The Madrona Tree in Arlington Center doesn’t beat around the bush. The slogan “Eat like you give a damn” is plastered on the front of its menu, while the back tells the various origins of your meal.
“Folks come in here, like, I don’t want to try that fancy meat, and I’m like, It’s not fancy meat. It’s meat that doesn’t have hormones or nitrates. This is quality product,” says owner and head chef Tanya Abraham, who runs the restaurant with her sister, Shaunda Rheaume, and mother, Cheryl Bleakney. “It’s a real passion that I have in trying to get that message out there that they shouldn’t be injecting our foods with the crap that they do, so [the slogan] is kind of a direct statement. Once they try it, they’re like, Oh my God, and I’m like, Yeah, that’s how beef should taste. That’s how chicken should taste.”
Abraham was raised on the South Shore but soaked up the locally sourced food culture over a decade spent in Seattle. She brought that mentality to her spot in Arlington, where it fits perfectly. The place feels like a hippy daydream, with waitresses in tie-dyed shirts and a languid pace to the service. Customers huddle around five tables beneath an ornate twig chandelier purchased from a shuttered Bugaboo Creek. Others spill onto the sidewalk off Massachusetts Avenue, eating under umbrellas as dogs wind around their legs.
The sandwiches are an immersive experience. Two options, with choices of chicken, beef, or a house-made veggie patty, are delicious but sloppy. Robin’s honey BBQ ($8.99) drips with barbecue sauce and melted cheddar, while the Luke ($8.99) is slathered with an overly generous helping of homemade avocado sauce that overpowers the mushrooms, Swiss, and chicken. Papa’s fireburger ($8.99) finds the right balance of tangy sauce to complement its roasted poblano peppers and American cheese. Every sandwich can be prepared in vegetarian or vegan form.
Abraham’s grandfather owned Lebanese restaurants on the South Shore and she pays tribute by offering Syrian wraps, specialty sandwiches on thick pita, and other Mediterranean options. Jimbo’s pesto chicken ($8.99) stands out with great juicy chicken, tomato chunks, stringy mozzarella, and mushrooms. Ashley’s sweet and spicy chicken ($9.99), named for a cousin who “can be sweet but also spicy,” is a delicious blend of barbecue sauce, grilled onions, poblanos, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and cheese. Grandpa’s kibbeh ($8.99), a dish traditionally served like lasagna in a pan, has a twist as a wrap with a yogurt mint sauce.
Sides are ordered separately but the serving sizes are generous. Perfectly cooked, thin-cut garlic fries ($4.29 small, $6.29 large) are a highlight. Just stay away from them on a date — they’re heavy on garlic. Onion rings ($4.29 small, $6.99 large) with “Grandpa’s special batter” are delivered with a fiery Buffalo sauce that wows the table.
The sweets are top notch, and the local ingredients pay off in big flavor. The frappe (16 ounces $5.59, 20 ounces $5.89), made from Bart’s Ice Cream in Greenfield, is outstanding, creamy and sweet. Several remark it’s one of the best frappes they’ve ever had. A lavender soda (16 ounces $2.99, 20 ounces $3.99) has flecks of lavender at the bottom and plenty of taste.
Today, the Madrona Tree celebrates its one-year anniversary. Abraham says the place feels like it has found a home.
“Arlington was the perfect place for this,” she says. “In Seattle, recycling and so many things with the environment, people are really on top of it. When I came to Arlington, it kind of made me feel like that. I couldn’t have picked a better place. They’ve been welcoming and they get it. They get what we’re trying to do.”