The concepts of "fast food" and "slow food" seem antithetical. How do you reconcile the quick-service restaurant industry's reliance on factory-farm meats and industrial produce with the slow-food movement's advocacy of traditional foodways and local, artisanal, organic producers? That's the chasm that Canteen, a sunny, 20-seat counter-service cafe at the outskirts of Harvard Square, aims to bridge. Its method is to serve sub-shop staples — sandwiches, soups, salads, and desserts — with higher-quality, healthier, fresher ingredients, and mostly it succeeds admirably.
For the sandwiches, Iggy's ciabatta rolls (long or square) provide a great foundation. Breakfast sandwiches (served all day) include a superb, amped-up BLT ($8.50), with excellent bacon (from a New Hampshire smokehouse), a fried organic egg, romaine, avocado, red onion, and cherry-pepper mayo. The European ($8.50) boasts a thick pile of Granny Smith apple slices, brie, walnuts, and dressed microgreens, a light yet utterly satisfying sub, even better with an added slice of smoked ham ($2). The Cubano ($8) is not quite conventional but still delectable, its best asset some incredibly flavorful long-simmered pork and a lot of chopped pickles, plus ham and jack cheese. The orange-tinted fat it drips offers welcome proof that Canteen is capable of choosing flavor over healthiness. (The sourcing of the pork is less thrilling: it's a Sysco product.) A Caprese sandwich ($8) is beautiful and surprisingly good considering less-than-perfect mid-summer tomatoes; roasted red peppers, a fierce pesto and fresh mozzarella help. Among a daily-changing soups, a smooth-pureed gazpacho ($4.25 for a generous cup; $5.75 for a huge bowl) is lovely and brightly flavored, marred only by a failure to remove bell-pepper seeds.
Salads earn high marks for impeccable produce and meal-size portions, even if the flavors of a spicy Thai peanut salad ($7.50; $11.50 with roasted chicken breast; $14.50 with grilled skirt steak) lack the pungent fish-sauce accent a traditional dressing might feature. Given the emphasis on freshness, it's heartening that the kitchen frequently runs out of items late in the day: I managed to score the terrific pineapple upside-down cake ($4) only once in three visits, but Christina's ice creams ($3.75/single scoop; $5/double) provided ample consolation. Beverage options include good housemade lemonade ($2.75), cane-sweetened Boylan sodas ($2.25–$2.50), fresh-fruit smoothies ($3.75–$4.75), and very good filter-drip coffee ($1.75–$2.50). In short, Canteen puts the brakes on the worst aspects of the fast-food eatery, yielding results that are a bit pricier, rather more sustainable, and much, much tastier.
Canteen, located at 983 Mass Ave, in Cambridge, is open Sunday–Monday, 10 am–4 pm, and Tuesday–Saturday, 10 am–10 pm. Call 617.547.5477.