Saturday, July 20, 2024

The Ngo Van tofu sandwich at the Circus Cooperative Cafe in Cambridge’s Riverside neighborhood. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Old-school bohemia started to seep out of Cambridge in the late ’80s, almost in sync with the red line being extended from Harvard Square to Alewife, but bastions such as the Someday Cafe in Somerville’s Davis Square remained and others popped up with the right feel – Diesel Cafe, also in Davis, and Petsi Pies on Putnam Avenue in Cambridge’s Riverside neighborhood. The Someday, famous for its well-worn, curb-rescue furniture, is gone; Diesel still toots along; Petsi quietly became part of the Darwin’s Ltd. mini-cafe empire that closed all its shops last winter amid labor issues.

The good news is that the dark, cozy and inviting Putnam Avenue outpost rebooted as the Circus Cooperative Cafe late last month under – as the title implies – a cooperative management team in which several employees are also owners. Can’t get much more old-school, ’60s Cambridge than that. 

Not much inside has changed, but there’s an energy in the air and the attentive folk behind the counter seem to be having a really good time. Circus, which has a grad student study-hall vibe, is open for breakfast and lunch and has a basic coffee bar menu too, as one would assume. (The iced green tea is fantastic, the usual acrid greenness cut by the thirst-slaking sweetness of a brown tea.)

The Circus Cooperative Cafe revives a former Darwins Ltd. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Breakfast runs until 10 a.m. with an egg sando called The Harvard (cheddar, bacon and avocado) and a breakfast burrito (black beans, cheddar, peppers, onions and salsa) called The MIT – apt, as the post is between the two revered institutions of higher ed. Remaining on the menu with the blessing of the Darwins team is a classic: The Mount Auburn, with turkey, Swiss, mayo, vinaigrette, lettuce, tomato and avocado on thick, generous slices of fluffy sourdough.

The Circus additions are fun. Take the Hummanist (that second “m” is correct) of hummus, cucumber and sun-dried tomatoes on seven-grain, or the Ngo Van, named after a Vietnamese labor revolutionary (some Google history homework for you), with garlic-ginger marinated tofu and a slaw of shredded cucumber and cabbage. It’s kind of a vegan banh mi between toasted sourdough. The tofu’s not overly marinated, but is tasty and has the consistency of liverwurst.

The shop’s Go Chu is a gochujang chicken salad sandwich with cilantro and pickles. (Photo: Tom Meek)

My favorite is the Go Chu – gochujang chicken salad with plenty of really fresh cilantro and pickles. The chicken is tender and, because Circus uses that Korean sweet chili sauce, not spicy and lacking the heaviness that comes with mayonnaise in a classic chicken salad. It’s something simple and new. (It comes on that thick, fresh sourdough, but ask for it on a tortilla and thank me later.) A real winner, and a reason for returns.

The music too is eclectic too, in a way that feels like a throwback. You get Elvis and Rage Against the Machine back-to-back, then long runs of Cake and Beck. It’s a happy place, to be sure, underscored by a Wi-Fi name and password that are all about clowns and the big tent they perform in.

Circus Cooperative Cafe,  31 Putnam Ave., Riverside, Cambridge


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.