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Restaurant Review | Hip, cheap Border Cafe is ideal student eatery

Huge menu and plenty of atmosphere explain Border’s popularity

Published: Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 01:12

If you’re looking for a relaxing, romantic night of fine dining, Border Cafe is probably not the place for you. However, for those who want to spend a fun evening with friends without emptying their wallets — in other words, if you are a member of the college−aged crowd — this is definitely a spot worth visiting.

Though it is situated on the rather quiet corner of Church Street and Palmer Street in Harvard Square, Border Cafe is anything but low−key. As soon as they walk through the bright teal doors of the Tex−Mex and Cajun eatery, customers find themselves in the midst of a loud and vibrant dining room. Wooden floorboards and tables make Border Cafe feel somewhat rustic, and the warm yellow glow of the interior is instantly inviting. String lights frame the windows and colorful folk art murals fill the walls from floor to ceiling. The sheer amount of decoration — paintings of western landscapes, neon beer signs and Hispanic memorabilia — is enough to keep guests visually occupied for hours. But then, the menu arrives.

The extensive three−paneled menu opens like a brochure and is so large that it can almost engulf the entire edge of a table. It consists of 12 different subdivisions ranging from appetizers and beverages — there’s a lengthy list of Margaritas — to fajitas and quesadillas. And while Border offers a wide assortment of different dishes, it also offers different types of cuisine. The menu boasts a “Cajun Favorites” section as well as various “Mexican Specialties.” Under the Cajun category, items such as “French Quarter Chicken” and “Gulf Coast Seafood Enchiladas” evoke images of the Deep South. Other customary Cajun foods include crawfish and catfish. The plates of Mexican offerings, on the other hand, are a little less exotic. After all, tacos and enchiladas have become staples at popular Mexican−themed fast food chains like Chipotle and Qdoba. However, there are also some more authentic options — black bean and corn empanadas (flaky stuffed pastry pockets) and chimichurri steak are some more traditional alternatives.

In addition to its wide selection of food, one of the highlights of Border Cafe is its low prices. With only a handful of exceptions — the $15.95 “Mesquite Swordfish” and the $17.96 “El Pueblo” (shrimp and chicken or beef fajitas) — the entire menu remains under $15. The majority of the Tex−Mex basics (burros, soft tacos, enchiladas and quesadillas) are under $10. Though these orders are reasonably priced to the point of being downright cheap, their quality and portion sizes do not suffer for it. For example, a beef taco and a chicken enchilada both come stuffed to the brim, together with a side of black beans and rice, all for a mere $6.89. It’s also absolutely delicious. Along with its bargain prices, Border Cafe accompanies each of its patrons’ dishes with complimentary baskets of crunchy, salted chips and salsa and enormous drinking glasses that appear to be almost twice the regular beverage size. Yet, for such a good deal, there’s got to be a catch. And there is, albeit a small one. Small dollops of sour cream and guacamole, condiments that come standard in other Tex−Mex places, are an additional $0.75 and $0.95 charge, respectively. However, it’s literally a small price to pay and is a minimal sacrifice to make to enhance the taste of already great food.

Above all else, it is the ambiance of Border Cafe that makes it such a hit, especially among the younger crowd. The restaurant is a lively, energetic and spirited place. While Border is virtually never empty, it really is packed during its peak hours. But this atmosphere is not for everyone. Occasionally, noisy crowded environments may make some patrons feel claustrophobic or overwhelmed, while extended waiting times can leave others feeling exasperated and cranky. Still, if you are unfazed by a loud, fast−paced, cheerful environment, Border Cafe will, without a doubt, do the trick.

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