Bringing the virtues of locavorism to the necessities of a quick meal
By MC SLIM JB  |  July 19, 2010


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.

Related: Midtown Café, Parish Cafe and Bar, Cafe 57 and Grille, More more >
  Topics: On The Cheap , Sandwiches, Lifestyle, Food and Beverage,  More more >
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