The Porter Square neighborhood of Cambridge is home to a wide variety of restaurants, including a number of Japanese and Asian spots that are hidden away in an historic building that is called...well, take your pick. Some call it The Sears Building, while others call it University Hall, while still others call it the Porter Exchange building. And the section of the building that houses the eateries is known by a couple of different names as well, including The Shops at Porter and Japantown. Whatever you call it, the bottom line is that the little restaurant row here is a great place to find authentic Japanese and Asian fare, with one of the least known of the restaurants there being a Japanese "noodle factory" called Ittyo.
While Ittyo has been around for a long time--nearly 20 years--it is not even close to being a household name. Indeed, the names that seem to stand out here include such spots as Cafe Mami and Bluefin (by the way, the popular Tavern in the Square is also located in the building, but it is separate from the Asian restaurants). Ittyo, however, remains one of the least known spots among the handful of places here, even though it is within a few feet of most of the others. And like most of the other spots in this building, the restaurant is tiny, with only a few tables set up and a very bare-bones atmosphere, though the rather interesting knickknacks set up (including cat and rabbit figurines and a miniature "gong") add just the littlest bit of character to the place. Table service is offered here, though like its neighbors, Ittyo seems to do much of its business as takeout.
The term "noodle factory" should be a dead giveaway as to what the main focus is at Ittyo, though the menu has more than just noodles. A number of interesting non-noodle appetizers are offered here, for instance, including some wonderful vegetable croquettes that have a crunchy exterior and a creamy interior (the current menu now features potato croquettes, by the way); spring rolls that can be ordered either fried or steamed; dumplings that can also be ordered fried or steamed, with the fried dumplings having a nice crunch without being overly greasy; ohitashi, or clumps of boiled spinach coated with a deliciously sweet and slightly bitter peanut and sesame sauce; chilled tofu that is seasoned with thin slices of onion; and fried oysters. Among the main courses are rice dishes (including a rice bowl that includes an absolutely sinful chicken katsu omelet), a simliar chicken katsu curry (no eggs, but the addition of a complex curry sauce); a grilled salmon filet, pork and chicken cutlets, and broiled pike for those who might want to opt for something other than noodle dishes. But the noodle dishes are the main thing at Ittyo, with two main options: Udon, which are thick and chewy wheat noodles, and soba, which are thin, slightly firm, and rich-tasting buckwheat noodles. Options for each are numerous, including eel with soba noodles (perhaps their signature dish), noodles with Japanese vegetables (including seaweed), noodles with beef (the beef is fall-apart tender and has a delightful taste), non-greasy shrimp tempura, fried bean curd, and for those of you who like a little heat and richness, a spicy vegetable option as well as a curry option. And for those who want everything, the "super noodles" is a great option with beef, shrimp, fish cakes, scallions, mushrooms, and potato tempura all included. Portions for the noodle dishes are quite large, and the prices are very low, with meals starting under $7.00 and mostly staying under $10. Drink options at Ittyo include some thick and sweet-tasting smoothies (with green tea and red bean being a couple of options) and a few teas (vanilla, green, citrus, etc.), and dessert options include both ice cream and ice cream dumplings, with the latter featuring balls of dough that have a creamy ice cream center.
Ittyo is just one of several excellent Asian restaurants located in this funky old building with many different names. But because it is lesser-known than some of the others, the lines are typically not as long as, say Sapporo Ramen which tends to have quite a following. If you are a big fan of Japanese noodle houses, Ittyo is certainly a place to check out, and even if you aren't into noodle dishes, the menu really does include something for nearly everyone here.
Copyright © 2012-2016, Boston's Hidden Restaurants (www.hiddenboston.com).