The Plough and Stars’ blackened catfish sandwich and sides
A weekly notebook about food during the Covid-19 shutdown. Remember, if you’re dining out, doing takeout or getting delivery, the people serving up the food are part of the front line; keep it in mind when tipping.
Takeout/Dine Out: The Plough and Stars
Because of its location between Central and Harvard squares – and these troubling times – I often forget the Plough and Stars exists. Opened in 1969 by Padraig O’Malley and his brother Peter, the Irish pub is among the longest-lasting Cambridge institutions (Charlie’s Kitchen and Grendel’s Den on that very short list too). Folks probably don’t know it, but it was the first bar in Boston to offer Guinness on tap. It boasts a battery of craft beers on tap along with that creamy Irish stout, and serves some pretty great food.
The bar reopened in late summer with a somewhat rickety outside setup. The picnic tables are great, but with a noticeable slant, and you’re separated from Massachusetts Avenue by a thin lattice divide. Had I been writing this four or five months ago, the proximity to traffic might have given me pause, but I think even cautious diners have come to embrace and appreciate the dining anyway. You can also sit socially distanced inside the cozy pub, which during normal times doubles as an intimate music venue. On this particular day I ordered the blackened catfish sandwich and pan-roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon and a blue cheese drizzle. The sprouts were supposed to be a substitute with an upcharge for the fries that came with the sando – I got both. The sandwich was excellent, a tender, seared piece of fish coated in blackening spices with an apt smear of Cajun aioli, all tucked in an airy bun. Delicious, flavorful and not filling. The sprouts (I assume I got the appetizer portion) were big bulbs with near strips of bacon and mounds of that “drizzle.” I ended up taking much of them home. The Plough is flexible and friendly, and it’s no problem if vegetarians ask to go sans bacon on the sprouts, or someone doesn’t want their butter-fried chicken sandwich fried.
Other things on the menu I’ll be back to try are the Jamaican jerk chicken wings and classic fish and chips. (At the Abbey I skip the chips and ask for the fish over shaved Brussels sprouts; I would do similarly here.) On the vegetarian, side the pub makes its own black bean burger – veggie burgers and wings have become my pandemic culinary go-tos – and vegan Mexican pozole, a spicy, hearty hominy stew with an assortment of roasted vegetables. There’s a $10 burger and beer special going on, and you can get the food to go.
As far as those brothers who founded the pub: Padraig, a world-renowned peace activist and professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, was the subject of James Demo’s 2016 documentary “The Peacemaker” (which offers further insights into the pub’s long, colorful history); and brother Peter launched the literary magazine Ploughshares from the back of the bar, and the lit mag’s now the flagship publication of Emerson College.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.