Cafeterias — the kind of restaurant where you push a tray along a line and get served by counter help instead of having food brought to your table by a waiter — don’t have the greatest associations. They smack of the institution: tuna wiggle plopped on your plate by the junior high lunch lady, a depressing hospital visit dinner, prison. It doesn’t help that most dishes don’t fare well sitting for hours on a steam table. So I came to the Green Tomato 2, a 30-seat cafeteria in a warehouse-like Davis Square setting, with pretty low expectations.
I was happily surprised. A cup (more like a pint) of sausage minestrone ($3.25) was loaded with legumes and carrots, mild but hearty, and might have been enough for dinner with some bread. One of the half-dozen nightly changing specials was stuffed peppers ($7.95), a pair of baseball-size rice-and-beef meatballs nestling in roasted green-pepper halves, in a lovely sauce of red and green peppers, mushrooms, and marinara. This came with two huge sides from an array of options that includes mashed sweet or regular potatoes, carrots, and green beans. I opted for the chunky, slightly sweet, gently spiced mashed butternut squash (outstanding) and a sauté of mixed vegetables (zucchini, summer squash, onion, and cherry tomatoes, also excellent). The net result was a heaping plateful that was colorful, fresh, delicious, and — most important — not overcooked. (I did find myself adding salt to a few items; perhaps undersalting is a kitchen trick to help dishes avoid steam-table fatigue.) Other worthy mains include a rolled cheese-stuffed eggplant ($7.95) that was so greaseless as to suggest baking rather than frying, and a very fine pork loin ($8.95) sliced to order off the roast.
The variety here rewards repeat visits, like the array of sautés: Italian-American standbys such as cacciatore and piccata served on ziti or capellini with either eggplant, chicken, veal, or shrimp tossed in ($7.95–$9.95 for the substantial “medium”; $9.95–$14.95 for the massive “large”). Sandwiches — such as a grilled chicken salad melt ($5.45), an interesting variant on the expected tuna — are overstuffed and served on excellent fresh sub or kaiser rolls.
The noisy, cavernous space, a former auto-repair garage, draws local families and not a few college students who are doubtless thrilled to have another affordable and fairly healthy option in Davis Square. Friendly counter service, fresh-tasting food, big portions, and nice prices help the Green Tomato 2 belie the grim cafeteria stereotype. Give me this place over a national casual-dining chain with boil-in-bag food and table service any day.
The Green Tomato 2, located at 187–193 Elm Street, in Somerville, is open daily, from 7 am to 8 pm. Call 617.591.2223.