Faking it, just not quite making it
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  February 24, 2010
2.0 2.0 Stars

COOKED TO ORDER Garlic shrimp arrive at your table raw in sizzling oil — you remove them when ready, so they’re never overcooked (unless you like them that way).

Conga’s | One Eliot Street, Cambridge | 617.868.8882 | Open Monday–Thursday, 11:30 am–10 pm; Friday, 11:30 am–1 am; and Saturday and Sunday, noon–1 am | AE, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking; validated discount for parking at Charles Square garage | Sidewalk-level access
The first clue to a fake restaurant is a phony name. Conga's isn't owned by an Afro-Cuban dance rhythm, and doesn't serve drums. Instead, it has a Spanish and South American menu cooked by Central Americans for Thai owners whose previous Japanese restaurant in this space didn't catch on.

I'm not opposed to faux restaurants on principle. We're all making it up as we go along in this life, and you can hardly be much of an eater in Boston without enjoying ersatz Chinese and Mexican food now and then. The colleges, where many of us try on different identities for four or more years, have always featured a certain amount of inauthentic dining. (How else will the kids learn?) Term papers are counterfeit scholarship (some more than others); living together is pretend marriage; Conga's is preparation for Estragon and Taberna de Haro; and those places might be how you get ready to go to Spain. (Read the other restaurant critics and eventually this column will make sense to you.) Fake it until you make it.

So, in a universe of relativism, what's a good copy and what's not?

The opening complimentary white-bean paste is an excellent simulacrum of the spread at fancy bistros, and the dense white bread with it is good, though better with sauces. Garlic shrimp ($9) is served raw in a hot cazuela (red ware platter) of sizzling oil with sliced garlic until you fish out perfectly cooked shrimp. The good old Tortilla Espanola ($7.50), one of my favorite tapas, is a little lumpy, but is still your classic potato and egg omelets/pie.

Baby lamb chops ($10), however, are not so successful. They're overly crisped and served in a sweet sauce featuring canned mandarin oranges, which we will see again — right away, in fact, on a salad with jicama shavings and cubes of melon ($7.50). Fried plantains ($5.95) are neither the twice-fried green ones, nor the soft, sweet black ones, but an un-Caribbean compromise with semi-sweet yellow slices and a sweet soy dip.

My favorite entrée is the Churrasco Argentino ($16), which is simply a splendid flank steak, done rare to order. There's nothing Argentine about the cup of cilantro-rich salsa — that's Mexican; the Argentine sauce would be parsley-garlic chimmichurri. Likewise, there's nothing Argentine about the sides — another jicama salad, a white bread roll, and mashed potatoes — but it's a heck of a steak platter for the price.

Paella here has been divided into chicken and chorizo ($14) and seafood ($17), though the traditional dish combines both. In any case, this dish ought to be about the saffron short-grain rice, but our seafood version had underdone long-grain rice, with big shrimp, small scallops, some squid, peas, pimento, and green New Zealand mussels. Nothing doesn't say "Spain" quite like New Zealand mussels.

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Related: South End Buttery, Woodward at Ames, Skara Grill, More more >
  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , South American cuisine, lamb chops, Foods,  More more >
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