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Taste of Waltham

For over a year now I've been going to monthly song circles at someone's home in Waltham. Usually I took the 70 bus to nearby and walked up. Recently I've taken the commuter rail, which is less frequent and further away on that end and more expensive, but I can get near my home without going to Central Square. Typically I'd be like an hour late, 8 when things start at 7.

Today I was in Boston, then went to North Station before 4. Line at the ticket machine so I went straight to the train, but I wasn't charged the dollar for buying a ticket on the train. Don't know if that's related to the train pulling out then stopping for 13 minutes due to "mechanical issues". I asked when I got off, and think I heard "airbag had gone off". I dunno. I was in no hurry and being stuck on an A/C train with a book is no burden in the recent heat wave, so whatever, but we did make it to Waltham, with plenty of time for me to explore, which was the plan.

I have walked around what I thought was central Waltham -- there's a train station and bus loop and park/square and all -- and frankly it's not that exciting, with a few scattered restaurants and no great density, but those walks have mostly been train-to-circle, and I figured I'd check, and if there wasn't much I knew there was *some* A/C restaurant I could hide in.

So, there I was. North and east I've done. North and west? South? South feels further away. What does Google Maps say? Not much on the N900, it's very spotty in business coverage compared to the online version (and has no 50 foot scale.) But the spots were slightly denser south of the river -- oh hey, a river! crossing a bridge is always fun. So I headed south, and immediately saw a woman throwing bread to mixed waterfowl. Almost a power law or something: 1 swan, half a dozen geese, lots and lots of ducks. I thought it was weird that the birds don't fight more, but wait their turn, especially when one of the birds is a GIANT SWAN. The one squabble I did see was between two geese.

Anyway, turned out that approximately everything interesting in Waltham is south of the river. On Moody street, in particular. Also, Waltham turned out to be a lot less whitebread than I thought, with Hispanics and blacks and outright Africans. (Why did I think the latter? Combination of really dark skin and head shape, I think. At first.)

And what specifically is interesting? Oh, there's Korean and Japanese and Indian restaurants -- one of which has chicken pakora, and from the menu the non-breaded variety[1]. And a couple of bookstores, and businesses packed wall to wall. But that just tells me there's life in Waltham, nothing particularly exotic. Latin American restaurants that aren't Mexican, OTOH, are kind of exotic, and there's a handful. A couple advertising some mixture of Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Ecuadoran cuisine (one of those is not that near the others), and another offering empanadas. Also a tapas bar, which is Spanish but not Latin American, and not unique to the region, but still interesting. Also an Asian tapas bar, which also isn't unique, but still weird.

And then a Latin market, which I popped into, and found exotic Latin stuff, like cans of various tropical drinks. Coconut juice or water, tamarind juice, mango/passionfruit, horchata... exotic doesn't always mean good; the coconut juice I tried was okay, and I tossed half away, figuring the pleasure wasn't high enough for another half-can of sugar water in my diet. It did have chunks of coconut in it, justifying the claim of fiber. The store also had a sausage name I saw in Chile, longaniza, and a rack of Mexican 'spices' like ground shrimp, avocado leaves, whole tamarind, and giant chile peppers.

In the spirit of Jane Jacobs

But what really caught my eye about the store was something before I walked in: a Moneygram sign, printed and all, prominently advertising "Send Your Money to Africa Fast!" This one little detail tells you a fair bit about a place, i.e. that there are a lot of people wanting to send money to Africa. And it wasn't surrounded by signs advertising other places, like Latin America or India; just Africa. It *was* accompanied by a whiteboard with Moneygram exchange rates written on it, for Guatemala, Uganda, India, and Mexico, in that order. Naturally I felt vindicated in my feeling that I'd been seeing actual African immigrants around.

(Why do I mention Jane Jacobs? Because of what she said about what you could learn from walking around a neighborhood, and also infer from things like when all the businesses close.)

Finally, it was time to eat, and the obvious choices for me came down to either the Central American restaurants for exoticness or the Chilean for nostalgia and to compare with actual experience of Chile. Tara Restaurant wasn't even that much of a Chilean restaurant, or even restaurant, just one of those ubiquitous "sub sandwich and pizza" places, but with an extra choice of Chilean sandwiches and empanadas. OTOH, those can be really good! And I'd just talked with the kids in Chile because of G's birthday, so hey.

Result: it was really good! The beef empanada was pretty small compared to what I'm used to, and $1.65 for the thing, but in flavor superior to anything I'd purchased in Chile. Granted, I think I only ever purchased cheap 1-dollarish empanadas; then again, this was similar, adjusting for relative costs. But those tended to be dull and dry, while this was tasty and somewhat juicy. Not as good as the ones the maid makes at the house I stay at, but not being as good as fresh homemade is okay.

And the pork churrasco sandwich -- grilled pork with avocado, tomato, and mayonnaise -- was tasty too, even with the lean pork I belatedly remembered is dominant these days. And, unlike any churrasco or lomito I had in Santiago, it came with an oily spicy salsa-like condiment which I think is pebre, and which in Chile I'd only ever seen with bread at a few restaurants. Maybe this is how like you're offered hot sauce with gyros and falafel in the US. Still, it did make the sandwich even better.

So yay! OTOH, boo, Waltham, not easy to get to. Now I need to see if I can find such places close to me, probably in Somerville or Boston. I'm suddenly feeling rather disappointed in Cambridge, which has many restaurants but not that many that excite me.

[1] Oh yeah, footnote. So, I first discovered chicken pakoras in a restaurant somewhere west of me in San Francisco. They were awesome, like little chunks of tandoori chicken. Little nuggets of meat, red with baking or spices, seasoned, and batterless. I called them Indian chicken McNuggets but all they had in common was size, really, and not even that. Heck, they might have been more like tater tot in size.

Anyway, other restaurants had chicken pakora too -- but there versions were always heavily battered. To be fare, that's more like the more common vegetable pakora. But while I like veggie pakora, applied to chicken it was always a disappointment compared to the first kind. So if this place, which talked about marinade and spices, is more like my first experience, then whoo!

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Damien Sullivan

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