I’ve noticed a fairly common unwillingness in this region to pay a high price for Southern cuisine. Grits, ham, sorghum, catfish: these words seem to trigger immediate outrage when paired with fine dining costs. Somewhere along the line, we’ve managed to box Southern food into a small container of cheapness and deep frying. Fortunately, there are several Boston-area spots that destroy this stereotype, offering up high quality Southern food to packed houses night after night; once people are willing to take the plunge, they’re hooked. Kendall Square’s gem, Hungry Mother, is one of these places.
Just over three years old, Hungry Mother has already made quite a name for itself (or herself?), serving up beautifully constructed Southern-style dishes with a Northeastern flair: Chef Barry Maiden (also an owner of the restaurant) uses local, sustainable ingredients whenever possible, and draws from Virginian Appalachia and surrounding areas for specialty items that aren’t available up here. Maiden hails from Virginia, where, by the way, there is a state park called Hungry Mother.
The restaurant fills up a house on a Kendall Square corner, twisting and turning through multiple levels and rooms, a quirky and charming maze that feels like you’re in somebody’s home. The decor is simple and pleasant: empty picture frames house bare light bulbs, other light comes in the form of lamps made of jars and glasses, and the walls are painted in muted whites, blacks, greens, and browns. The Hungry Mother logo is gorgeous: a brilliant red cardinal (the state bird of Virginia) perches atop cursive (renewing my hopes that handwriting will not die), and the bird theme repeats subtly throughout the restaurant in small prints on the walls.
Chef Maiden’s cooking combines his Virginian background, love of grits and fried food, training in French cuisine, appreciation for local and seasonal ingredients, and a talent for canning and preserving, resulting in a menu that bursts with flavors, fine ingredients, and artisanal items made in-house. The choices are few, but every single one will lead to utter bliss. (And due to the local and seasonal focus, you can never go wrong ordering a daily special. On a visit in the height of fiddlehead season, I enjoyed an appetizer of the best fiddleheads that I have ever tasted.) The juxtaposition of north and south are apparent in nearly every dish. Take the deviled Maine crab appetizer, for example, which is served with onion confit, pan de mie croutons, and bourbon-smoked paprika, or look at the grilled Rhode Island squid with hm tasso ham, yellow hominy, pickled peppers, and sherry vinaigrette.
Be sure not to miss the side of skillet cornbread with sorghum butter, listed under the “Can You Pass That?” section of the menu. (No, this one will be staying on my side of the table, thank you very much!) Thin, crispy, heavenly – you’ve never had cornbread like this before, and it won’t spoil your appetite. Another must-try: no. 99 on the drink menu, bartender’s choice. You mention a type of liquor that you like, and the bartender will concoct something for you.
If you’ve ever had a hard time equating fine dining with words like grits and hominy, now is your chance to get over it: Hungry Mother is well worth the price, and it will complete change your perception of Southern dining.
233 Cardinal Medeiros Ave (Kendall Square)
Cambridge, MA 02141
Hours: Tue – Sun 5 pm – 1 am
Rachel Leah Blumenthal is a Somerville-based writer, photographer, and musician. She writes about food on her blog, Fork it over, Boston!, and runs Boston Food Bloggers, a networking community. For more information, visit RachelBlumenthal.net.