We drove about 50 miles East this weekend, to have lunch in a barn. On a desolate-feeling peninsula empty of apparent industry or populace, where the treetops are already glowing in oranges and shades of red, and great swaths of field are studded with rock as if the ancient giants are emerging from the mantle, you will find a big barn with a bright yellow sign filled with happiness.
El El Frijoles represents everything we love about Maine. Owners Michele Levesque and Michael Rossney met in the Bay Area, arguably ground zero for Mexican food in the United States, and now run a Mexican restaurant in Sargentville, on the Blue Hill peninsula. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and the center of the universe. That’s how it is when you find where you are supposed to be, even if it is never where you planned or expected to land. We were knee-deep in interesting conversation before we knew what was happening, learning their bios and backstory, which only made the tacos more delicious.
Michele and Michael are witty, effusive, and talented. From the loteria logo to the clever name, they are keeping it light, making Mission-style Mexican on a road through pastoral Maine. And it’s their humor and self-awareness, as much as their excellent food, that we appreciate and admire. Michael acts as host and auctioneer, salesman, huckster, showman, and independent politician. A genuinely nice guy who ran a photography shop and continues to work in the medium. Michele was a private middle school art teacher, with a storied history in kitchens. They didn’t want to linger too long, to burn out or become aging hipster parents, all style and lacking in substance. They moved back East where his family lived, hers soon followed, and now they’re raising a kid of their own among the colorful chaos. There are sculptures and picnic tables at the edge of the woods, and a screened-in shed with five or six tables and Ikea high chairs. The decor is taqueria casual, without being kitschy or obvious. It all somehow looks like it should be there, an extension of their experience, home, and personalities.
Malcolm: As with many people drawn to Maine, Michele and Michael are pioneers. They didn’t arrive in the area intent on finding work; instead, they made it. It’s easy to imagine them in their gigantic, then-unrenovated, unused barn, wondering what to do next, referring to “El El Frijoles” (get it?) at first only in the abstract. A love for California-style Mexican and the urging of relatives led them to open the restaurant, which quickly became the only place in town to eat out, and the center of the social community.
We sampled a side of their famous organic black beans, which were creamy with a whisper of smoky sweetness, corn chip triangles with four fresh salsas, rajas y papas, carnitas and one of the day’s specials, crabmeat quesadilla. I also couldn’t resist trying a spoonful of El El Frijoles’ rajas y papas; strips of wilted poblano pepper and chunks of toothsome red potato in a cream sauce had just enough heat, is a very satisfying vegetarian option, and is one of my favorites.
Malcolm: In addition to the couple’s homemade salsas (which are all outstanding), the pork carnitas tacos ($8.95) were a standout. The pork, slow-simmered all day in a mix of spices and studded with a few chiles japoneses, imparted big punches of flavor, while staying succulent and moist. A light bit of crunch from the cabbage slaw, cool guacamole, and a squeeze of crema were enough to balance the tacos perfectly. The pork is served on a bed of three made-to-order corn tortillas. If I had to stretch to find a criticism, it might be that the tortillas could have used another moment or two on the griddle, but I am so falling-down overjoyed that a Mexican restaurant in Maine is finally (FINALLY!) taking the time to press tortillas to order, that such a criticism hardly makes any sense at all. There’s nothing like freshly made corn tortillas. Nothing in the whole world. It may add a second to a restaurant’s prep time, but it’s the single most important step in great Mexican cooking, and Michele knows it.
The crab quesadilla ($12.95), a menu item I am not at all inclined to ever order, was incredible. It actually got better with every bite. The meat was sweet, complemented by creamy cheese and a scoop of guacamole, not overwhelming, overspiced, or in any way wrong. Instead of, “let’s jam up a perfectly nice and melty tasty tortilla with crab, of all things, because, you know, it’s Maine and we had some laying around,” the Deer Isle fresh-caught crab is there because it’s beautiful and enhances the dish. If it’s on special when you visit, get it. And get it with an agua fresca. Mine was lime/mint, the most hydrating combination of fruit and herbs that exists, though Malcolm’s blackberry version was also outstanding.
This is not Tex-Mex, New Mex-Mex, or the Yucatecan food I am most familiar with. Michele makes her own corn tortillas, thick and earthy, and fills them with wonderful, aromatic things, like stewed meats and grilled veggies. It’s all very accessible and simple, as well as compound buzzwords like hand-made, slow-cooked and locally sourced. Though I’ve never had a Mission-style burrito anywhere near the Mission, it’s just what I would expect, and feels exactly right.
Malcolm: I think that’s the area in which El El Frijoles most excels. For whatever reason, taquerias with a focus on simplicity and someone’s notion of “authenticity” continue to be trendy and multiply, with new outposts of Mexican street food opening around the state. The mistake many seem to make, however, is that classic taqueria fare is only deceptively simple. Someone’s vacation photo of seared meat piled on a tortilla with a few onions, a few snips of cilantro, and a squeeze of lime may seem like the simplest thing in the world, but a few tastes of most local pseudo-taqueria’s wet, sloppy, run-together flavors proves that it’s harder to get right than many people think. Mexican taqueria cooking relies on careful balance, on coaxing massive amounts of flavor out of just a few humble ingredients. It’s easy to make everything taste like cumin (for days), or to completely obliterate a customer’s mouth with chiles. It’s a difficult style to cook elegantly and with restraint. El El Frijoles manages it incredibly admirably.
The couple works with local fishers and farmers. The organic black beans, for example, are grown just for them on a nearby farm that never imagined they’d be turning part of their crop over to growing black beans in the middle of the woods in Maine. But it just is, not in your face. While they are soon moving to their limited Winter hours, if you love what they do you can get on their supper club mailing list and enjoy whimsical, slightly dressed-up theme dinners, during the long cold months.
“The Supper Club reservations fill up fast,” Michael explains, “I send the email out announcing the Supper, and the phone starts ringing immediately.”
Michele and Michael are making out-of-context fare that somehow feels totally authentic in its setting. Authentic as in true to themselves and sincere. The thing itself, and not the idea of the thing. Maine, I think, needs more of this brand of imperialism. People who grew up nearby, who feel compelled to come back and cook. People from away who can’t seem to leave. Good folks, making good food and art, and being pleasant and funny and a little bit weird. El El Frijoles is well worth the strange ride it takes to get there.
El El Frijoles: 41 Caterpillar Hill Road, Sargentville, ME 04673; (207) 359-2486; www.elelfrijoles.com