daily specials. One night, we choose two: stewed oxtail and stewed goat ($8.95 each). Both arrive in individual casserole dishes set on large oval plates that hold the sides. The oxtail meat is falling off the bone and served in gravy flavored with tomato and onion. It has a tingle of heat. Chunks of soft-cooked yellow potato are tucked alongside the meat. A dining companion, who orders it whenever it is on the menu, says the goat is the most tender and flavorful he has had. Whole roman beans (similar in texture to pinto beans) are soft and creamy, served in their simmering liquid.
The yellow rice is truly special, studded with pigeon peas, which are lovely legumes the color of capers. Maldonado says the rice gets its color from achiote (annatto) seeds cooked in vegetable oil. Seeds are discarded and the bright orange oil is added to the rice along with a sofrito, a paste made with cilantro, garlic, and tiny sweet peppers called ajicitos dulces. We quickly figure out that many of the savory dishes get a boost from this sofrito.
Stewed chicken ($7.95) is a special another day. Dark meat and chunks of potato in a sauce are brightened by the signature achiote oil. Pieces of bone-in poultry are simple and comforting. The white rice, while perfectly acceptable, is plain compared with the flavorful yellow rice. Not to be missed is tripe soup ($3.75 small, $6.95 large). While some find beef stomach too earthy to enjoy, here at Izzy’s the delicacy is meticulous, soft-cooked and springy in texture. It comes in a soup thickened with root vegetables and squash. We should have ordered the large serving.
There are a couple of missteps. Tostones ($2.75) — fried green plantains — on one visit are unpalatably salty. Another time, the red cabbage in an otherwise fresh salad of romaine and tomato is shredded from the tough outer leaves. On subsequent visits, both were corrected. Because the cooks can be liberal with the salad dressing, ask for the vinaigrette on the side.
Even though we fill takeout containers with enough food for another meal, we order a side of sweet plantains ($2.75). Caramelized and served warm, their centers are almost custard-like. They taste all the more sweet in this warm, welcoming neighborhood spot.