Oh Portsmouth, your name just screams “the sea” and so does your delish clam chowder or should I say “chowdah“. After all, we are a stones throw from Boston. You know, that wicked awesome town that has kinda owned the world of sports for most of the 21st century. Well I’m not here to rehash old news, just to dish out the latest on Cheap Eats and Portsmouth has got that plus a food scene that is pulling in well heeled East Coasters into this charming little seaside town. So grab some chips, order a pizza and let’s dig into some Cheap Eats in Portsmouth New Hampshire!
the spot: The Friendly Toast 113 Congress st Portsmouth NH 03801
the eats:Coco Cake
the bucks: $9
the full nelson: a chocolate coconut cake the size of a small pizza
Chef Andy Bohren is my kinda dude. He is a chef who cares about what goes on the plate but he also LOVES the front of the house. For him, the pleasure comes from repeat customers as much as it comes from plates of good food being pushed out of the kitchen. Or in the case of the Coco Cake, a big plate of good food. Oversized pancakes are nothing new, but rather than a stack of plain old blueberry, The Friendly Toast ups the ante with a 12 inch pancake stuffed with coconut and chocolate chips. But what really sets this pancake apart from a standard lumberjack special is the coconut sauce, which is a mix of coconut cream and sour cream. I know lumberjacks are all about their maple syrup but me thinks Paul Bunyan would make the move for the Coco Cake. And at $9 a pop he would probably get two. Because when you keep a blue ox for a pet, decadent table scraps are always a good idea.
the spot: Lexie’s Joint 212 Islington st Portsmouth NH 03801
the eats:Stairway to Heaven
the bucks: $6.75
the full nelson: Peace, Love and Burgers
You know I love burgers. I mean that’s both the name and theme of this blog you are reading. And it’s a good time to be a burger lover. The sheer volume of burgers out there to try boggles even my mind. Just when I think I’ve seen it all, Lexie’s strolls in and decides to pull off a red wine braised short rib topped burger for under $7. Beyond the bucks and the double hit of beef, the thinking behind this burger is the real star of the show and that credit goes to chef KC Cargill. Look, you don’t need Albert Einstein to tell you that KC is a chef with a fine dining background; the red wine braised short ribs delivers that message loud and clear. But what really ties the Stairway to Heaven burger together is the size, which is also a reflection of smart pricing. Chef Cargill takes 4.5 ounces of custom blend ground beef, knowing that it will cook down to 4 ounces. That allows for a modestly sized, well priced burger to be lined up for a healthy dose of over the top toppings. His skills and knowledge as a chef allows for fancy stuff like braised beef to come into play but the thought behind doing a killer quality burger for under $7 lies in the fact that KC is a family man and he knows the grind of taking a family of 4 or more out to eat. You’re options become fast food or the fast track to going broke. And then there is a place like Lexie’s, a happy medium of our current burger revolution tuned to folks living the Cheap Eats lifestyle. My kinda joint, Lexie’s Joint is.
Not being from New England, it shouldn’t surprise you that life has served me up more than a few lackluster clam chowders. Creamy soups loaded with potatoes and not so many clams, to be exact. Well this is certainly not the case at Geno’s Chowder and Sandwich shop where the recipe has gone unchanged in the 50 some years they have been in business. The key to this chowder is the clams of course, which beyond being in abundance are also extraordinarily fresh; Geno’s is literally on the water and gets seafood delivered straight from fisherman. There are potatoes in the chowder, but just enough, and they are a variety from nearby Maine, which being a New England chowder, makes a whole lot of sense. Speaking of sense, then there is Chef and owner Francesca Fernald, who is very much no nonsense, despite my best efforts to add levity while we made this extraordinary clam chowder. But at under $5 for a cup of chowda teaming with clams, I suppose jokes aren’t necessary. Just some crackers and maybe a napkin.
the spot: Geno’s Chowder and Sandwich Shop 177 Mechanic st Portsmouth NH 03301
the eats:New England Clam Chowder
the bucks: $4.65
the full nelson: as legit as Clam “Chowda” gets
the spot: WHYM Craft Beer and Cafe 3548 Lafayette road Portsmouth NH 03801
the eats:New England Fish Tacos
the bucks: $11
the full nelson: fish n chips meets taco Tuesday every day of the week
If there are two trends in the food world that so deserve each other right now it is craft beer and tacos. So I guess my dinner at WHYM was certainly timely. Now I didn’t score a beer for dinner but my fish tacos did by way of an Allagash White beer batter. For you non beer geeks out there Allagash White is an impeccable Belgian White style craft beer out of Maine and the hints of coriander in the beer act like a fermented seasoning for the fish tacos. Now it is not unusual for fish tacos to be prepared with a heavy batter, a la English Fish and Chips, but WHYM straight takes it to true Fish and Chip’s status with a generous serving of truffle fries. I’ll say this: for $11 you are getting yourself a hefty dinner. But what will really draw you into WHYM is the fun vibe that comes with places dedicated to obsessing over certain kinds of hooch. Just ask Alex Aviles, the man who made these tacos on Cheap Eats, how much he loves beer and you will understand that the world craft beer is a lifestyle choice; one that happens to pair very well with Cheap Eats.
the spot: Row 34 5 Portwalk Place Portsmouth NH 03801
the eats:Raw Bar, Smoked and Cured Board, hangar steak, bluefish
the bucks: market price for raw bar, $23 for platter, $28 for steak $25 for bluefish
the full nelson: Big City cooking in Portsmouth
First off, Row 34 ain’t cheap but man did I just keep coming here again and again for dinners during my stay in Portsmouth. This place is a splurge but in the realm of splurges, you are getting a fair shake when it comes to top quality seafood prepared with consummate skill. If you do feel like opening up your wallet for a slick raw bar that feels at home in Boston or NYC, Row 34 is your place. The clams and oysters I got here were worth going broke for and after finding out that the owners are deeply connected to the shellfish industry, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Now there are going to be places around town that will charge less, but the digs won’t be nearly as posh, so remember you are also paying for atmosphere. Beyond the raw bar I would DEFINITELY suggest the smoked and cured menu and the platter is a steal. The smoked shrimp, bluefish paté, smoked salmon and a salmon mousse were some of the most memorable seafood eats I have had in years with the exception of Russ and Daughters in NYC. Looking to entrées, I tried the bluefish and the steak. I have never had bluefish before and was worried that it would have an off putting metallic taste, gamy if you will. But apparently that taste kicks in when bluefish has been on the shelf for a few days, a problem Row 34 doesn’t suffer from. When it is fresh, Bluefish is like swordfish with a little more bite and Row 34’s preparation delivers that honest flavor with an execution one seldom finds done in the home kitchen. This is an entrée you are absolutely pleased to shell out $25 dollars for. On another visit I went for for the Hangar steak – one of my all time favorite cuts. While looking good on paper, when it came down to the plate, I wished I had stuck to the creatures of the sea. Not a bad steak but it’s just not why you come to Row 34. I guess when it comes to going to a seafood restaurant, one should stick with the fish, even if the cooking and overall caliber of a place like Row 34 would lead you to take a chance otherwise. As much as I still look back fondly on that bluefish, that smoked and cured fish platter was some serious bang for your seafood buck – worth every last penny of the $23 and can feed two.
Well, it’s time to say adieu to Portsmouth New Hampshire. A seaside town in the midst of becoming pretty darn bourgeois, maybe even fancier than that. So keep this list of Cheap Eats handy, if not for a taste of the old school then a way to keep some change in your pocket if you decide to go big at Row 34 with that smoked fish platter. This town might be a stone’s throw from Big Brother Boston, but this food scene can very much hang with the best in Beantown. And it’s a lot cheaper to stay here too.
Until next time my friends . . .