I grew up eating Rhode Island fried seafood dipped in white chowder, my mother’s hearty Russian borscht and my French-Canadian mémère’s meat pie — homey, no-frills food made from unwritten recipes with no want of potatoes. When COVID-19 began, I knew places like our favorite clam shop were just inching by. It was shocking to see more and more windows boarded up with ghosts of help wanted signs scrambling for staff overdue. In Medford and Somerville, places like Hulun Beir in Davis and The Dark Horse Public House in Magoun Square have since closed their doors, shocked by an epidemic which made eating out a newly daunting experience. Spots like these, which lack the campus reputation to keep business flowing, are undoubtedly hit the hardest by such notoriously unprecedented times.
It’s easy enough to encourage eating out locally, but the sad truth is that greater Boston is expensive. This is where Spoonfuls comes in. I’m on a mission to find the hidden gems of the Tufts area: affordable, kitschy spots with unexpectedly great food and drink. Every year, Tufts students arrive on campus and change the entire dynamic of a Boston subset. Let’s not pretend to be angelic saviors of the local restaurant industry when we can simply put some fantastic and overlooked joints on the map. I’ll be practically doing it for you. All I ask is that you read along.
There’s nowhere I’d rather start this column than Guru the Caterer, a takeout Indian spot just outside of Teele Square housed between a gas station and a convenience store. My first-year neighbor and I have been frequenting the location since our first homesick crises. It’s far enough off campus for it to feel like a small adventure and close enough to avoid hunger pains, the tangerine walls more an omen of masala and coconut milk than a design choice. They’re takeout only, yes, but grab a fork and ask for a plate and you’ll likely snag the only metal table on their small patio. The cook will even come out and ask how things are if you’re nice about it.
This week, I ordered the chicken curry special, which consisted of a hefty paper bag of classic chicken tikka masala, methi malai matar, a coconut-based curry with fenugreek and peas, perfectly cooked rice and two pieces of roti. I am no small eater, and the special lasts me two if not three meals for a mere $13. The masala is creamy yet light, slicked with ghee enhanced by spices unknown and time inconceivable. Both curries have the ideal amount of spice for the Indian-food fanatic who values a bit of feeling in their tongue. The vegetarian curry I picked was a nice, light compliment to the masala, harnessing the satisfying sweetness of korma without the dessert-like quality. I usually opt for this or the saag paneer, a spinach-based curry with cubes of Indian cheese. It’s almost easier to eat vegetarian here — Indian food is so much more than its protein. A tighter budget than usual meant I had to skip out on the samosas and mango lassi this time, but the meal was equally decadent without the additions. Still, if you can swing it, the rice pudding is a great finisher, with delicate flavors of cardamom, pistachio and rose water.
Around 8 p.m. on the first day of classes, two of my friends and I sat below a prematurely darkening sky, enjoying our quality meal straight out of Tupperware and caving paper plates. After my year abroad and their COVID-mottled years on and off campus, it is strangely easy to find ourselves back here, discussing new relationships and old mistakes under the backlight of the restaurant.
One friend asks about my approach to senior year, and I ramble on about finding jobs and networking. It dawns on me now: I should’ve talked about picking each friend up along the way.
Now, I stop at wood frame houses around Somerville rather than knocking on chipping Houston dorm doors. I don’t hear everyone gathering for dinner in the hallway, nor do I run into those I used to see daily. I write about food for moments like these: when dinners go longer and our little world behind Carm grows larger. Tonight, this concrete patio is our banquet table and bottled water tastes oddly of wine. We toast to freshman year instincts in ethics class and shared dorm walls. The end of summer breeze blows laughs and advice back to Tufts, just far enough to spare us of class recaps and just close enough to allow for reminiscing on four years of Guru the Caterer and each other. We walk slowly back to our separate homes, savoring the heavy feeling of time and too much curry.