Globe North Dining Out

For good deals, head for Border

April 26, 2009
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Border Cafe
128 Middlesex Turnpike, Burlington
Telephone: 781-505-2500
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Sunday, noon to 11 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted
Accessible to the handicapped

The Border Cafe in Harvard Square is about as old as the twenty-somethings who pack the wooden floors near the bar, Dos Equis bottles and margarita glasses sweating in their hands. After all this time, the crowds still come. Try to eat dinner there, especially on a weekend night, and once you manage to squeeze your way through the door into the blue-lit interior, you'll likely be handed a beeper that will summon you to your table - in an hour or so.

So what happens when you take an urban restaurant like Border Cafe, add a kids' menu, and export it to the heart of the suburbs, just off five lanes of SUV-clogged pavement across the street from a mall? It turns out that it's still impossibly popular, parking lot nearly full, sprawling restaurant crammed with diners. The Burlington spot has many of the same quirks as the Harvard Square location: salt in Dos Equis bottles, Christmas tree lights draped along the windows.

There are still a lot of twenty-somethings in the crowd, some looking like they just got off work. The crowd around the bar, where televisions are tuned to sports, is nearly entirely male, mostly young, although the masses at the wooden tables are mixed. There are plenty of families with kids, but they don't dominate the space, despite the restaurant's efforts to make this more child-friendly than the Harvard Square spot.

Border Cafe has long had a restaurant in Saugus, near another outsized restaurant, the Hilltop Steak House, but the Burlington spot, which opened in 2007, was the first new Border Cafe to set up shop in Massachusetts in nearly two decades. Maybe it's the proximity to The Cheesecake Factory, Chili's, and Romano's Macaroni Grill, but the newest location of the Tex-Mex and Cajun restaurant, which also has locations in New Jersey and Delaware, feels more like a chain than the original. The menu notes that one of the appetizers is made in-house; the implication, of course, is that most of the food is not. A bite of the kids' meal pizza, a hit with our 3-year-old, sent me reeling back to my college dining hall, which, I'm convinced, served these exact same small frozen pizzas nicknamed "hockey pucks" by students.

But the free tortilla chips, served with salsa, are warm and addictive. The guacamole ($4) is fresh and full of avocado chunks. The pastelitos ($6), pastries bulging with chicken and bits of cilantro, were one of the best things we ordered. These are the appetizers advertised as made on the premises and dipped in a tangy chimichurri, and they're wonderful. Another appetizer, though, disappointed. The Cajun popcorn ($6), a spicy version of popcorn shrimp, tastes only of spice and not of shrimp.

The beef fajitas ($11) arrived with well-seasoned strips of steak still sizzling, though the tortillas were stiff and need to be pried apart. Portions are huge and the prices are recession-proof, which may help explain the Border Cafe's allure. More than 20 entrees cost less than $10 each, and that doesn't include the meal-sized salads. The tostada-grande ($8) - lettuce, mushrooms, peppers, other vegetables, and a dollop of very good guacamole, served in a fried tortilla bowl - is the size of a cabbage, and as filling. Kids' meals, more food than any child could consume, are an amazing $3.

Maybe more important, Border Cafe has managed to transport the festive air of its Harvard Square spot to this young restaurant that lies in the crook of two highways. This is a boisterous place where kids gets balloons and grown-ups get margaritas. People look happy. In these times, who can argue with that?