Forget Chinatown or Allston. The Shops at Porter boasts an Asian food hub that does away with the rambunctiousness of Cantonese hotpot and Korean barbecue, opting instead for simple elegance. Not unlike Japan itself, this multiplex values economy and individuality over the marketplace frenzy of Super 88. It's an unpretentious cluster consisting of a gift store, a ramen shop, a bakery, a sushi bar, and a couple of luncheons. Call it a mini — nay, micro — Tokyo, a cultural and culinary gem nestled near Porter Square.
Café Mami, probably the first restaurant you'll notice due to its long lines and corner location, is also the best place for food. Forget the MSG-tasting noodle bowls at Sapporo Ramen or the pricey neighboring sushi bars. Eating at Café Mami feels like coming home to that Japanese mom you never had. It's a 15-seat diner-meets-coffee-shop with quick service, cheap eats, and a down-to-earth menu.
Down-to-earth Japanese food? Well, they have burgers, or not quite. The restaurant's specialty is the Tokyo hamburg steak set ($8.50), marinated slabs of ground beef slathered in a thick brown tomato sauce served with miso soup, a side salad, and free refills of rice. I had my burger steak topped with a fried egg and cheese, delightfully amplifying its East-meets-West flavors. The pork cutlet curry set ($8.50) also features mounds of rice topped with rich, spicy curry. Garnished with red pickle and salad, this plate answers all your questions about what regular Japanese people eat. It's definitive traditional Japanese fare, and from what I've seen, it's the most popular dish among the Asian clientele. Besides the curry entrées, the classic yaki don ($7) and salmon veggie yaki don ($7.50) also get my highest recommendations.
This is heavy food, so lighten up the meal with a green-tea milkshake ($3.50). A caveat — according to the culinary rules of yin and yang, a meal should never mix very hot and cold items, as it unbalances the digestive process. So if your entrée includes miso soup, try the kaisou ($4.50) instead. Pseudo-scientific reasons aside, it's a generous portion of mixed seaweed, lettuce, and tomato slices tossed with homemade soy sauce and sesame oil. The tofu salad ($4.50) is a good protein-packed alternative, served with lettuce, green onions, soy sauce, and dried bonito flakes. Café Mami doesn't supply forks unless requested, so the fluffy tofu cubes will put your chopsticks skills to the test.
CAFÉ MAMI, located at 1815 Mass Ave, Cambridge, is open Monday–Friday, 8 am–6 pm, and Friday–Saturday, 8 am– 10 pm. Call 617.588.2458.