Despite its passel of great neighborhood eateries, East Somerville isn’t on many food nerds’ maps. Loaded with humble but worthy Latin joints, plus Ethiopian, Haitian, Sicilian-American and mid-century American, the stretch of Broadway trailing west of Sullivan Square draws few outsiders. Perhaps it’s because the neighborhood has lacked an anchor restaurant of the very modern sort, the kind with a chef/owner trained in fine dining, creative and refined cookery centered on careful sourcing, a forsaking of hushed rooms and starchy service for the casual, lively atmosphere most customers now prefer, and a serious craft cocktail, wine and beer program. The new La Brasa plugs that gap convincingly.
Consider: Chef/owner Daniel Bojorquez and his investor partner Frank McClelland hail from L’Espalier. The menu is fashionably offal-centric, globetrotting and considerate to vegetables, with a range of plate sizes and the added frisson of kissing many ingredients with wood fire or smoke. The room is a sunny, wide-open, noisy space dominated by handsome uses of rustic reclaimed wood, with nary a white tablecloth in sight. The bar program by Matthew Schrage (ex-Hawthorne) boasts a craft cocktail list loaded with inventive originals, plus nerdily eclectic but budget-conscious wine and beer lists. That’s practically the formula for destination dining in 2014.
The cocktail list leads with the tall, cool Red Duster Swizzle ($11) of gin, falernum and Campari over tiny ice pellets, like a boozy Sonic drink. Speaking in Tongues ($12) alchemically melds weirdness—strawberry-infused mezcal cordial, Abano amaro and citrus—into a complex wonder: smoky, bitter, tart and sweet. The draft Rosita ($10) drags the Negroni through Jalisco to fine effect, replacing gin with good tequila. The short, geeky beer list features $4 cans of workingman’s lagers like Tecate, local brewery favorites like Jack’s Abby Jabby Brau ($9) and several smoked beers, including the potent, pungent Mikkeller Rauch Geek Breakfast stout ($15), like coffee, bread and bacon in a bottle. Twenty wines ($36-$98), half available by the glass ($9-$12), lean Old World, especially Italian, but follow plenty of affordable, less-trodden byways. For example, the 2012 Palacios Sobrego Godello ($9/glass, $36/bottle), a crisp Galician white, pairs happily with raw Cape oysters ($3/each).
Dinner consists of snacks and generously sized vegetable, meat and seafood plates served rapid-fire; order in two or three rounds to avoid getting too many dishes served at once. Beet-pickled eggs ($2/each) are food-porn pretty but a trifle bland. Far more interesting are fried pigs’ tails ($12) flanked by a vivid salsa of lemongrass and Thai chili: savory, piquant and crunchy. Swiss chard pie ($12) echoes the welcome trend of vegetables in rich, complex compositions, here as greens stuffed in pastry crust flanked by a soft-cooked egg, super-smoky country ham and vibrant piperade. Roasted carrots ($9) would be terrific by themselves in their smoky, charry caramelization, but when sauced with a complex, Puebla-style mole and dusted with sesame seeds, they’re astonishing.
Tiradito ($14) barely marinates slabs of local fluke, ceviche-like, in aji amarillo vinaigrette, and nests them under a gorgeous halo of shaved fennel, with black garlic mustard lending a sharp, musky edge. Korean squid pancake ($17) folds tender squid into a giant, crisp crepe; a generous squiggle of gochuchang adds chili fire and a hint of sugar. Fried chicken ($17) builds a foundation of perfectly crisp-fried drumsticks into something swoony with an intriguing sauce of… what is that? That would be snail/brown butter vinaigrette with parsley and fresh horseradish: utterly original and fascinating. Braised lamb tongue ($10) is subtler, more about gentle, creamy textures than provocative flavors, braised to melting tenderness and pinkly perched atop a pile of fire-blackened, tart, sea-green sorrel stems. Stop the cart rolling through the dining room and snag a tableside-carved slice or two of Bojorquez’s signature rib roast ($3.50/ounce), deep-flavored, fire-roasted beef that barely needs the accompanying zippy chimichurri. More smoke and impeccable technique define the barbecued beef brisket ($12), which spends most of a day parked in the smoker, then a low oven, and gets some color and acid from charred-tomatillo sauce—like Montreal smoked meat passed through the chef’s native Sonoran sensibilities. It’s an exquisite transformation of a difficult cut.
As at most Camberville indies of this ilk, service combines affable, well-versed enthusiasm for the menu with technical proficiency draped in T-shirts and jeans. As such, it stands in for La Brasa’s sly underplaying as a whole: a chef turning out ravishing, vivid flavors in a funky barn of a space, located on a gritty, unprepossessing block in an overlooked corner of Boston’s often-disrespected neighbor. That’s a whole pile-up of underestimation that a few drinks and plates at La Brasa should quickly erase.
-Roasted carrots with mole and sesame
-Korean squid pancake
-Barbecued beef brisket
Hours: Brunch, Sun., noon-3:30 pm; Dinner, Tue.-Sat., 6-10 pm, Sun., 4-9 pm; Late-night menu, Tue.-Sat., 10 pm-1 am
Credit cards: Yes
Parking: Small private lot, street and surprisingly affordable valet ($6)
La Brasa 124 Broadway, Somerville (617-764-1412) labrasasomerville.com