Friday, June 21, 2024

A lightly fried tofu rice bowl with a side of duck from Soup Shack in Porter Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Over the past few weeks the Porter Square Shopping Center got two more eateries: the local chain Soup Shack, specializing in Asian rice and soup bowls, and New York-based Halal Guys, which does classic spins on gyros and flatbread sandos. Each features long, lean dining halls with kitchens smack in the middle of the order-taking and pickup activity.

The Soup Shack, with locations in Jamaica Plain and Brookline, is solid, basic Asian food that you can tweak and customize. Ever since Pho House morphed into Chalawan I’ve been longing for a reliable bowl of pho ga (Vietnamese chicken soup) within striking range of home. Soup Shack seems to fill that bill, and I was pleased with my large bowl of light yet hearty chicken broth and rice vermicelli. I’ll be back for more as the weather cools. On another visit I had the lightly fried tofu rice bowl, which came with perfectly steamed and sautéed bok choy. The hot, sweet soy sauce that came atop the tofu was a bit cloying but not a major distraction, and it was offset nicely by a more savory side of soy chili dipping sauce. As for customizations, I dig duck – if I see it on any menu, I’m ordering it – so I got a side of roasted duck that made delicious use of that dipping sauce. Any Shack bowl or soup can be beefed up with traditional Asian proteins such as cha-Shu (marinated braised pork belly), menma (fermented bamboo shoots), tofu or a marinated soft boiled egg, including as a side. On the appetizer menu there’s agedashi tofu (more lightly fried bean curd, a personal fave I’ve yet to sample here), steamed, baolike buns (veggie, cha-shi or roasted duck), seaweed salad and chicken karaage (lightly battered fried chicken), a dish my daughter adores. She endorses Soup Shack’s offering emphatically. On the vast pan-Asian menu there’s also a full lineup of ramen (shoyu, tonkotsu and miso), pho and Thai noodles (duck soup, spicy tom yum, etc.). It’s a place you walk out of thinking about future visits.

That said, the area’s already fairly crowded with Asian noodle eateries. Within a loose half-mile radius there’s the popular Yume Wo Katare (the ramen shop around the corner with the long lines down Massachusetts Avenue), One Ramen (my daughter’s favorite ramen place), Pho n’ Rice, Sugar & Spice (Thai), Dakzen (Thai street food), Sugidama Soba & Izakaya and Tsurumen Davis (ramen), let alone restaurants in the Lesley University building such as Yume Ga Arukara (a Yume sister serving up udon); Sapporo Ramen (a favorite); and ChoCho’s (udon and sundubu tofu). Harvard Square ramen stops include Santouka and newly opened Menya Jiro. Not a problem in my book – Soup Shack just adds a mouthwatering option for where to slurp.

Soup Shack (9 White St., Porter Square)


A Halal Guys sandwich is prepared. (Photo: The Halal Guys via Yelp)

Nearly next door, The Halal Guys serve up wraps and rice bowls with your choice of gyros (the Greek word means “rotating” and refers to the slowly spinning spit the meats cook on – traditionally for lamb, but beef here), chicken or falafel. It’s quite an impressive assembly-line operation. The bowls (platters, they’re called) feel like a dinner eat to me, though you can get a large or small portion. I went with a basic flatbread sandwich filled with beef and chicken and not much else: lettuce, tomato, a wisp of feta and a healthy dose of tahini. The meats were flavorful, lightly spiced, moist, yet cooked through, and the wrap overall was light – astoundingly so, and I almost could have eaten two. Halal Guys is a nice add to the area, though I will say the lamb gyros at The Half Shell are the real deal and Saloniki down in Harvard Square offers a few more options to jam in your pita pocket, from french fries to zucchini fritters. If I had one beef with this outpost, it’s that the space is cacophonous by design; they were playing music at such a level I had to bark my order to the pita preparer. I’ll be back to try the falafel, though as with veggie burgers there’s a lot of mediocrity out there and few standouts. (Wrapro’s my local go-to.) I’ll be going in with a degree of trepidation and hope to be pleasantly surprised.

The Halal Guys (15 White St., Porter Square)

Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.