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A few days later, I returned to Lawrence for lunch, meeting up with a friend of mine, Debbie, who lives there. She suggested a casual meal at the Mirth Cafe on New Hampshire Street. "It used to be an Internet cafe where all the geeky students hung out," she said. "But now it's more about food."
Our server that afternoon, Shaunna, explained that, three years ago, the computers were taken out of the main dining room -- there's a more recent annex on the other side of the entrance hall -- and a tiny kitchen was expanded in order to serve a more elaborate menu, including breakfast all day.
The acoustics aren't great (it's a noisy dining room), and the "philosophy" of the restaurant sounds like something from a Hallmark card -- "Meals should be joyous occasions flavored with good food and good friends." But it's a pleasant, if not mirthful, place with glazed brick floors and high ceilings. The menu is loaded with uncomplicated sandwiches, wraps, hummus and black-bean quesadillas, and breakfast items.
Debbie's stomach was bothering her, so Shaunna suggested something bland, like an omelet. Debbie must have started feeling better on the spot because she chose a smoked-salmon omelet made with fresh spinach and Swiss cheese. It was delicious and rich.
I was torn between the biscuits with sausage gravy and the vegetarian version, drenched in a mushroom gravy with "meatless" sausage. (The menu offers no explanation, but it's a crumbled, soy-based product.) I eventually settled on a breakfast burrito, a hefty creation stuffed with scrambled eggs, Italian sausage, red onions and red peppers. Between bites, Shaunna regaled us with exploits from her trip to the annual Burning Man Festival in Nevada. Her story involved a tragedy with a tiny bottle filled with dried algae. You had to be there.
Returning a few days later, I had an early supper with Debbie (totally recovered from her stomach issues and ravenous) and my friend Bob at Esquina, "the corner." This bright and appealing ultra-casual taqueria at the corner of Eighth Street and Massachusetts serves "nuevo Latino" food created by Lawrence's celebrity chef Robert Krause (who operates the restaurant with his wife, Molly, and two partners).
The menu is full of interesting offerings — I resisted the temptation to order everything from the handwritten chalkboard over the counter — and the prices are shockingly low for the high-quality fare. The eight featured tacos, for example, can be purchased for $3 each, or three for about $8. Sure, there might be cheaper, less creative tacos served in other restaurants and taquerias, but the Esquina version of street tacos are so fresh and are prepared with such imaginative ingredients, they feel like a bargain.
We started that meal with a plastic basket heaped with light and gloriously crunchy fried calamari (an unlikely starter for a college-town taqueria), served with a tiny cup of kick-ass ancho-lime coconut cream. This amber concoction was so addictively delicious, I could have drunk a mug of the stuff. At Esquina, the same sauce is used to punch up the habanero-tequila cheese dip, which would be ridiculously bland without it. This white dip is runny and unremarkable otherwise, but dipping one of the crispy corn chips in the sauce and in the fire-roasted house salsa makes for superb snacking.