Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Taste of the Town: Discovering Salem, One bar at a time...

Places to be on Game Day: Salem, Mass.

As my train pulled into Salem depot on Saturday afternoon, I prepared myself. I was wearing my Papelbon T-shirt with my Bruins hat and was ready for a good time. With simple directions I received from a cab driver, I walked down the tree-lined brick sidewalks to the first stop on my tour.

Rockafellas’, which stands dominantly on the corner of Essex and Washington Streets, is hard to miss. The large brick building that it calls home was once inhabited by Daniel Low and Company, a jeweler that was a mainstay in Salem for years. Its interior is expansive. The bar area, with plasma screen television, is located to the left while a dance floor that entertains customers with live music every weekend is on my right. A large dining area spreads out in front of me, backed by the original vault used by the jewelers. This now serves as the wine storage.

“Hey,” shouts a tall, young looking man dressed somewhat like me. “I’m glad you made it.” Steve Jones is a senior at Salem State College and he agreed to guide my trek through the city’s watering holes. “I figured we’d start off low-key,” Jones said as he passed me a Sam Adams, “Too bad the Sox aren’t playing right now.” Jones was right; the crowd was thin for a World Series game, even if it was 2 o’clock. After one drink we decided to make our first move.

From the doorstep of Rockafellas, we proceeded directly across the street to an Irish Pub called O’Neill’s. This offers us almost the opposite feel of our last stop. The dining booths to the right are just a step away from the bar that lines the left side of the building. With the same baseball game on the big screen and an international football (soccer for the American readers out there) on a smaller TV at the end of the bar, there is something for everyone. I present my guide with a drink for the one that he bought me and we settle in a spot where both games can be viewed.

“I think we should stop with the baseball thing and learn to play football,” Jones exclaimed, “We’re like the only ones who are playing it anyway.” After a discussion on the U.S.’ chances at ever winning a World Cup, I remind my friend that team U.S.A. only finished fourth at the inaugural World Baseball Classic this summer so both clubs need to improve play dramatically. With the conclusion of a game that the Tigers won, we exit the bar and begin a walk toward our final destination of the day.

After a short walk down Canal Street, where we are passed by the same train that I used to get to the city, we arrive at Sidelines Bar and Grill. If the name isn’t enough to tip you off, Sidelines is the quintessential sports bar. Upon opening the door, I am met with an explosion of energy. Big screen TVs, now playing Boston College football and Bruins hockey, end cap an oval bar that is overlooked by as many smaller televisions as there are college football games on a Saturday afternoon. We grab ourselves a round and join a group of rowdy guys that turn out to be friends of Jones’. Rounding the outside ring of this game-day bar are four-by-four tables, which today are filled with college lacrosse players and the alumni who they just played a fundraiser game against.

“I take the blame for the boys beating us today,” admitted the coach, who played against his team with his fellow alumni. “It’s like I created a monster and then it turned on me,” he continued among the cheers and laughter from the gathered crowd.

With the walk back to the train station ahead of me, I say goodbye to my friendly guide and his entertaining friends. “Come on back to Salem sometime soon,” Jones called down the street to me, “Halloween isn’t that long off.” I just may have to take him up on that offer, because this historic city provided me with plenty of options for an amazing time.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Taste of the Town: “The Upper Crust Pizzeria: Not your average pizza.”

“The pizza, I think, speaks for itself,” exclaims Michael Buchhalter, owner/manager of the Upper Crust Pizzeria in Salem (118 Washington Street, 978-741-2787). Buchhalter’s Salem location is the first franchise in the Upper Crust company, and is soon to be followed by shops in Watertown Square, Harvard Square, and Boston’s South End.

Founded in 2001, by then 24 year old Jordan Tobins, the Upper Crust serves traditional Neapolitan-style pizza in open kitchen settings; Neapolitan pizza consists of thin crust with chunky sauces. Tobins opened his first Upper Crust Pizzeria on Charles Street in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, a venture that he ‘single-handedly financed,’ says Buchhalter, a childhood friend of Tobins’. Since 2001, Upper Crusts have been opened in Lexington, Waltham, Hingham, Brookline, Boston’s Newbury Street, and even Key West, Florida; as well as the Salem franchise.
In an August 2007 Salem Gazette interview, Tobins describes the atmosphere in Salem as one of ‘renaissance.’ “Salem is one town that’s really growing,” Tobins told the Gazette, “there are a lot of wonderful new businesses, a lot of really great restaurants.” The Upper Crust’s Washington Street location shares an attractive courtyard with the Gulu-Gulu CafÈ and Fresh taste of Asia restaurants. Tobins says the courtyard “almost creates a little restaurant nook.”

Michael Buchhalter had to ‘be on his toes’ as he opened Salem’s Upper Crust in October, in the midst of the city’s annual Haunted Happenings events. Managing the Newbury Street location prepared Buchhalter for this venture, though, allowing for a ‘very successful’ first month of operation in Salem. Buchhalter realizes that ‘there is always room for improvement’ though. “[Brookline] has people lining up for lunch,” he said, “that’s what we want for Salem.” In addition to the 10 tables and six counter seats available inside the pizzeria, Salem’s Upper Crust is the first location to offer outdoor seating to be enjoyed in the warmer months.

With cooks that have prior Upper Crust experience, Salem tries to follow the lead of the pizzerias before it, while incorporating a sense of ‘personal service’ that is lacking in the take-out heavy Boston locations. The repeat customers are already a mainstay at Buchhalter’s Upper Crust. “[It’s] very comfortable,” he says. “[We] feel like we are part of the town.”

Taste of the Town: A trip around the world, without leaving downtown Salem

Salem - Salem is a cultural melting pot. It attracts students and residents that hail from across Massachusetts, the United States and the world.

This broad spectrum of cultures and backgrounds creates the need for a culinary diversity that is usually reserved for major metropolises. Residents of the city of Salem, though, only have to travel down Washington Street to experience the tastes of nearly every region on earth.

The first stop on this culinary expedition is a local spot with national flavors, “Where Hot Dog is King.”

Boston Hot Dog Company (60 Washington St.; 978-744-2320) serves natural casing or kosher beef dogs on grilled buttered rolls in more than 20 different varieties. From the Texas Dog (chili, sautéed onions, cheese sauce, real bacon bits and sliced jalapeno peppers for $3.50) to the New York City Dog (sauerkraut, Grey Poupon mustard, chopped onion, sweet red pepper relish and celery salt for $2.85), this is truly a hot dog-lover’s heaven.

All the dogs are prepared right in front of the customers and can be enjoyed on the 10 barstools, overlooking either the kitchen or Washington Street, or taken to go. Adding Homemade Boston Baked Beans ($2.50) or Black Angus Chili ($3.95) makes this a perfect spot for lunch or dinner.

If the Thai Dog (spicy peanut sauce and caramelized onions for $3.25) isn’t what you are looking for; you don’t have to go far for more authentic Thai cuisine.

Bangkok Paradise (90 Washington St.; 978-825-9202) has been voted “Best Thai Food of the North Shore” by Community Newspaper Company readers, including Salem Gazette readers, for four years running.

One taste of the house specialty Seafood Madness (sautéed shrimps, scallops, and squid mixed with scallions, onions, beans, baby corns and mushrooms in the house’s spicy sauce for $15) and you’ll know why.

The authentic décor and full service sushi bar greatly complement the Thai curry (chicken, beef, pork or tofu for $10; shrimp, scallop or squid for $12.50; and duck for $16.00 with your choice of sauce and rice or noodle) or vegetarian dishes ($8-10).

This comfortable restaurant also hosts live entertainment every Thursday night through Monday night, with no cover charge.

Not far from this oriental hot spot, diners can experience tastes that are a world away.

O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Restaurant (120 Washington St.; 978-740-8811) serves up Celtic, as well as American, classics in a relaxed atmosphere.

The Appetizer Sampler Platter (potato skins, mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers and “ESPN” wings for $8.99) goes great with any of the full service bar’s draught or bottled beers. The Country Style Shepherd’s Pie (ground beef in a savory sauce, topped with cheddar cheese then baked until golden brown for $9.99) tastes as good as it does back on the Emerald Isle.

DJs playing the hottest in new-age dance music every weekend, make O’Neill’s a location that can be enjoyed well after the kitchen has closed for the evening. For diners seeking spicier menu options, all one needs to do is walk across the street.

Edgewater Café (155 Washington St.; 978-740-4669) says it is “committed to using on the freshest ingredients available,” as Dennis Moustakis brings his authentic Mexican recipes to downtown Salem.

Appetizers like Red Hot Boneless Buffalo wings (tossed with a cayenne and jalapeno pepper sauce, served with bleu cheese dressing and celery sticks for $7.25) and Frijole Dip (home-style beans layered with chili con queso and pureed jalapeno peppers for $5.25 a full order/$3.75 a half order) are sure to heat up any meal.

Fajitas (veggie, shrimp, chicken, steak or a combination from $11.25-14.25) that are served with peppers, onions and sides of tortillas, guacamole, sour cream and Mexican rice and beans or burritos (veggie, bean, chicken or beef from $5.50-8.75) that are rolled with 10-inch flour tortillas, melted cheese and sauce are perfectly finished with Chaos Pie (thin layer of cheesecake, topped with chunks of fudge brownie, chocolate sauce and caramel for $4.75) or Moustakis’ Famous Hot Fudge sundae ($4.75).

For a different take on spicy cuisine, this culinary expedition ends just next door, at a restaurant where they say themselves, “It’s not about eating, it’s about eating right.”

Passage to India (157 Washington St.; 978-832-2200) grinds their own spices, and “will be glad to make your food mild, medium or hot, and will be happy to honor any requests.”

Lunch specials, served daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., include Baingan Bartha (whole eggplant roasted over charcoal, gently blended and tempered with aromatic herbs and spices for $6.95), Lamb Vindaloo (tender pieces of lamb marinated in fresh tomatoes and lemon, then cooked with potatoes, ginger, hot spices and fresh green herbs for $7.95), and Gao Shrimp Curry (prepared with fresh ground coconut and an array of masterfully blended spices for $8.50).

All luncheon specials are served with Basmati rice and hot onion chutney.

The most original selection on Passage’s menu is the Indian bread known as Naan. This unleavened white flour baked bread can be served plain or stuffed (onion; garlic; raisins, cashews and coconut; or tandoori chicken from $2.25-3.95) and is excellent with the South Indian stuffed crepes known as Dosa (Masala: potatoes and onions; chicken and potatoes; or lamb and potatoes from $9.95-10.95).

Serving tandoori (a 2,000-year-old cooking tradition involving a charcoal oven made from clay), chicken, lamb, beef, seafood and vegetarian specialties (from $10.95-15.95), this inviting spot is both delicious and affordable.

Passage to India marks the end of this around-the-world trip that is sure to please the palates of the many diverse people that populate this wonderful city. There is surely something for everyone here on Washington Street, right in the heart of historic downtown Salem.