Cover Story » Vol. 53

Experience the Flavors of Worcester

It is an age-old, even clichéd, dilemma that creeps up on you whenever you’re hungry: Where should we eat tonight? Better yet: Where in Worcester should we eat tonight? A question, no doubt, asked more frequently these days than in days past.

The former industrial hubs of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are beginning to show signs of resurgence, both in economy and in culture. The Woo is certainly no exception. Due to reasonable real estate prices and train lines connecting to Boston and Providence, the city has caught the attention of millennials and immigrants as a place to make a fresh start and aid in the revitalization of a great city. And it starts, as any good movement should, with food.

Worcester has become a thriving culinary metropolis, with new and exciting restaurants popping up in every corner of every neighborhood of the city. Shrewsbury Street alone is brimming with establishments you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in central Massachusetts – Afghan cuisine, for instance. Pomir Grill, located at 119 Shrewsbury St., is one of just three restaurants in the entire state that specializes specifically in the gastronomy of Afghanistan. Filled with palate-enticing spices, Afghani food offers a vast assortment of flavors for any diet or culinary disposition. Ranging from lamb kebabs and Aushak, a dumpling filled with chives and served with a garlic yogurt sauce, to the vegetarian roasted eggplant with garlic and onions, Afghan food can certainly contend as an option the next time you can’t figure out what you’d like to eat.

Like any good Worcester food story, the remaining amalgamation of restaurants on Shrewsbury Street cannot go without mentioning. From Cuban food to a splash of Brazilian, Shrewsbury Street has no shortage of interesting dining establishments to explore.

Designated by locals and outsiders alike, Shrewsbury Street is Worcester’s North End. Unless it’s coming out of your grandmother’s kitchen, you’d be hard-pressed to find better Italian food anywhere in the city. But what if you’re tired of Italian food? Sure, it’s as fantastic and diverse a cuisine as you can get, but every now and then, you want to try something a little different. Enter Café Reyes.

Located at 421 Shrewsbury St., just off of the Route 9 split, Café Reyes is a Cuban restaurant with a variety of delectable options to choose from. Choose Huevos con Papas (eggs with home fries) or the Bocadito breakfast sandwich with a Café Cubano (Cuban espresso sweetened with sugar) for breakfast or come for lunch and sample some of the sandwich offerings like the El Cubano (pork, ham and Swiss cheese with pickles on a Cuban roll).

As part of the mission of the Hector Reyes House, Café Reyes serves as a haven for recovering addicts. There, they learn skills that will help them reacclimate to the professional world and excel when searching for a job, café spokesperson Maxine Musmon explained. As the only restaurant serving Cuban food in all of Worcester, Café Reyes exhibits yet another culture rich in food history that the city has opened its gates to.

“It [the Worcester food scene] is great, and adding to it is amazing,” Musmon said. “Because there was no Cuban food in the city, we could be original in food and concept.”

“It’s wonderful that you get so many options,” Musmon said. “People are wanting not-the-same. They want to go off and try something a little different.”

Musmon said that recently a little girl, about 8, had lunch at Café Reyes. After eating, she approached Musmon and said the food she just ate was “like a rainbow.”

“It’s what it’s all about,” Musmon said, with a wide smile. “Food makes people happy. It’s a happy industry.”

Shrewsbury Street, however, is not the only neighborhood in Worcester serving up some of the city’s best food. In many ways, Shrewsbury Street can be viewed as the starting point, the faithful epicenter for Worcester’s evolving food scene. Venture out from Shrewsbury Street and around winding roads near WPI, the three-decker lined streets of Clark, the hills of Holy Cross and the revitalized downtown, and you are apt to find something special. Everything from the Caribbean spices in vegan Jamaican cuisine at Belmont Vegetarian on Belmont Street to the five-element influenced food of Vietnam at several restaurants throughout the city and the citrusy flare of Salvadorian food at Hacienda Don Juan on Main Street are all within walking distance, or a short bus or car ride away.

At Fatima’s Café, 43 West Boylston St., the gastronomical wonders of East African cuisine are on display. Serving breakfast all day, along with sandwiches and dinner entrees, Fatima’s Café, like Café Reyes, is a special commodity in the city of Worcester.

“Africa is a completely misunderstood continent. It is a melting pot of cultures: Indian, Middle Eastern; the food is a combination of all these different cultures,” said Omar Issa, co-owner of Fatima’s Café. The menu, created by Issa and his wife Fatima Mohamed, the mastermind behind the café, showcases the diversity of food within the African continent. Malawah, an African crepe served with honey, Nutella and bananas, is on the breakfast menu. Somali Anjero, sourdough bread with a choice of three veggies, and Ugali with Sukama, a traditional Kenyan meal with collard greens and spinach, make one stare at the menu thinking, “That looks interesting; I think I’ll give it a shot.”

Yet, despite the vastness of diverse offerings on Fatima’s menu and other restaurants across the city, Issa said that the people of Worcester are the ones to thank for the city’s blossoming food scene.

“People here are very well educated. Out of curiosity, they wanted to try something a little different,” Issa said. “The families that live in Worcester, they’re just waiting for something like this [Fatima’s Café]. They love it. I can’t thank them enough.”

Issa believes that the reason a place like Fatima’s Café and similar restaurants are succeeding is because people are tired of the same old thing. “A day doesn’t go by where I don’t meet a new customer,” Issa said. “People want something simple and healthy.”

People from Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York, venturing off the highway for a bite to eat, have come through the doors of the café. For Issa, having support from the community is perhaps the greatest aspect of what he does.

But what of the competition? What of cities like Boston and Providence, which have been New England food hubs for generations? What can Worcester do to compete? Issa said there is no comparison between the three cities. Worcester does something different, something that no one else is doing. And, according to Issa, when you do something different for long enough, people begin to turn in your direction and take notice.

“It all boils down to hospitality,” Issa said. “Let Worcester be Worcester, and let’s do what we are good at doing.”

Musmon agrees. “I can see Worcester becoming that food place to go to,” she said.

Worcester is certainly starting down the path to becoming yet another cultural New England hub while maintaining the charm and personality you can only find in the Woo.

Omar Issa summed it all up perfectly: “I don’t want to be like anybody else. I want to be me.”

To explore the flavors of Worcester and discover new restaurants, visit tasteworcester.com.

Create your own taste:

Worcester’s markets also offer a variety of food, so you can experiment in your very own kitchen.

Bahan’s International Marketplace
344 Pleasant St.
508-796-5365

Binh An Market
64 Green St.
508-798-6960

Chandler International Market
344 Chandler St.
508-752-1299

Compare Foods
664 Main St.
508-438-3663

Ed Hyder’s Mediterranean Marketplace
408 Pleasant St.
508-755-0258

Golemo’s Market
43 Millbury St.
508-756-0086

Mekong Market
747 Main St.
508-304-1437

Monrovia Market
315 Grafton St.
508-579-4803

Moscow Nights
808 Pleasant St.
508-799-0751

Mustafa Halal Market
256 Grafton St.
508-798-8008

Pinoy Republic
545 Southwest Cutoff
617-331-0597

Tom’s International Deli
52 Millbury St.
508-755-7295

By Ryan Cashman

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