Gustazo is a Cuban restaurant that started in Belmont, moved to Waltham, and then opened a second location a few blocks from the Porter Square T stop. It’s doing the empty-nester style reverse migration, moving back to the city from the suburbs after the kids have been safely shipped off to a liberal arts school out of state. And, like those empty-nesters who suddenly start spending a little more on haircuts and do date night at the movies for the first time since seeing Titanic, it’s having a lot of fun.
Granted, empty-nester fun is a little different than twenty-something fun. Twenty-something fun means late nights at bars, convincing your parents to do your taxes for you, and the occasional misdemeanor. Empty-nester fun means cheese-making classes and Pops concerts in Franklin Park. Likewise, Gustazo is not a place where you’re coming to rage. This is grown-up fun - the kind that comes with interesting cocktails, a dining room that looks like an ad for Cuban tourism come to life, and, most importantly, really good small plates that you’ll always want to order just one more of.
Considering that it’s surrounded by gas stations and banks on a relatively quiet stretch of Mass Ave, Gustazo surprises you as soon as you get here and find that it’s packed. Almost the entire spectrum of Cambridge stereotypes will cycle through the doors on any given night, starting with people who look like they published one big children’s book in 1987, and going all the way through Harvard MBA students who close the place down later on. It can be hard to get a day-of reservation, but the high-top tables underneath the neo-gothic chandeliers in the bar are reserved for walk-ins, and they’re a perfectly fine place to split guava-glazed ribs. On the weekends, a cocktail den in the basement opens up, and you can get the full menu down there.
There are a few big dishes on the menu, like the roast pork, that are very good. We can see ourselves trying but failing to pull them off at our own dinner parties. But the small plates are the reason you won’t mind getting off at a T station that was seemingly built in Earth’s inner core to come here. Some of them are things you barely see anywhere else (like the jibartio, a sandwich that swaps out bread for fried plantains), while others are things you see everywhere but which are just done really well, like the octopus that’s poached in olive oil. Either way, the dishes here are characterized by lots of different ingredients coming together to make some of the best food in a square that’s otherwise defined by a strip mall and a giant parking lot.
Keep Gustazo in mind the next time you have something to celebrate and want to bring people together. Between the food, cocktails created by the team from one of the single best bars in Boston, and a giant light-up sculpture of the island of Cuba made from rum bottles, it’s a place where you’ll reliably have fun - even without a single attempted misdemeanor.
The type of fish they use changes every day, but it’s always served with some peppers, pomegranate, and pineapple inside of a giant scallop shell. Order two so you can use the shells to make a bikini top for your mermaid friend of yours when you’re done.
A plate of beans being our favorite dish on a menu that also includes oxtail tacos, empanadas, and a ton of roast pork was a bigger upset than the Visigoths against Rome. But here we are - these smokey, spinach-y garbanzos are great.
A rare miss on the menu - these ribs are just a little too sweet.
We’re pretty sure that every single table at Gustazo orders the empanadas. There’s a different kind every day, including some interesting stuff like everything bagel empanadas, but compared to most of the other small plates, they’re just ok.
A jibarito is a sandwich made with flattened fried plantains instead of bread. It’s almost unheard of outside of Chicago, but don’t get it for the novelty factor alone, get it because it’s delicious.
The most important thing about roast pork is that it has to be tender enough crumble to the plate as soon as you just think about touching it. This one passes that test, and the fatty parts are drool-worthy.
It’s a red pepper stuffed with cod, bechamel, peppers, and spicy almonds. It’s served with a brown butter carrot sauce, and it’s our new favorite way to eat cod in a city that has a lot of cod.