Tagged: cambridge

When a bus stop stops being a bus stop

You may remember back in June when I reported that the MBTA was eliminating a couple of stops on the number 1 bus line, I wondered what would happen to the space freed up. Well, I’ve been watching those stops and seen no changes. Still no parking, still marked off, still signed as bus stops.

Sign's still there Street's still marked

Until last night, when I was riding the 1 bus back from Boston and asked the driver to let me off at one of those stops. The driver – operator 67743 – told me it wasn’t a stop anymore. I pointed out that I could see the bus stop sign and even a person waiting at that stop to get on.  Since Yom Kippur was nigh, she made an exception for us.

So, MBTA or Cambridge or whoever, what’s the deal? How are passengers who are not always-internet-connected otaku like myself supposed to know this change is coming up and that it has finally actually happened? (The stop is still shown on the interactive route map on mbta.com justsayin) And, since service to that stop has in fact stopped, why is the sign still up and what’s the plan for repurposing that real estate?

Here’s what I wrote almost three months ago, emphasis added.

…what will happen to the former bus stops? Will more (metered?) parking be created? Bike parking? Ghost stops where parking is prohibited but buses never stop? Pocket parks? Time will tell. 

This is not the way I like to be right. I’d say from the position of the fire hydrant that no more than one parking spot on the Clinton Street side could be created, but that would be something. Adding bike parking or something else more interesting would be something too. Not even bothering with a sign saying that the stop is no longer a stop, that’s the worst kind of business as usual around here.

Two trucks make sweet BBQ love and settle down in Kendall square

It’s like when you see a band make it big and tell all your friends about when you saw them at some dive back in the day. Some of my favorite food trucks are spawning brick and mortar establishments. Clover already has 3 or 4 falafel-dispensing locations, Mei Mei is planning a spot in Audobon Circle, and tonight, I popped in at Bon Me’s soft opening at 1 Kendall Square.

The space seems to have been carved, perhaps literally, out of the lobby of the building that houses The Friendly Toast and West Bridge above the tomb of Think Tank, whose wifi, oddly, was still on. Four tables, eight chairs, two bars with four stools each – definitely more seating than the trucks. Bon Me blue dominates one wall and the rest of the place is chrome, slate and dark wood. The menu – and prices – look just about the same as the trucks’ perhaps with an occasional special or dessert.

I got the BBQ pork sandwich because under the benchmark rule, you have to stick with a staple, a classic, or at least something you’ve had before to properly evaluate a new place.  In honor of absent truckonaut B, I had some Thai basil lemonade, and to take back to professor M, some chocolate rice pudding to go.

No surprises, and that’s a good thing.  Maybe a little service glitch with the ticket printer down, but that’s to be expected in the first few days, that’s what a soft opening is for, after all.  The BBQ pork was zesty, the bread crusty, the carrots crunchy, the pate livery, the mayo spicy, the cilantro uppity, everything in its place and as it should be, dare I say it maybe a tiny bit better than at the truck.  This is a $6 sandwich, $8 if you somehow think you need “extra meat,” and really, I love this stuff, but I’m pretty sure you do not need extra meat.  Same price as at the truck, and you get a roof over your head and music, too.

What of this trend?  Will the trucks lose their edge when they go all conventional with seats and stuff? I’m doubtful, at least if they keep their eyes on the prize.  A small restaurant with a small menu isn’t so different from a truck, and I’m optimistic that great trucks like Bon Me and Mei Mei will be able to stay focused and creative.  All that time working out of a truck has kept them close to their customers and solidified their operational discipline, I just hope the cost structure holds up.  For once, I’m impressed with a line extension.

Meat on sticks in an urban alley at Moksa

Moksa, Cambridge’s newish “Pan-Asian Izakaya” is a welcome freshening of the Mass Ave Asian food scene. As the Izayaka label suggests, Moksa takes the drinks seriously – they have cocktails for each sign of the Chinese zodiac and each of the elements (classical four, not scientific 118) – but the food is no slouch either.

Weather permitting, I recommend the patio, a nice brick alley adjacent to the Central Square Theater.  Recently, I enjoyed a half bottle of Henri Bourgeois Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre.

Moksa’s food menu is a riotous array of small plates, many inspired by street food, others spinning off from classic dum sum, rice dishes and roti.  Bring lots of friends so you can try as many as possible.  I especially enjoy the Twice-Cooked Green Beans with onions and soybeans, both whole and sauced.  The beans are somehow still just crisp enough to the bite after two cookings.

Other notable dishes include the possibly hyperbolic Fried Rice with Twenty Vegetables, the sushiesque Tuna Poke with Avocado and Hearts of Palm, the border-blurring Popcorn Shrimp Roti, and an array of grilled meats on sticks, including chicken hearts, beef tongue, and smoked duck breast.  The menu changes often, so some of these might be gone for now or forever, but I’m sure something just as good will take their places

Can snooty waiters save independent cafes from iPads and city planners?

I went to check out the newish Dwelltime Coffeebar and Bakeshop in the newly-hopping Broadway zone of mid-Cambridge.  Whilst enjoying an americano, smooth and served with a glass of water like they do in civilized nations, and a whole wheat bacon scallion scone, not too large, crisp and savory, all for a bit more than $5, I took notice of two notices.

First, the are going to turn off their wifi during lunch hours to reduce, well, dwell time, and to avoid becoming a co-working space.  Second, they have a petition going to get the Peoples’ Republic City of Cambridge to allow them more than 20 seats, a number to which they are limited because they have no off-street parking.   Are these things related?

Item 2, crap anti-business elitist NIMBY zoning

There’s a bus stop out front and the place is 4 blocks from the red line, but somehow the city thinks that the business needs to provide parking.  And the penalty for not providing parking is to be restricted to perhaps half the seating capacity it could serve.  Certainly the last thing I want in my precious Cambridge neighborhood is a cafe full of people.  Ugh, the thought of it.  I’m sure the only reason the neighbors tolerate that school across the street, teeming with germy children and no doubt swamped with SUVs at dropoff and pickup times, is some kind of grandfathering.  Awesome pro-business stance there, Cambridge.  An empty storefront across the street from a school is a much better idea.

Item 1, people who sit in a cafe all day

Before Dwelltime opened, I remember hearing a piece on the radio in which the owner talked about reducing the number of electrical outlets to prevent people from setting up camp all day.  I laughed.  Maybe that will slow down some people with crummy computers, but you can easily go four hours on a modern laptop, all day with an iPad, and as long as your supply holds out with an actual book.  So now they’re throttling wifi to keep people moving?  Again, that’ll hold off some people, but it won’t hold off technological progress.  Tablets, phones and hotspot devices let you skip the cafe’s wifi, as I am doing right now with a personal hotspot from my phone connecting me to a 4G data network.

It’s a social, behavioral problem, and restricting the tech, even if it could really work, won’t do the job.  High unemployment, scads of students, cheap technology, and a sense of entitlement will keep people camping out all day at cafes.

So, what to do?

Obviously the need to turn over the tables faster is exacerbated by having fewer tables than you might “naturally” have in the space.  At the same time, having people move through quicker would mean parking spaces would also turn over faster. Most of the parking nearby is resident or metered with a two hour limit.  If metered parking really worked, it would probably cut back a little on the all-day cafe types, but I’m guessing many of them are walking or taking transit.  I’ll leave the zoning thing alone for now except to say that the city needs to price street parking appropriately and let the cafe live or die on its own merits. For the all-day cafe dwellers, I suggest…

A modest proposal: waiters

People sit in cafes all day because they can.  Passive-aggressive moves like restricting power outlets and internet won’t cut it.  You need to make those people pay up or move on, and I think table service is the way to do it.  If I get a single coffee at the counter and hunker down for six hours, nobody’s coming over and asking me to buy more stuff to earn the right to stay or telling me that another party is coming in and they need the table.  But that’s exactly what waiters do in restaurants.  The better ones are less obviously obnoxious about it, but they all do it. “Anything else for you sir?”  Subtly-yet-pointedly leaving the bill.  You know the drill.

They way I see it, a skilled waiter or two could increase the average revenue per seat per hour and keep the malingerers moving along.  Plus, despite the best efforts of city planners, it would create another job, and it would make the cafe a bit safer by having another set of eyes on the floor.

Your mileage may vary, but if you’re car-free in the area, you should drop by Dwelltime and sign their petition.

Fear of Falafel

Are you afraid of falafel?  Well, if you is or if you ain’t, I direct your attention to a bout of the limeduck national sport, overthinking, going on over at the Clover Food Lab (and trucks), where they sell a sandwich called “chickpea fritter” that might actually be… falafel.

There doesn’t seem to be much debate that the chickpea fritter sandwich is in fact falafel.  I can also say that it seems quite popular and is in my opinion, a delicious lunch and  quite satisfying for $5, too.  So…  why not just call it falafel?  Clover opened that can of worms themselves in a blog post in February, which I’ll quote most of here:

Yesterday at MIT one of our customers, Nittin, was giving us a hard time about the chickpea fritter. “Why don’t you just call it falafel,” he was saying. “It’s just like the falafel I’ve had in the Middle East.” It’s not the first time we’ve gotten this comment. I think Nittin felt like calling it a chickpea fritter made it seem gourmet, or like we were trying to rename something that already exists.

I was telling him (Ayr and Rolando, let me know if I have this right) the reason we don’t call it falafel is pretty simple. We don’t want to alienate anyone with our food, and a word like falafel might make someone walk away at first glance. We don’t want the only people who eat our food to be those who know what falafel is. Calling it a chickpea fritter almost forces a discussion between you and the person taking your order.

You’re operating a food truck outside of MIT (and a restaurant in Harvard square, plus more trucks in Boston) and are worried that people won’t know about falafel?  I’ve got to say, this just doesn’t hold water for me.  Sure, Clover is pretty plain-spoken about their food, but would it hurt anybody to put one more word on the menu board? You can look up the nutritional content of Clover’s fritters and find mention of tahini and hummus and even Israeli salad, but a strange absence of the word falafel.

Two of my friends had identical but oddly opposite darker interpretations, wondering if Clover were somehow anti-arab or anti-israeli.  I’m certainly not going to take sides on the falafel origin debate, and I don’t buy this unpleasant take on Clover’s choice of words either.  So what gives?  Why is Clover so defensive about the issue on their blog?

I’ve got a funny story to add.  On my first visit to the Clover truck was back in August, before garbanzogate, I opted for the BBQ Seitan sandwich because I didn’t know what a chickpea fritter was.  That’s right, I chose seitan, a food whose actual composition I cannot describe or explain [it's wheat gluten, dude, also known as mock duck, go figure] but one that I had eaten before, over the chickpea fritter which I did not recognize as familiar falafel.  Also on the menu board that day were tabbouleh and quinoa, make of that what you will.  So I guess food ignorance can go both ways, but the last thing you want at a food truck’s lunch line is to have to take time to discuss the menu with your order taker.

The way I see it, Clover has three choices on this:

  1. Admit a mistake, change it, move on.
  2. Outgeek us all by pointing out that some falafel is made with fava beans, so by calling theirs chickpea fritters, they’re being more precise and descriptive and catering to those who wish to avoid fava beans in their diets.
  3. Test it.  Change the menu item to falafel for a day, a week, even an hour, and compare it to a comparable time period.  You either sell fewer sandwiches or you don’t.

So what’s it going to be?  Until something changes (and I’m not holding my breath) I encourage both of my loyal readers to visit your nearest Clover truck and order the falafel.  It’s delicious.