Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- The Regional Treats of Massachusetts
The final leg of our New England roadtrip took us to Massachusetts (CT report HERE - RI report HERE). I've always enjoyed my visits to what many call the heart of New England but it had been a while since I visited. Well it made sense to choose Mass as our base since it's one of the richest states when it comes to both regional eats and Roadfood and it also has some fantastic beaches and cute towns to be found up and down the coast and also inland. We chose the North Shore as our resting place and Marblehead as our base. We lucked out since we planned way ahead and got a very nice AirBNB in the historic part of town. It was as charming of a small town as I've stayed in.
Sights from Marblehead
Though we stayed in the North Shore I was also in and out of Massachusetts during our stay in Rhode Island. The town of Fall River was only about 20 minutes from Providence and it had long been a place I really wanted to check out. It's an old mill town (there's still a few up and running) where many Portuguese people settled when coming over to the States. It's seen better days but it's by no means done. For whatever reason a large number of old spots still survive and many of them have been on my radar for a while. So I spent a nice chunk of time exploring the area. I loved it.
Sights from Fall River (click pics to enhance)
Another reason wo chose to stay in the North Shore area are the the Fried Clam Shacks of Essex County (which will be listed below in order of preference). These were a big reason we wanted to come back to this area. I'd visited some 20 years ago when I was in college and she visited with me when we took a trip to Maine and flew into Boston and thus had to drive to and from Maine so we stopped in Essex County for clam bellies and she too fell in love with them. They're especially good around here where clamming is a national past time and the areas clam stands fry up the local delicacy in a tallow forward oil. You can find fried clams in other parts of New England but nowhere are they as good as here. Quite possibly the finest fried seafood specimens on earth - must seek regional treats.
Pics from The North Shore of Massachusetts (clicks pics to enhance)
Gina's Family Restaurant (Fall River)
The diners of Fall River are not to be missed if you consider breakfast a vital meal (all meals are vital for me when I'm exploring a spot where I have limited time). Gina’s Restaurant and their signature chourico hash stood out to me as I browsed the towns best breakfast options. It comes paired with some beautiful fried breakfast potatoes and eggs. Chourico is Portuguese pork sausage and it’s popular around here due to the areas large Portuguese community. Most brands that are made in the US are produced around here so it’s commonly found on restaurant menus in the region.
Chourico Hash at Gina's Restaurant
Leddy's Bakery (Fall River)
The bakeries of Fall River are worth exploring. There's a ton of them and I was thinking maybe that's bc of the fact it's still a pretty blue collar town and many of it's residents work in the factories. Bakeries provide quick, cheap snacks and are usually open early enough to where you can stop by before work. I hit up the Portuguese leaning Leddy's thinking I was going to eat some diner style food there but the restaurant portion of the operation was not in service. This place was a flash back into another era and is worth checking out should the small breakfast area be in business. The bakery side had a line out the door so I jumped in it and observed what others were ordering. Aside from some good looking donuts many were getting these small little buns stuffed with ground chorizo so I just got one of those with a piece of Portuguese fried bread knowing there were plenty more spots to check out.
Baked goods at Leddy's Bakery
Sam's Bakery (Fall River)
Sam's Bakery is the type of spot you have to know about and on my weekend visit it seemed like every one in town did. Sam's calls itself a Lebanese-Syrian bakery and they've been a part of the area for 60 years. Opened by Lebanese immigrants who worked in a paper factory this was my favorite stop of the 'Fall River Bakery Bounce'. The most popular item at Sam's are their meat pies which are stuffed with a juicy ground beef mixture that really was a candidate for the best non-seafood item I ate on my entire trip though the Northeast. Locals order them by the dozen and at $1 and change I cant think of many things I've ate that had a better enjoyment to price factor going for it.
Meat Pie from Sam's Bakery
Hartley's Pork Pies (Fall River)
I can say the same thing about the English style pork pies from here that I just said about the meat pies upthread. Hartley's has been around the town for 121 years and just like all the other old school spots it's story starts with immigrants coming to Fall River in search of work. Hartley's sells an English style pork pie made with browned ground pork, salt, pepper, and some gravy inside a flaky hand rolled crust. They still use a machine that's been passed on to each owner with the current family holding it since the 70's. They make other savory pie options but their pork is the one you need to try on your first visit. I think it was somewhere between $2-$3 and easily worth double (no shortcuts).
Pork Pie at Hartley's Pork Pies
Marzilli's Bakery (Fall River)
There's two old time Italian delis in Fall River. I'm guessing most residents have a preference. I chose to stop at the 100+ year old Marzilli's bc it was on the list (so was Marcucci's) and I happened to be driving by one morning. So I stopped and doc'd a small Italian grinder - their most popular offering by far. I got it with the east coast style hot peppers lots of spots out here use. Surprisingly that's all it came with on top of the sliced Italian cold cuts and some cheese. The baked in-house bread was of the soft variety, not my favorite style but at $4 this was a much better sandwich than it had to be.
Italian Grinder at Marzilli's
Mee Sum Restaurant (Fall River)
I couldn't wait to try a Chow Mein Sandwich. What’s that you ask? Or maybe you already knew about this hyper local dish found almost exclusively here in Fall River. It’s a regional American Chinese specialty that consists of a brown gravy-based crispy chow mein mixture that often includes celery and onions while other stuff like beef and shrimp are options for add ons. The mixture is poured over the bottom half of a hamburger bun with the upper half placed on top. A favorite of Emeril Lagasse and countless other Fall River natives. The sandwich was said to come about in the 1930’s or 40’s. Exactly who created it is unknown but Fall River is the place. The locally owned Oriental Noodle Company has been making the crispy chow mein strips used to make the sandwiches since 1938 (see my Instagram stories
). From what I can tell the chow mein sandwich is becoming a harder to find around here and that’s probably directly correlated with the closing of many old school American Chinese restaurants, not just here but across the country. Mee Sum however has been around these parts for more than 70 years and is commonly mentioned as a great spot to try this local specialty. The story behind this old school American Chinese eatery is a familiar one with immigrants from Hong Kong opening a Chinese restaurant in this once booming community that was home to handfuls of mills. I’ve always been fascinated with regional American Chinese specialties like the Chow Mein Sandwich of Fall River as they tell a story of immigration and adaptation. They’re also delicious dishes that are almost exclusive in terms of availability (ex. peanut butter egg roll of Chicago, War Su Gai of Detroit / Cbus, St. Paul Sandwich of STL etc). So of course I loved my visit to this Fall River classic.
Chow Mein Sandwich at Mee Sum Restaurant
Graham's Hot Dogs (Fall River)
Ok last stop from Fall River. A hot dog stand I’ve long wanted to visit. There’s a handful of stands in town and Graham’s is one of the more interesting, not just here but anywhere. Open since the mid 60’s they serve Fall River style coney hot dogs which is the main style of hot dog all the spots around here prepare. Cheap wieners (millworker type food) topped with coney sauce, mustard and onion are by no means unique but then there’s the bean dog which is a wiener topped with New England baked beans, pretty fantastic as far as hot dog toppings go. It’s essentially Franks and Beans in a bun.
Hot Dogs at Graham's Hot Dogs
But the main reason for my visit to this Fall River treasure was a hot cheese sandwich which despite the pretty generic sounding description is a thing all it’s own around here. What looks like instant mashed potatoes is actually a blend of melted sharp cheese and more (secret recipe). It’s scooped out of a holder like sloppy joe meat would be and typically goes on a hamburger bun. It can be eaten as is or with some coney sauce or some like it with just mustard and onions. At one time you could find street vendors around town selling hot cheese sandwiches. I missed out on a wimpy burger bc I was there near closing and they were out. It’s a marinated hamburger patty that sits in a gravy of juice and onions. I was sad to miss this other Fall River original but I’ll always remember my visit.
Hot Cheese Sandwich at Graham's Hot Dogs
Gary's Best Hot Dogs (New Bedford)
There was another local style of hot dog found around Fall River that I wanted to try but the spot was on vacation. But I was still able to get a hot dog with linguica sauce from a popular spot in New Bedford called Gary's Best. It's a no frills stand that has a walk-up window as well as some Portuguese sandwiches like the cacoila which is shredded pork on a bun. I noticed these sandwiches were popular around the area and enough so that Gary's was sold out. But I did get to try a hot dog with linguica sauce and one with the standard toppings of mustard, onion, relish, and celery salt. The cheap wieners (skinless) they use are nothing special but the linguica sauce was special indeed.
Linguica Dog (+ a traditional) at Gary's Best
Raw Bar at Island Creek Oyster Farm (Duxbury)
On our drive from Rhode Island into Massachusetts we decided to stop for bivalves on the water at Island Creek Oyster Farm. Although they only had one oyster on the menu for our visit it was the island creek oyster which is farmed right here on the water. The raw bar is right on the shore and there's comfortable chairs plus wine and beer for people to enjoy some fresh as they get oysters.
Oysters at Island Creek Oyster Company
Lynwood Cafe (Randolph)
Here in the South Shore (South of Boston) you’ll find a large concentration of taverns serving up what locals call bar pizza or bar pie. Pizza served in a bar isn’t exclusive to this enclave but it’s an area where it’s beloved to the point where there’s lots of bars in the region that serve a variety of pizza that’s cooked in the same way from spot to spot. In general bar pizza can be used to describe a variety of styles across the nation but in the South Shore bar pizza is a personal sized pan pizza that’s cooked to a crisp as far as toppings and floppiness goes. It’s popular to order well done and at places like the Lynwood Cafe (est. 1949) they make a bar pie with salami, onion, and baked beans. This was quite delicious even though it had a flavor profile all it's own. As a lifelong fan of Chicago style tavern thin I dig the fact that this pizza, plus beer, is a way of life down here. Lynwood Cafe was long on my list of American pizzerias I wanted to visit and I think that’s bc it always seemed like a spot you’d find somewhere in the South Suburbs of Chicago or up in Wisconsin. That said the local accents on our friendly waitress and the rest of the bar regulars made it very obvious where we were.
Bar and Pizzas at Lynwood Cafe (click pics to enhance)
Beachmont Roast Beef (Revere)
The North Shore of Massachusetts is an interesting mix of rich and grit. At $30 a roll, lobster is for the rich as far as eating out on a regular basis goes. Locals in towns like Revere love them some classic fresh sliced roast beef sandwiches. According to local foodlore the modern iteration of the roast beef sandwich was born in Revere when the folks at Kelly’s cooked a roast beef for a wedding that never happened. The roast was thinly sliced the next day and served to customers between a roll which was an instant hit. These days you can find handfuls of roast beef sandwich shops up and down the North Shore. The only real connection to the area that these sandwiches have is that the typical onion bun tends to come from a local purveyor. Typically a North Shore roast beef sandwich is enjoyed “three way” which means mayo, bbq sauce, and cheese though other topping options are always available. It’s pretty cool that this little pocket of the country never embraced the factory made roast beef that places like Arby’s polluted America with. I couldn’t tell you where to get a classic roast beef sandwich like this where I’m from but around here they’re everywhere. Beachmont makes a pretty great one.
Roast Beef Sandwich from Beachmont Roast Beef
Newbridge Cafe (Chelsea)
Speaking of beef. I had to have at least one plate of Steak Tips while out in the Boston area. I ended up doing so at a legendary spot called Newbridge Cafe. These steak tips are found on many menus around Massachusetts particularly in and outside of Boston. You’ll find them not just at steak houses but in bars, and even in pizza parlors and the meat section of local grocery stores too. It’s a regional thing that for whatever reason really took off around here and they’re exactly as they sound - tips of beef steak (typically flap) is cut lengthwise for skewering and grilling. They’re heavily marinated which is how different spots can stand out from each other. Some say the popularity in these comes from the fact you can get a taste of backyard grilling during a cold winter plus it’s cheaper than a full fledged steak. The Newbridge is commonly mentioned as having some of the Boston areas best steak tips and my visit was a hit. This was some nicely charred meat that had an Open Pit like sauce clinging to it while the side salad hit the spot as a pre-cursor to the beef. Nice chunks of fried potatoes served on the side too. I felt like I was the only non regular in attendance which is always a good sign.
Steak Tips with Side Salad and Fried Potatoes
Three Cod Tavern (Marblehead)
Three Cod Tavern wasn't really on my radar but it was a five minute walk from our rental and it looked like a quintessential New England tavern. The reviews were positive so I tried some clam chowder one day and it was pretty damn good. Thinner than most might like but it was loaded with clams.
Clam Chowder at Three Cod Tavern
Maddie's Sail Loft (Marblehead)
This spot looked like another classic New England type tavern. The reviews were good too so we walked over one night. It was pretty busy both in the bar and also up top in the dining room which is more of a restaurant setting. Lots of reviews mention that Maddie's has great seafood including a pan seared haddock with a lobster meat sauce. I tried it but there wasn't much lobster. Not bad otherwise.
Pan Seared Haddock at Maddie's Sail Loft
Little Harbor Lobster Company (Marblehead)
The North Shore is pretty much the start of what’s the heart of America’s lobster roll trail with lots of lobster boats to be found anchoring from here up north into Maine. There was a unanimous winner from the five North Shore Massachusetts lobster rolls we tried and Little Harbor was the one. Look it’s easy to get fresh lobster in these parts so it can often come down to the split top buns which vary in both quality and prep from spot to spot. The good spots toast a non commercially produced roll in a puddle of butter and crisp it until golden. Only then can a heaping load of large fully intact lobster chunks make a great lobster roll and Little Harbor completed both tasks. Served with your choice of hot butter (always yes) or light mayo. A nice opening act to the areas crazy good fried clam bellies.
Lobster Roll from Little Harbor Lobster Company
Salem Lowe (Salem)
You have no idea how geeked I was to eat a chop suey sandwich by the sea. The American-Chinese regional treat is served up by one of the country’s most historic Chinese restaurants - Salem Lowe (est. 1912). Located in the also historic Salem Willows Park. These hyper local sandwiches have symbolized the start of summer for generations of people who grew up on the North Shore of Massachusetts. According to stories vendors once sold this beloved cheap treat throughout the town of Salem. They’ve been sold at the Salem Willows seaside park since the early 1900s. Salem Lowe is a seasonal operation located in the park. It likely came of age due to Chinese immigrants arriving via the Old China Trade pact which Salem once provided a seaport for. The chop suey sandwich is nothing more than American-Chinese style chop suey consisting of chicken, onions, celery and bean sprouts cooked in a thick gravy and served on a hamburger bun. Don’t confuse this one with the other Massachusetts born American-Chinese treat the chow mein sandwich of Fall River (seen upthread). That said chow mein noodles are an option on the chop suey sandwich and they add some much needed crunch. What a treat it was to cross both of these snacks off the old bucketlist.
Chop Suey Sandwich from Salem Lowe
The Little Depot Diner (Peabody)
New England is home to handfuls of real deal lunch car type diners. I had to make sure to visit at least one and I did so in Peabody at The Little Depot Diner. It had the looks from what I saw online and you can get baked beans (another regional New England thing) so that was good by me. This is an original 15 stool Worcester Lunch Car built in 1929. It was first located in the surrounding towns Danvers and then Lynn before making its way over to Peabody. Almost everything inside is still the original. I visited early one morning and there were a couple Vietnam Vets sitting and chatting with the workers. Clearly they were regulars. I got some corned beef hash with the baked beans as my side. I'm pretty sure the hash was from a can. I'd thought I read it was homemade but this had that distinct can hash taste. I dont despise canned CBH but I really don't eat it save for a small period of my childhood. Still with the toast and eggs it was mostly ate and then the baked beans were awesome.
Corned Beef Hash and Eggs with Baked Beans at The Little Depot Diner
Nick's Famous Roast Beef (Beverley)
Nick's (est. 1975) is a spot commonly mentioned when the best roast beef sandwich in the North Shore is the topic. It came personally rec'd to me from at least two people in the area that know what's up. I got this one with lettuce, tomato and horseradish sauce bc I wanted that whole flavor profile as far as a roast beef sandwich goes. Excellent. Too bad these are hard to find elsewhere.
Roast Beef Sandwich from Nick's Roast Beef
Virgilio's Italian Bakery (Gloucester)
The food choices aren’t all seafood in America’s oldest seaport. The fishermen in Gloucester Massachusetts like hearty sandwiches too. Pictured below is the Mudiga Steak Bomb at the 87 year old Virgilio’s Bakery. Breaded steak cutlets with melted Provolone, salami, sautéed peppers, and onions go on their signature house baked St. Joseph’s roll. This is a play on another reginal sandwich called a steak bomb. The bread was good but breaded steak is always a little dry. This needed giardiniera or something with some oil. I had plans to return for an Italian cold cut but it didn't happen.
Steak Mudiga at Virgilio's Italian Bakery
Seaport Grille (Gloucester)
I came across an article on the North Shore's best lobster rolls and one of the spots mentioned was the Thursday special at the Seaport Grille in Gloucester. All day every Thursday they sell lobster rolls with a side of fries for $18. That's a pretty good deal with the average price being anywhere from $24-$30+ elsewhere. It's a big spot that I probably wouldn't have had much interest in if not for the special but we were in the area on a Thursday so why not. The restaurant sits on a harbor so it's got the views and booze which makes it a popular spot for a night out. It was packed on our Thursday visit around 6p. I managed to snag a solo seat at the packed bar (she waited in the car) and asked if I could have a beer and take the lobster roll special to go which was allowed so if you plan to order ahead you can likely skip a long wait. This was the 3rd place roll of the trip but just like the Olympics bronze isn't bad. It was a very satisfying lobster roll with slightly below average bread but plenty of fresh lobster with a light coating of mayo and celery for crunch. I'd go back on a Thursday for sure.
Lobster Roll at Seaport Grille
Roy Moore Lobster Co. (Rockport)
Roy Moore had everything going for it as far as looks and feel of a spot that would dish out a great lobster roll. From it's little shack on the water to the fact it's a lobster fishing business first and foremost. I watched as owners of other restaurants stopped to pick up fresh lobster for their menus. But at $29 a roll these thing aren't cheap and you dont want to be left feeling burned after having one. That's kind of how I felt after eating my lobster roll from Roy Moore. There was nothing about it that stood out. Below average barely toasted bun and meat that was a little too finely shredded for my liking. It also wasn't as fresh as the other spots tried. Not sure why but we also had an order of clam chowder that was by far the worst of the trip. There were no clams to be detected whatsoever.
Lobster Roll from Roy Moore Lobster Co.
Woodman's of Essex (Essex)
Out of all the historic clam shacks in the area Woodman's is the oldest of them all with a history that traces back to 1914. For whatever reason it’s probably the tourists choice too, and the size of the place reflects this fact. It can get packed. I got a soft spot for Woodman’s as this was where I first tried fried clams 20+ years ago on a visit in a previous life. This place might well have been the source for my love of both the area here and also for regional food and Roadfood in general. I thought about Woodman's clam bellies often during my twenty some years between visits but they didn’t live up to the standard I had set. There's no such thing as a bad fried clam belly but these were good not great.
Fried Clam Bellies at Woodman's of Essex
Essex Seafood (Essex)
If you happen to go to Woodman's and it's jam packed you may be able to come here and not wait nearly as long. Plus from our experience they were better. We ate them directly after we were the first customers of the day at Woodman's and I'm pretty sure we were also the first here. The service here is friendlier but I really don't care about that stuff so long as the food is good and the clams were that while the chowder was a candidate for best clam chowder of the trip. Great tartar sauce too.
Fried Clam Bellies (and clam chowder) at Essex Seafood
Clam Box (Ipswisch)
The building at this iconic spot was made to mimic a clam box when it first opened in 1935 (the dining room was added later). They change the frying oil twice a day so if you show up around 2:30p like we did you’ll be waiting for a little bit while the oil is switched. We thought it was well worth the wait as these seemed like the clear winner at first. They were the first order from the new oil and there was zero trace of any grease which was a concern I had when they said they were switching the oil.
Fried Clam Bellies from the Clam Box
JT Farnham's (Essex)
JT Farnham's came rec'd from a local I know via twitter who would know where to go for the areas best fried clams. I'd been here once before maybe five years ago as this was the spot I stopped with my wife on the way back to Logan Airport from Maine. We originally tried to go to Woodman's and or the Clam Box earlier that day but the lines at both were obscene (it was end of summer - Labor Day weekend). The clams from Farnham's were the clear winner which means they were pristine. Not just that but they have the best seating as far as outdoor dining views with picnic tables sitting right on a scenic marsh. This place has a history as clam shack going back to 1941. This is a must stop spot.
Fried Clam Bellies from JT Farnham's
Bob Lobster (Newbury)
We spent one morning and early afternoon hanging out on Plum Island which is a barrier beach located off the coast of Newbury. It was a very pleasant beach where you can have lots of waterfront space to yourself. There's a quiet little town with a few businesses including Bob Lobster. This spot came rec'd from someone over on twitter that knows what's up and was also a common result when searching for the best seafood in the North Shore. They make a great lobster roll that was both of ours second favorite overall but good enough to be the best. I'd go back in a flash. Good onion rings too if you like the kind that are thinly shaved and lightly breaded. These are a pretty common find at the seafood shacks in this region. All of them serve terrible frozen fries but many make their own onion rings as they're already breading up seafood all day so what's a few extra dozen onions too.
Lobster Roll and Onion Rings from Bob Lobster
Tripoli Pizza (Salisbury)
We end with yet another regional treat in the form of New England Beach Pizza. A summertime tradition near the MA / NH border and in Salisbury Massachusetts in particular where dueling pizza stands sit on the towns rundown beach boardwalk. There's Tripoli Bakery and a little bit west of it sits Christy's. I chose to visit Tripoli bc they’re credited as the original which they came up with at their first location in Lawrence Massachusetts around the mid 1940’s. They decided to add a sheet pizza to their offerings which was cannoli based at the time. The pizza was a winner amongst customers and the bakery expanded including beach locations on each side of the Mass and New Hampshire borders. It became popular enough to develop a direct competitor ala Phillys nationally known cheesesteak stands and the famous dueling Coney stands in Detroit or the Maxwell sausage stands in Chicago. Over time this wafer thin crisp crusted pizza with an extra sweet sauce became a summertime tradition for beach going Northern New Englanders. It’s served as is with a light sprinkle of cheese atop that signature sweet sauce but for a little extra you get a slice of provolone cheese melted on top. It’s one of those things you had to grow up eating to love but I liked it for that fact.
Beach Pizza in Massachusetts
That's it for this trip! To continue north into Portsmouth, New Hampshire (click HERE
). To go further north into Maine click HERE
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