When I imagine Old Orchard Beach, the seven-mile stretch of sandy beach about eleven miles South of Portland, my mind doesn’t immediately conjure up images of exceptional dining opportunities. In the Summer, an influx of tourists from all over Maine blankets Old Orchard in acres of pale white skin, Marlboro Light smoke, airbrushed t-shirts, and shady, throwback dance clubs. Dozens of mostly seasonal food stands and restaurants spring up in their wake around The Pier, the amusement area’s spiritual center, slinging their versions of typical boardwalk fare: pints of fried clams, soft serve ice cream, candy apples, cotton candy, fried dough, and, inexplicably, some remarkably good oversized slices of cheese pizza.
Jillian: Visiting a beach resort town on an off-season day is one of the great pleasures of my life. All the ghosts are there. When we lived in New York, we loved to take the train to Coney Island in Winter, to catch specters in seersucker suits and straw hats riding the Wonder Wheel for all eternity. We’ve just begun exploring the piers and amusements at Old Orchard when the tourists aren’t in town. But even in March, it’s not abandoned. Other wraiths roam the streets, smoking and skulking outside of bars and laundromats. It’s overcast and misting most often on those days, the salt weather a great equalizer as we all pull coats up around our ears.
It’s within this smash-and-grab food culture of Old Orchard, where a limited few months of warm weather and a near lack of repeat business mean focusing your business on volume, rather than quality, that I expected to find Hoss and Mary’s firmly nestled. Owners Brian “Hoss” Coddens and Deena “Mary” Eskew first gained national attention at their previous restaurant, the Tradewinds Cafe in Arundel. Here, the Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food” filmed host Adam Richman’s dominance over the restaurant’s “Manimal” challenge, eating an 8-patty cheeseburger, two coleslaw-topped hot dogs, an order of fries, a Moxie, and a coffee cake-infused one-pound milkshake in under 20 minutes. The national exposure and positive press exploded the small restaurant’s customer base, and soon, Coddens and Eskew relocated to a larger space in the shadow of Palace Playland in Old Orchard Beach.
Husband-and-wife team “Hoss and Mary” first met in Key West, and the couple’s new Old Orchard Beach location reflects that breezy, coconut rum-soaked culture of the Florida Keys. Bright yellow and red hand-painted signage advertise “tasty grub” and “local color,” and the theme continues right through the small restaurant, all the way to Mary herself, laughing with regulars and taking orders behind the front counter. It was the first surprise of the day; rather than staffing their restaurant with an army of minimum wage, surly teenagers, Hoss and Mary are right there behind the counter, every day, taking orders and making food for their hungry customers. This kind of attention and care made it immediately clear that we weren’t in for a typical beachside afternoon of pre-formed, artificial smoke-flavored hamburger patties and flavorless Sisco coleslaw.
Jillian: Hoss and Mary’s is a bright spot in a gray and gusty place, an ambassador of the Conch Republic in New England. It’s cheerful inside, and impossible not to feel embraced by the silliness, the signage, the excess, the milkshakes, and most of all, by the friendly, happy, hang-loose owners.
We were a little overwhelmed by the massive menu, featuring dozens of special combination hamburgers, hot dogs, seafood, and sandwiches. Hoss and Mary’s signature offerings read like the doodled munchie-dreams from the back of a stoned college student’s notebook: “The Foghorn Leghorn,” a cheeseburger topped with chicken fingers, or the “Bride of Frankenstein,” a cheesesteak topped with clam cakes, both immediately caught my eye. After talking with Hoss himself, though, who took a quick break from his station behind the grill to recommend I try a cheeseburger, I settled on the “Land ‘n’ Sea” burger, a $4.95 “crossover burger” topped with a deep-fried clam cake, spicy tartar sauce, lettuce, and tomato, with a side of onion rings.
After stepping outside to eat at the outdoor counter, in the pre-season, cool March air, I unwrapped my burger to find a storebought hamburger bun, stacked to overflowing. The hamburger patty itself was cooked well-done and was well-seasoned, if a little on the small side, at just two or three ounces. I don’t get the sense they are intended to be eaten a single patty at a time; at Hoss and Mary’s, hamburger patties are treated more as condiments, used in burgers that stack eight griddled hamburger patties at a time into a single sandwich, and breakfast sandwiches that combine an entire bacon, egg, and cheese atop a junior cheeseburger. Rather than stand alone, the hamburgers combine with other ingredients into inspired combinations. In this case, the hamburger combined perfectly with the deep-fried, golden clam cake, and the spicy tartar sauce was enough to bring everything together and make the burger make sense. Actually, it didn’t just make sense; it was so jaw-droppingly delicious, that halfway through, I put my burger down on the wooden counter to pause and catch my breath, before ducking back inside to order another of the restaurant’s divine creations.
Jillian ordered the day’s special, a “Cuban Haddock Sandwich” ($8.95), a monstrous foot-long toasted submarine sandwich roll topped with three enormous pieces of crispy fried haddock, coleslaw, onion, and Sriracha-infused mayonnaise. We were amazed by not just the quality of the fish, the creamy crunch of the coleslaw (why hasn’t someone thought to add coleslaw to a haddock sandwich before?), or the spicy kick from the mayo, but even the roll the sandwich was served on was excellent: soft, but with a kind of crackly, shellacked outside that provided just enough structure for containing the delicious ingredients within.
Jillian: We took our food and a bundled baby outside to eat on the deck across from one of those double decker motels from the 1950’s that never stops wrestling with erosion, depression, and disrepair. And sweet lord, I loved that sandwich. A footlong loaf of good, crusty bread jammed with super fresh haddock, coleslaw that cools while contributing crunch, and rooster sauce for a tangy, orange kick. I had to do a little dance after every bite, insisting each would be my last, but it never was. Not until the last lovely bit was down my gullet. I felt full, but not defeated.
After finishing the “Land ‘n’ Sea” burger, I circled back for another of the day’s specials, the “Flaming Moo Burger,” for $5.95. The cheeseburger, which combines two griddled cheeseburger patties dipped in Buffalo wing sauce, topped with bacon, nacho cheese, lettuce, and mayonnaise on a toasted bun, was named via customer suggestion on Hoss and Mary’s Facebook page. It’s another detail I really enjoy about the business; Hoss spends the few remaining hours left in the day after the close of business on the internet, brainstorming new ideas (even From Away’s own “Lasagna Soup” recipe once made it to the restaurant’s daily specials board) and soliciting suggestions for his latest over-the-top culinary inventions. It’s this “audience participation” aspect of Hoss and Mary’s that makes eating there so much fun.
And FUN? The “Flaming Moo” burger is extreme, even obscene. A giant, towering 1/4 pound of beef, piled, dipped, and drenched in every good-tasting thing that you might order after your sixth pint at your favorite pub, combined into a colossally messy, completely satisfying burger that deserves a place in the restaurant’s regular rotation.
We rounded out our meal with a few thick slices of Hoss and Mary’s famous “Muther Futcher’s” coffee cake, Mary’s grandmother’s special recipe coffee cake that can be eaten plain, blended into a milkshake, or, naturally, deep fried. It made me have to completely reconsider coffee cake; this wasn’t the gritty, dry, stick-to-your-teeth version that I had previously only found in a box of Entenmann’s. Instead, the “Mother Futcher” coffee cake is light, springy and slightly elastic, with just the right amount of sweetness and a dark brown, caramelized, crunchy top. It perfectly rounded out an afternoon of gluttony that was nearly enough to make it unsafe for me to drive myself home. Has anyone ever had to call a cab as a result of overindulging in cheeseburgers?
Jillian: I would eat at Hoss and Mary’s again tomorrow. And the day after that, ad infinitum. I hope we get back to Hoss and Mary’s when the sun is shining and the roller coaster is careening around its track. Because as much as I appreciate the stark, sad beauty of an empty arcade, Old Orchard Beach is so vibrant and energized in summer, when the crowds come rolling in.
Writing about restaurants like Hoss and Mary’s is easy. In fact, learning about places like these are one of the major joys of writing for this website, and were a big inspiration for our own journeys into the world of food in Maine. At the core of the business are Hoss and Mary, themselves, two fundamentally good people who “are just trying to have some fun with food,” as Mary explains. “[The Flaming Moo] may be a little bit not-so-good for you, but what are you going to do, starve?” It’s the attitude that permeates everything Hoss and Mary do, a shrug and a carefree, effortless ease that masks the difficulties inherent in operating a year-round business in a place whose population plummets in the unforgiving Winter. If the menu were just wildly inventive, if the ingredients only fresh and well-prepared, if the space just inviting and cozy, particularly in the Spring and Fall, we would suggest that a place like Hoss and Mary’s is worth a special trip. Factor in the genuinely warm, friendly personalities behind the counter, and the loving care with which they craft their creations, however, and I’m afraid I simply must insist that you plan your next meal out around a trip to Old Orchard Beach.