Fried Haddock with Sriracha Coleslaw (Homemade)

Today’s sandwich features a homemade fried haddock fillet, topped with Sriracha coleslaw, and served on a Portuguese roll.

Notes: It’s about this time of year in Maine, that I forget that Spring and Summer ever existed. The leaves are off the trees, there’s a bite in the wind, and most days find me bundled under layer after layer of sweatshirt and jacket, braced against the shorter, significantly greyer days.

On days like today, I like to try and force myself to remember what Summers in Maine look like, when every single shack up and down Route 1 is slinging a lobster roll or a haddock sandwich, traditionally with tartar sauce, a slice of American cheese, and a dab of tartar sauce. The geniuses at Hoss and Mary’s in Old Orchard Beach do the Maine staple sandwich one better, slathering their crispy deep-fried haddock fillets in a spicy coleslaw, dubbed the “Cuban Haddock” on days when you’re lucky enough to find it on special.

Living in Rockland puts us farther away from Hoss and Mary’s than we’d like, on most days. Thankfully, we can always whip up our own version of their sandwich, to remind us of brighter, longer days, the Summer sun, short pants, and cold beer.

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On the Rocks: The Old-Fashioned

The Old-Fashioned is a classic cocktail that never goes out of style. It is the perfect holiday sipping drink, for myriad reasons. A single liquor is less likely to leave you feeling unwell at your desk the next morning, bitters will aid digestion if you have overindulged in sweets and meats, the seltzer keeps you hydrated, always a smart move in stuffy, too-warm gatherings. Bulleit rye is good enough to drink straight, so we also tried mixing Canadian Club whiskey, which tickled me because it is such a throwback without irony. Or did I just add a dash of irony without meaning to? CC & 7 is a drink for dads, dads with mustaches and denim shorts and corduroy blazers and soft packs of Winstons. I liked its plain, straight-to-the-point bottle. Brazenly cheap and commercial. Sedate and bare bones with just a kiss of Kenny “The Beard” Loggins. Also, not delicious. Not straight anyway. But, with a little help from sugar and bitters, Canadian Club becomes palatable. I wouldn’t recommend drinking many. But if you’re mixing up a batch for a big party, go for it.

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Eggnog Cake

During December, we remember all the years that came before. We think about where we were, who we were, who we were with, and what we were doing. This is how we measure our lives. And traditions keep us connected through time, to ancestors and progeny as well as our evolving selves. Food is an integral part of holiday gatherings. We feast, break bread, come to the table together to experience constancy and continuity in this ever changing life. We bake and share sweet cookies, make a much too big roast, mull wine, and even leave a carrot for Santa’s favorite reindeer. There is one tasty Christmas treat more sacrosanct than all the rest. And yet it is humble. It can be hand crafted, but I will always argue that the very best of its kind comes from the refrigerated section of your local supermarket. Yes, friends, I speak of eggnog. That sweet and faux-boozy boxed dairy drink, only available at the holidays. Cause have you had homemade eggnog? It’s gross. And there are so many kinds of delicious non-alcoholic nog for sale right now. I used a carton of plain, Oakhurst eggnog to make this rich, dense cake.

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Cauliflower Gratin

We were desperately in need of real dinner. A proper, grown-up meal taken at the table and not in front of the TV. We’ve been faking it, eating leftovers my mother-in-law sent over, going out, and snacking at odd hours for weeks. I was ready to cook something. Nothing elaborate, but a satisfying, balanced meal. I sort of achieved my goal. I meant to have another vegetable on the plate, but between chasing Violet around the living room, walking the dog, decorating for Christmas, scrubbing the bathtub because somebody pooped in it (not naming names), and packing for a little trip later this week, I only managed this. Cauliflower gratin. And lamb chops. Really, really good lamb chops from Bleecker and Flamm. Which I always want to call Flourish and Blotts. We cooked the thick chops very quickly in a cast iron skillet over very high heat. Salted and peppered, rested and rare. This baked cheesy veg is a perfect side dish for the holidays, or any night of the week. You could add wine, mustard powder, or other spices, or even a squirt of Sriracha. I kept it simple. Because all we wanted was to sit down across from each other in the dining room with candles lit, with the baby fast asleep in her crib upstairs, have a glass of wine, and a lovely, quiet, delicious dinner at home. Sometimes that is all you need to restore your sanity and feel like you’re living the dream.

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“Maggi Blue” (Sweets & Meats Market)

Today’s sandwich is the “Maggi Blue” from Sweets & Meats Market in Rockland. It combines liver pate, brie cheese, whole grain mustard, and lettuce on a baguette.

Location: 218 Main Street, Rockland
Price: $7.00
Notes: It seems like there are two main types of people who get into the food business. There are the cynics, who coldly calculate that it will take 16 months to break even on adding a commercial French Fry cooker to their business, assuming they can sling at least ten orders of Sisco crinkle-cuts per day at a 600% markup, and if it doesn’t work out, well, they can always use it to deep fry the chicken tenders.

Then, there are the brilliant food weirdos, who wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night, all cropped hair and random tattoos, wondering what it would be like to bulk-prepare 50 pounds of duck confit at a time, and whether their regulars would be interested in seeing it made into a daily special.

It can be a lot of fun to eat at this second type of establishment.

It’s in this second category, then, that we find the “Sweets & Meats Market” in Rockland’s South End. It’s a deceptively large deli and specialty food store wedged into a corner space in a mostly residential part of town (a handwritten letter from a neighbor posted to the shop’s wall begs them to keep baking delicious smelling cakes at night, but please, no more bacon) that specializes in the kinds of foods the owners clearly hold dear, with little to tie the different items together thematically.

There should be sandwiches, owner Julia McClure must have decided. But there should also be freshly baked cinnamon rolls. And whoopie pies. Oh, and we’ll sell fine meats and cheeses from the deli. And a cooler full of Pellegrino and chilled wine. And a dining room for people to sit and have lunch. And what if we made a macaroni and cheese using the ends of the taleggio, Spanish manchego, and the Humboldt Fog that we have in the case? Oh! And we should have bulk spices for sale from huge Mason jars behind the cash register. Menus? No, no menus…we’ll just write everything in six inch letters on giant chalkboards.

This kind of specialty store is exactly the kind of place I cherish, the kind of place that seems to only have started popping up in the last couple of years. There’s not much in the way of structure, but an absolute passion for food and cooking permeates every aspect of the shop. You get the sense that McClure is cooking exactly what she feels like, when she feels like it, and if people happen to wander by and want to purchase some of it, well, that’s just a bonus.

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L & H Burgers

L & H Burgers: 313 Main Street, Rockland, ME 04841; (207) 593-7995; L & H Burgers on Facebook

After the five-and-dimes and the Greyhound bus station gave way to the smoky greasy spoons and the consignment clothing stores, which were in turn replaced by a seemingly endless string of art galleries and rosemary-scented cappuccino-and-focaccia joints, downtown Rockland was primed and ready for a high-end burger restaurant. It was time to improve upon the pub-grub standard found elsewhere in town, to elevate the humble burger from blue plate special to a place of respect, to cash in on the burger trend that swept the rest of the country a few years ago. We all wanted it to happen. L & H Burgers arrived just in the nick of time.

Occupying the ground floor of the Wadsworth Building on scenic Main Street, L & H Burgers is the brainchild of John Stowe, who also owns next door Italian mainstay Rustica. The dining room is modern and spare, with bright walls covered in abstract art, and widely-spaced tables scattered with primary blue plastic chairs that instantly called to mind images of a crowded Ikea on tax-free weekend. It’s a comfortable space, open and airy, with some of the echoes of the high ceilings dampened by a row of soundproofing panels at crown molding height. It’s casual, but at once clearly delivering a different experience than you’ll get dining in at a fast food restaurant.

Jillian: But this is a fast food restaurant. Not what we know now in our cynical time about factory farming, and food created by science to please the palate through chemical trickery. But simple food, reasonable prices, family-friendly, easygoing staff, a bright, happy space. And yes, our food was out within minutes, which is a relief because I was figuratively starving. I loved that the dining room is spare but still very warm with colorful canvases and framed photos of the owners’ daughters on a wooden bureau in the back. The approach to design is spot-on, in my opinion. They’ve created a place that feels fun and intimate at the same time.

The menu spends some time introducing you the restaurant’s commitment to 100% all natural Black Angus beef, which they promise is “the highest quality, humanely raised, hormone and antibiotic free.” It’s the standard pitch, but it’s nice to hear from the get-go that this is a place that is taking their burgers seriously, and it got me excited about what was to come. In addition to burgers, L & H Burgers offers an array of appetizers and salads (which can be served topped with a burger), as well as a few paninis, relegated to the back of the one-sheet menu. A basic burger comes in at $7.50, with customized combinations including goat cheese, fresh mozzarella, wasabi mayonnaise, jalapenos, or avocado adding to the cost per topping.

Rather than get creative, I trusted in the recommendations “From the Masters,” suggested topping combinations that, served with fries or coleslaw, round the price up to an even $11. I tried the “Ragun Cajun,” a beef burger topped with blackened smoked bacon, fried onion strings, cheddar cheese, shredded lettuce, and buttermilk ranch. The burger arrived cooked perfectly to my requested medium rare, the beef and toppings piled proudly on a plump round, freshly baked bun that seemed to fall somewhere in between a white hamburger bun and a chewy brioche. The burger patty was large (I am guessing about 6-8 ounces), well seasoned and charred, with plenty of pink in the center. As the juices ran down my arm and into the plastic basket, I couldn’t help but think about how pronounced the flavors of all the toppings were. Usually, so-called “gourmet” burgers just end up a kind of runny mishmash of strong flavors. In the case of the “Ragun Cajun,” I had already chalked up the description of “blackened, smoked bacon” as mere menu-speak.

L & H Burgers

But here it all was, with smoky, peppery flavor from the bacon, sharp bite from the cheddar, creaminess from the ranch, and a satisfying crunch from the fried onions. Every taste was present and distinct, and served the burger well. The side of fries were outstanding as well, hand-cut thin shoestrings with bits of skin left intact, cooked until perfectly brown and crisp, only to be doused in malt vinegar and swabbed in ketchup. It was an outstanding performance from a side dish I don’t normally care much about; enough to make a believer out of even a casual fry-eater. Rounded out with a Brooklyn Lager tallboy from the restaurant’s beer and wine list, it made for a hearty, satisfying lunch.

L & H Burgers

Jillian had similar success with her “Shroominator” burger, topped with mushrooms, Havarti cheese, red onion, bacon, baby spinach, and finished with a garlic lemon mayo. Again, I was amazed by how distinct all of the ingredients were, and how they really did combine to make a special burger. A side of onion rings (for a $2 upcharge) were flaky, golden, and crunchy.

Jillian: The “Shroomintor” is simply an excellent cheeseburger. A juices-running-down-your-chin burger, cooked exactly to medium-rare, as requested. Each topping, as Malcolm already mentioned, was distinct and contributed something important, i.e., texture, flavor, meltiness, etc., to the whole. I loved this menu suggestion, and plan to use it as a sort of starting point and guide for further visits. Because, while I found it utterly delicious, and nearly perfect, for me, bacon is not exactly redundant, but kind of unnecessary when a burger is as good as this. A thin, bland, poorly cooked burger of low quality beef might require the quick and dirty, salty pork-fat-flavor injection bacon provides, but this one doesn’t need it. I did love how the heat wilted the baby spinach, how much gooey Havarti enrobed the meat, and the prominence of the mushrooms, always a perfect foil for beef.

We were less taken with the “L & H Grilled Cheese,” an $8 panini packed with mild Cheddar, bleu cheese, plum tomato, and roasted mushrooms. While certainly tasty (and perhaps a good option for the vegetarians in your party), it’s hard to imagine returning to L & H Burgers for panini when the restaurant’s focus on burgers is done so very, very well.

Overall, we left L & H Burgers completely satisfied. The service was fast and friendly, the burgers excellent, and the prices comfortable enough to serve both the tourist crowds in the Summer as well as the locals that will keep the place alive all Winter. An $11 burger and fries may seem steep compared to the bargain varieties available at a bar or at a drive through, but the dedication to quality, creativity, and uniqueness of ingredients, as well as the generous portions that carried us from lunchtime right through to breakfast, make L & H Burgers a welcome addition to Rockland’s food scene. It’s a relief to see hamburgers given the treatment they deserve, right here in Midcoast Maine, and it’s where we’ll head the next time the burger craving strikes.

Update! L+H Burgers has permanently closed its doors.