The old real-estate mantra about location is acutely true in the restaurant business; I often worry about worthy restaurants on side streets with scant foot traffic. Harvard Square’s Night Market, a new pan-Asian place in a basement on Winthrop Street, doesn’t help its cause by pretending its address is on JFK Street, nor with its abstruse squiggle of a monogram on its unilluminated exterior signs. The speakeasy affectation enjoyed a faddish moment in the craft cocktail business, but in Harvard Square, a hard-to-find restaurant risks losing frustrated would-be patrons to the plentiful nearby competition.
That would be a shame, as Night Market has lots of funky charm, starting with a comfy little bar and a cool, street-art-themed design that neatly camouflages the room’s many load-bearing iron columns. Echoing its namesake’s assortment of specialty food stalls, the kitchen skips through the cuisines of Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and several regions of China, with most dishes favoring tradition over fusion. A complimentary bite of lightly sweet-pickled cucumbers or green tomatoes is a welcoming opener. Very gentle prices on bar snacks make it easy to graze, as in subtly gamy grilled Xiajiang meatballs ($3 for a skewer of five) of lamb and bison, a skewer of five delectable grilled chicken hearts ($3) with a bacon/hoisin glaze and numb nuts ($1), peanuts glazed with chili and Sichuan peppercorns that deliver a slowly accumulating wallop of numbing heat. Grilled shishito peppers seem a tad underdone, but who could complain at $1.50 for five big chilies?
Skinny Filipino spring rolls ($6) filled with mild pork and shrimp are good; one only wishes there were more of them to scoop up the dish’s real star, their phenomenal dip of pesto with green curry, cashew and a bracing slap of raw garlic. Chinese fish fry ($8.50) wrestles a ton of flavor from a humble snack food: canned fried dace (freshwater mud carp) with salted black beans, refried to a gorgeous, bacon-like texture and cunningly served atop Chinese greens and rice in its tin. Kimchi pancakes with crickets ($6) boast a delicate, crepe-like texture and the nutty crunch of deep-fried, well, bugs. The idea may be squirm-inducing, but it’s the tastiest Fear Factor food bet you’ll ever win. Pork gyoza ($7.50) won’t challenge anyone’s taboos; with their chewy pan-browned wrappers, they’re just uncommonly well-executed. Lighter small plates include a lovely version of som tam ($9.50), a salad of shredded unripe green papaya dotted with tomatoes and long beans, deliciously embodying the canonical Mekong combination of hot, sour, salty and sweet accents. Curried cauliflower ($5.50) is nicely al dente and attractively pan-browned.
Three-cup chicken ($12.50), the Jiangxi standby of diced boneless chicken thighs sauced with rice wine, sesame oil and soy sauce, is serviceable but won’t make you forswear your favorite Chinatown Taiwanese joint. The rich pork ragu atop wheat noodles of dan-dan mein ($12) makes for a hearty pileup, though diners expecting Sichuan-style numbing heat may be disappointed. That absence seems a virtue in comforting Taiwanese minced pork rice ($12), which showcases a velvety, sweet-and-salty, pork-based meat sauce redolent of star anise, shallots and soy sauce, accompanied by scallions and sliced pickled daikon and topped with a fried egg. It’s the kind of homey brown-sauce dish that could restore brown sauce’s good name.
Ten beers and one cider ($4-$12) include some well-considered options to pair with the food, notably Beerlao ($5), a classically Southeast Asian, light-bodied, slightly sweet rice/malt adjunct lager; Mama’s Little Yella Pils ($6.50), a brisk American take on Czech pilsners from Oskar Blues Brewing; and Charlestown’s own Downeast Cider House Original Blend ($6.50), slightly hazy and just dry enough. Wine drinkers may choose among three modest whites and one red by the glass, including the 2013 Li Veli Fiano ($7), a Puglian white with an appealing, citrusy minerality, and the 2009 García Carrión Antaño Rioja Reserva ($7), a typically oak- and vanilla-scented tempranillo blend. Cocktail lovers are relegated to fruity sake-spiked slushes from actual slushie machines, like one night’s Pineapple Punch ($6.50). Service both at the bar and in the dining room is youthful, casually attentive and effusive about the menu.
Assuming customers can find it (hint: it’s across the street from Pinocchio’s), Night Market ought to fill a comfortable niche in Harvard Square, attracting a broad swath of students, food geeks, tourists and date-night couples. While it can’t hope to match the specialization-driven excellence of the individual street-food vendors that compose a proper night market, it offers good-enough execution on a range of familiar dishes with some welcome oddness here and there, a few smash successes and fair prices for the neighborhood. That’s a formula worth stumbling around a bit to find.
– Xiajiang meatballs
– Filipino spring rolls
– Chinese fish fry
– Som tam
– Taiwanese minced pork rice
Hours: Sun.-Thu., 5-10 pm, Fri.-Sat., 5-11 pm
Parking: Metered street spaces, private lots nearby
Liquor: Beer, wine and sake
Night Market 75 Winthrop St., Cambridge (857-285-6948) nightmkt.com