Cambridge’s Little Japan – Porter Exchange – is tucked away inside a Lesley University building in Porter Square, quite hidden if you don’t know where to find it. It’s worth finding. The Exchange houses a bookstore, a sporting goods store, and a cluster of Japanese gems: several restaurants, a bakery, a bubble tea counter, and even a gift shop, Tokai, which is full of tea sets, bento boxes, chopsticks, and more. There used to be a Japanese grocery store in the Exchange as well, but Lesley ousted it in 2009 to make room for the bookstore. In fall 2011, however, the original owners of Tokai are opening up a new grocery store, Miso Market, just a few blocks down Mass Ave.
Porter Exchange provides one-stop shopping for whatever type of Japanese food you’re craving: huge and steaming bowls of ramen, bento lunch trays, sushi, bubble tea, donuts with red bean filling, mochi ice cream, and my personal favorite, those adorable koala-shaped chocolate-filled cookies.
Most of the restaurants are tiny cash-only joints with a few tables and a long wait during peak hours. The longest wait tends to be at Café Mami; you may have better luck at Chocho’s, which is larger and less popular (though still delicious). Masa Sushi is quick and easy – just lurk nearby until you can grab a counter seat – or head over to the largest restaurant, Blue Fin. (It’s also the most expensive.)
My personal favorite? Ittyo. It has fantastically hearty udon and soba noodle bowls that make my dining companion happy, and it has bento boxes for me. The donburi teriyaki-style bowls are also a great option – your choice of meat over rice and greens.
I’m also a big fan of Tapicha, the bubble tea stand in the lobby. You pick your flavor, then your tea, and then your addition (tapioca “bubbles,” for example) – or just pick your flavor and go with whatever the lady working there tells you. On a recent visit, my order went something like this:
“I’ll have the green apple with…”
“Ok, green apple with green tea and…”
“Well, ok then!”
(It was great.)
Porter Exchange is steps from the Porter T station, so if you live in the area, it’s a perfect place to grab dinner on the way home from work, especially in the winter. Pure comfort food. A ramen bowl as big as my head? Yes, please. (You can get that at Sapporo Ramen.)
Hours: Mon – Sat, 9am – 10pm; Sun 12pm – 9pm
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.