I got a hankering for a patty melt the other day, so I bought some rye bread and made my own. Did the patty smash burger-style. Managed to slightly burn the onions because I stopped paying attention to them while cooking the patty, but they were salvageable. I like steak fries because they’re more potato-y than skinny fries, and our air fryer does a great job with frozen fries. Baby carrots because you gotta have some veg. Bridget opted for a tuna melt as an alternative.
I got three hamburger patties out of the package of ground beef, and I still have the rye bread, so I am planning to make another one for lunch tomorrow. Hopefully, I won’t burn the onions this time.
We’ve had a bunch of days in the 50s and low 60s lately, not typical for February in Massachusetts, but you will never hear me complain about mild winter weather. Yesterday was one of those days, and a holiday as well, so we took a ride down to Concord to have some lunch and stroll around the downtown area. Concord does get a fair amount of tourists, though not on the scale of Salem, and downtown is a collection of shops that cater to locals and tourists alike.
Our favorite place for lunch in Concord is Helen’s. It opened in 1936, but operated as a Brigham’s Ice Cream parlor for many years, until Brigham’s closed many of their retail locations. The family of the original owners re-opened it as Helen’s about 20 years ago. Like Brigham’s and other similar family restaurants of yore, they offer sandwiches and burgers, ice cream, coffee, and such. And they have kept one of Brigham’s signature menu items, the raspberry lime rickey.
I ordered an onion, mushroom, and Swiss burger, and Bridget had a tuna melt. It’s a 1/3 lb. patty, which in my estimation is the best size for a hamburger. The patty is fairly flat, but not really what these days is called a “smashburger”. It is topped with freshly grilled mushrooms and onions and Swiss cheese, as the name implies. It also came with lettuce and several slices of tomato – I really don’t like lettuce and tomato on a burger, so I removed them and ate the tomato slices on their own. The lettuce got left on the plate, as it deserves. The fries were nice and fresh, but I got a lot of little nubby ones on my plate.
As always, the restaurant was slammed when we got there, although our arrival timed perfectly with a table opening up, so we didn’t have to wait in a line like we usually do. By the time we were done, though, there were several groups of people milling about outside waiting for a table. There aren’t a ton of dining options in downtown Concord, so I think most people end up at Helen’s. The waitstaff work their butts off keeping things coming and going from the kitchen. Since our last visit, they have finally given into modern convenience and now accept debit/credit card payments. It was always a hassle to have enough cash on hand, and there is also only one ATM in downtown Concord.
After lunch, we browsed through a British goods store that is just a couple of doors down, and then made our usual visit to the Concord Book Shop, which is one of the best anywhere. I’d hoped to hit up the cheese shop, but they are closed on Mondays, as was the little chocolate-and-nut shop. Ah, well.
I have gotten to be very fond of CaliBasil in Beverly as my local go-to for pho. We go for lunch or dinner probably twice a month. Lately, I have been ordering the House Special pho, which has sirloin, brisket, and bo vien meatballs.
I wish that they offerred a bowl that also includes tendon and tripe, but I get that those two ingredients might turn some people off. I don’t love the tripe, but it adds an interesting texture. I do love the bits of tendon that get all silky in the hot broth.
Even with the lack of those two things, they make a really decent bowl of soup, and I expect to be there again very soon.
Pizza with pepperoni, green peppers, and red onions
Even after I had that bowl of pho for lunch, I was hungry enough for dinner to convince my wife that we should go out. We went back to Americna Flatbread Company in downtown Salem and had this excellent pizza. We haven’t tried them for takeout yet, but now that we’ve been a couple of times and really like the pizza, we’ll probably give this a go the next time we want delivery.
Tacos – short rib and spice-rubbed chicken
We finally checked out Barrio in Salem for lunch on Saturday. Salem has a bunch of taco places now, and this one is the most recent addition. Unlike the other places in town, Barrio is a chain, with locations all over the country. Usually that’s not a good sign, but the tacos were excellent and we agreed we liked them better than any of the local joints.
To order, you are asked to “build your own” using a sheet of options and you color in bubbles with a pencil like you are taking a test at school. The choices are myriad, so the combinations are pretty much endless. They also have a few a la carte options, along with appetizers and specials. I opted to get one soft flour taco with shredded short rib birria, smoked Cheddar cheese and pico de gallo, and one with spice-rubbed chicken, salsa verde and queso fresco. I also got small sides of cilantro-lime rice and black beans. Both were excellent, but I loved the beef taco. I also really appreciated that the sides were small – many taco places give you way too much rice and beans when what you want are great tacos. My wife got the Thai chili tofu on one taco and gochujang tofu for the other and also enjoyed hers.
The weather last week was particularly dreay; snow and rain and rain and snow and gray and gray and gray. So a bowl of cream of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandiwch was waarming and comforting in the best way.
Because it’s the way my mother always made it, I use milk to make my Campbell’s Tomato soup into cream of tomato. In fact, I don’t know if I have ever had it made with water in my entire life. I always add a lot of freshly ground black pepper, and I also sometimes give it a shot of Worcestershire sauce to add a little depth to the flavor.
I made the grilled cheese with one slice each of white American cheese and yellow American cheese just because we happened to have both in the fridge. Fancy grilled cheese sandwiches are perfectly fine, but when I want comfort food I want plain white bread, American cheese, and real butter on the bread.
It hit the spot and also left me full enough that I didn’t eat dinner that night.
Barbecue brisket and hot sausage combo plate with cornbread and macaroni & cheese
Got together for lunch on Saturday with my three high school/college buddies Mark, Tony and Joe in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They were all at my brother’s funeral in 2021, but otherwise we hadn’t gotten together since before the pandemic, so it was fun to hang out for a few hours. We ate at Portsmouth Feed Co., in the old Pourtsmouth Savings Bank building in downtown, and I hadn’t been to Portsmouth for several years, either. The blurring of time from the pandemic really washes away one’s connections to the world.
The food was okay but not memorable. There are some barbecue joints around New England that do a good job, but there are a lot of mediocre places, and even some terrible ones. This was middling, but acceptable because the food wasn’t really the point. Frankly, I thought the mac & cheese was the best thing on the plate. The brisket was lean, which is how I prefer it, but without any serious smoke or bark. The sausage was spicy, but dry. There was a much better barbecue place in downtown Portsmuth a few years ago, but it closed even befoe the pandemic. Our server also seemed less than enthusiastic to have a table of geezers.
Anyway, we sat and chatted, then walked around downtown for a bit, before landing in a coffee shop to get out of the cold. All the kids are grown up and leading their own lives, some of the parents are passed away and others dealing with the ravages of afvanced age, and we’re not the wild and crazy guys we used to be, but there is an ease with old friends you can’t find anywhere else.
Roast beef sandwich with BBQ sauce, garlic aioli, and American cheese
Jamie’s Roast Beef in Peabody makes some notable variations on the standard North Shore roast beef sandwich. This one is called “The Yoli” on their menu, for the inclusion of their house-made garlic aioli instead of the more typical mayonnaise. It’s a sloppy beast lemme tell ya. I used about half a roll of paper towels working my way through this. And that’s the “regular” (aka medium) size. I refer to a meal like this as “Blupper”, because it is enough food for breakfast, lunch, AND supper. I did not eat anything else that day (except for the onion rings I ordered with it), and still felt like I ate too much.
Locals are picky about what’s okay to put on a roast beef sandwich, and they all have their go-to places, but Jamie’s gets a lot of high praise from people. They make a lot of their own sauces and condiments, though you can absolutely get the traidtional James River BBQ saucethat most other North Shore roast beef joints use (that’s JR BBQ in this photo).
So the first thing I ACTUALLY cooked for 2023 was a pot of beef stew on New Year’s Day. One year I made the traditional black-eyed peas and collard greens for New Year’s Day, and nobody ate it except me, so I haven’t bothered again. The cold snap we had over Christmas had me hankering for all sorts of hot comfort food, even though the weather here for NYD was quite mild.
Stew is always better a day or two later, and this was no exception. I warmed some up for my lunch a couple of days later, and it was delicious. I noticed that The Kitchn did a comparison of beef stews last week, too, and they chose Ina Garten’s recipe as the best one. The recipe I use is very basic, but the next time maybe I will give hers a shot.
On the days I go into the office, I usually get takeout for lunch via GrubHub or DoorDash. Those services are problematic, to be sure, but the place where I work has one of those cultures where going out to lunch is Not Done and everybody orders in. If my co-workers are ordering lunch with me, we tend to resort to the same three or four places that everyone can agree upon, but if I am going solo I will try some different options.
There are lots of Asian restaurants to choose from in and around Lowell, but skews heavily toward Chinese and Thai, with a smattering of Vietnamese and Cambodian. Lately, though, I had been looking for some Indian food, which is far less common in this area. I ordered from a place GrubHub calls “Art of Biryani”, but which actually turns out to be a place called Priya. I am familiar with Priya because it is in the same stripmall as my favorite pho place, Pho 88, and I have actually been there for lunch a couple of times years ago. I know this because the food came delivered in a Priya bag. Now that I know this, I will order from them directly and knock out the middleman.
This tandoori chicken is fabulous, by the way. Spicy, just the right level of char, juicy. With three thighs and three drums in an order, you could easily share it, but I ate all of it myself because it ia that good. They also include a small container of Basmati rice and another with a sauce that seems like maybe tikka masala (mild, tomato-based, creamy but not as creamy as korma). The rice and sauce make a good not-spicy counterpoint to the chicken. Such a welcome alternative to the parade of subs, Chinese combo platters, and Pad Thai.
Don’t @ me about liking Spam. A million Hawaiians can’t be wrong. You might consider a Spam, egg and cheese to be a breakfast sandwich, but I like ’em for lunch. Mostly because I am not ambitioua enough when I get up in the morning to go through the business of making one.
I try to keep the yolk a little runny, and if you look you can see some yolk that leaked out when I cut the sandwich. No worries, I just mop it up with a corner of the sandwich. It’s definitely easier to toast the bread in the toaster and assemble the sandwich once the ingredients are ready than to try to grill the bread in the pan, but I like the buttery grilled bread a bit more.
The name notwithstanding, September is actually the time of year for Oktoberfest beers, so last weekend we toddled over to the Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont. I had several gift cards leftover from Christmas, so my beer purchase was completely free to me! Craft Beer Cellar has been my preferred place to buy beer since I first got started drinking craft beers about 10 years ago. They have franchises in a bunch of places now, wbut we have always gone to the original location in Belmont, which they call the “Mothership”. The two women who own the business are the most devoted beer people I’ve ever met, the store has a wide and interesting selection, and their staff is knowledgable and helpful without being beer snobs.
I don’t think we had been there since they opened their beer hall, called Trinktisch. The whole operation is in a space that was very briefly a small supermarket, so they made one whole part of the store into the beer hall. There are 6-8 picnic tables for seating, plus a bar, and an additional space upstairs that is more like a dining room with restaurant tables. We grabbed a picnic table and ordered.
In addition to the beer, I also had the currywurst, which came with a bit too much curry ketchup all over the sausage and some excellent potato wedges. Not realizing the sausage came with the wedges, I also ordered a half-order of warm German potato salad. Bridget got a hot dog with sweet Bavarian mustard and sauerkraut, and she also ordered the potato salad. As you might guess, one half-order of the potato salad would have been plenty for both of us, even without the wedges. German potato salad is vinegar-based, and the acitidy cuts through the richness of the potatoes very well. We ended up combining the leftover potato salad orders into one take-home container. I wish that the curry ketchup had come on the side, instead of served right on the sausage, because it was hard to get a bite without too much ketchup, but I enjoyed it.