Man Food: Clay Pot Goodness at Muqueca in Cambridge

On blustery days like today, it’s tough to top a bubbling crock of Brazilian stew.

Welcome to Man Food, where burger pro Richard Chudy steps away from his usual burger beat to explore food challenges, street eats, and other gut-busting delights. Ladies are welcome, of course.

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Photos by Katie Barszcz for Boston magazine.

Muqueca: It’s the name of both a national dish, and a charming restaurant in Inman Square. While I’m sure the rest of the extensive menu, which highlights Brazilian ingredients like yucca, plantains and black beans, is wonderful, on this visit I was after only one thing—a big clay pot of the namesake, brimming with an abundance of cod, shrimp and aromatics. A violently spitting clay pot arrives with an inverted pile of rice, pirao (a thickened sauce of sorts using stock and fish bones), and hot sauce. Waiting for the pot to cool down is not easy, since the savory flavors of cilantro and the ocean permeate  the colorfully-decorated and brightly-lit restaurant as you sit there, salivating.

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The muqueca is labeled as a stew but the broth is so scarce it’s hard to call it anything more than a really terrific fish dish with a little bit of liquid. But this quickly becomes irrelevant because the dish is so expertly prepared. The cod is soft and luscious, just flaking so that it barely dissolves into the rest of the pot. Plump shrimp are also treated with care, though slightly under-seasoned. The annatto and tomato-based broth ultimately acts more like a sauce and less like a soup component, but the little there is of it is a treat. The flavors of South America are alive and well here, with notes of garlic and onion balanced by the cilantro and tomato. It’s mostly just a straight-forward dish without too many twists and turns, but a careful addition of the fiery red hot sauce wakes it up in just the right way. The pirao, though is a mere distraction on the table. Overly thick and almost gelatinous, it has little to no flavor.

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Sometimes the simple dishes are the hardest ones to pull off; too many components would easily muck this up, muddling the flavors in an unnecessary way. The muqueca at Muqueca is solid. The seafood is about as well-prepared as possible, and although the tomato-annatto broth is an appetizing blend of onions, garlic and cilantro, it isn’t until a generous self-helping of hot sauce that this dish truly begins to sing.

1008 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-354-3296, muquecarestaurant.com