Taking “so bad it’s good” to new heights is State Park, an unlikely launch by the team at the beloved Southern bistro Hungry Mother. They’ve outfitted the former Think Tank space in Kendall Square with everything a style-conscious renovator would peel out: grooved wall panels, vintage backlit Michelob signs, captain’s chairs clad in red vinyl, and dim stained-glass pendant lights. The result is jarringly, comically realistic—a life-size re-creation of the type of decades-old dive you’d stumble upon en route to Reno. Taxidermied critters, frozen in mid-skitter, catch your gaze from atop the jukebox or above the bar. One could imagine the fun that was had scouring eBay, or raiding estate sales across the red states, to procure them.Scan menus across town, and you’ll stumble upon more than a few dishes that seem plucked from a mid-’80s roller-rink menu: Frito pie, American chop suey, Funfetti ice cream in a waffle cone. Meanwhile, perfectly capable bartenders across the city are cracking cans of Natty Light and bottles of Bud Light Lime faster than you can shake a white tablecloth of its crumbs. When did lowbrow become so haute?
As he takes your order for a State Park cocktail—which turns out to be a bottle of High Life spiked with rye and amaro, which together taste like carbonated tile cleaner—a bartender smirks. Is it because we’re not cool enough to appreciate the drink’s ironic charm? Or could it be, my companion wonders, that it’s an elaborate joke on the very hipsters that line the bar, throwing back one horrid $9.50 drink after another?
We chew on the topic over bread-and-butter pickles ($3), which pack surprising kick, and await a table. Expect at least a 30-minute wait after 7 pm—even longer if the hostess takes your name, then promptly forgets to write it down. Luckily, this gives you ample time to sample the better cocktails, like Tom Collins and Pimm’s Cups (available by the pitcher, $35.50), or three excellent and aromatic rye-based creations, the Green Walnut ($11), the Hiccups ($10) and the Pine ($10).
You can also peruse the menu, a lineup that seems dredged up from someone’s potluck menu in 1983, then made less healthy. (Note to paleo dieters: Don’t even bother.) Creamy cheese with red-pepper jelly ($6) is mousse-like yet rich, a great combo of sweetness and tang. It’s feather-light compared to the grilled pimento cheese sandwich ($9.50), a runny layering of orange cheese, bacon and tomato on toasty buttered bread. The Kentucky Hot Brown ($13) is, quite literally, a hot mess: a turkey-and-bacon sandwich covered in cheese sauce and broiled, then crowned with a fried egg.
Sauce, butter, cheese: All play key roles in the Memphis BBQ spaghetti, a plate of spaghetti and pork shoulder tossed in tomato-and-BBQ sauce and served with thick, Texas toast-style garlic bread ($11). It’s as sloppy and heavy as it sounds, and pretty darn delicious.
Tobacco onions ($3.95), an amber-brown nest of fried strings, sit on nearly every table, for good reason. Fried catfish with hushpuppies ($12.50), on the other hand, has a fabulously crunchy batter coating but is nearly flavorless, as is the fried pickled okra ($5.95). Fried chicken ($16) is juicy and gets a boost from the fiery hot sauce ($2 extra), which our server suggested ordering on the side. It’s good advice, given the heat.
If you’re hoping to cut the heaviness of your meal with a vegetable, go for collards ($4.50), which are green and tender. Roasted broccoli with “kentuckyaki” ($5), on the other hand, is salt-laden. But really: Vegetables? Save room instead for the Luxardo cherry float ($6.95), a soupy mix of Harpoon stout, creamy ice cream and maraschino-laced cherries, then cap off the meal with a round of pool or a few games of pinball by the bar. It’s no roller rink, but it’ll have to do.
Donna’s Picks :
Luxardo cherry float
Memphis BBQ spaghetti
Grilled pimento cheese
Creamy cheese with red-pepper jelly
Hours: Sun.-Wed., 5 pm-1 am; Thu.-Sat., 5 pm-2 am
Credit cards: Yes
Parking: Validated parking in the Kendall Square garage
Liquor: Full bar
State Park | 1 Kendall Square, Cambridge | 617-848-4355 | statepark.is