An ideal visit to Ashker’s Black Rock unfolds like this: arrive early or between meals to ensure your pick of seating. That might be the sumptuous slate-blue Victorian, the cozy fauteuil by the gas stove, a two- or four-top, or—if you’re feeling quirky—one of the reclaimed school desks scattered across the open floor plan.
There are no wrong answers, really. All are soaked with natural light, and each offers a view of the comings and goings of Amherst Street through the front picture windows.
Once you’ve claimed your spot, maybe with a book, work or companion(s) in tow, mosey over to the service counter. There, you’re sure to be warmly greeted by a staff member whose enthusiasm and vocalized willingness to help you navigate the menu is well metered, not pushy.
Because beverages are the cornerstone of café culture, you’d be remiss not to start your order there. Ashker’s has one of the most budget-friendly coffee and espresso programs in the area and an array of fruit smoothies.
Drink in hand, it’s perfectly acceptable to settle into your seat and linger. Ashker’s prides itself on being a community space, after all. Should, however, hunger strike between page turns, to-do list tasks, or mid colloquy, fuel is available. But unlike the dependable seating and beverages, some food choices are better than others.
Take, for instance, the pastry case, which holds a high proportion of pleasures. Chief among them, a square slice of bakery-style pizza that, for $1, makes a worthy snack. It’s not textbook, but somehow the sum of its parts—cooked-down tomato sauce heavy with dried herbs, dollops of ho-hum ricotta, well-browned but only subtly nutty Parmesan—amount to something greater than the math explains.
Maybe the house-made, tightly crumbed crust, which is especially satisfying once an interlude in Ashker’s oven reawakens the crunch of its underbelly, adds to the pizza’s appeal.
There also is luck to be had with the sweeter baked goods. A vegan cranberry-orange scone, bound by flax seed, was dense and tinged with a bitterness that smacked of healthfulness. I liked it, just as I’ve come to like the taste of hemp and maca and other reportedly good-for-me foods. But it’s an enjoyment that takes conditioning, I suspect. A lemon-lavender cookie, pert with zest and a thin, crackling citrus glaze, is surer to please everyone.
Overnight oats prepared with coconut and almonds milks, and layered with jammy mango and blackberries, was another, more wholesome favorite that could easily power you through a study session or meeting.
Some of the larger plates were less successful. Toast topped with fried eggs and Army green basil pesto—muddied in color and taste by leaves other than the herb—is one to avoid on your ideal Ashker’s visit. Its disappointment owes primarily to the sorriness of its bread (not house made), which had a strange starchy texture and too much malty sweetness for the application.
The Ashker’s T.Q. burger—acronymic for tuna-quinoa—suffered from similar bread problems and a slightly gritty patty dominated by the flavor of warm canned fish.
For my money, the best experience at Ashker’s is one that takes advantage of its attractive, welcoming space, its affordable liquid refreshments, and its snackable fare. With the small tweak of better sourced bread, other menu items might easily come into consonance.
Ashker’s Black Rock
414 Amherst St. (235-8328)
Hours: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Price range: $1 pizza slices. $3 to $6 for breakfast fare (overnight oats, scones, pancakes, egg sandwich, omelettes). Sandwiches and salads are $7. Smoothies run $4 to $7.
Parking: Plenty of street spaces
Wheelchair-accessible: Entrance is at street level. No stairs.
Gluten-free options: No special menu or gluten-free bread substitute.