For the last leg of Cheap Eats Season 3, we head back east to old New England. Timing is everything they say and since we landed in Providence in June, we lucked out with the weather. Summers in New England are a beautiful thing which is part the Austinite in me who longs to leave triple digit weather but is also the Los Angeleno in me that can tip my cap to a 72 degree and sunny kinda life style. But you’re not here for the weather report, you’re hear for the Cheap Eats. Well good news is we ate great clams for not a lot of clams, and scored some true East Coast gems like an authentic meatball grinder and a Portuguese rendition of French Toast. But it’s not all Euro centric my Cheap Eaters, we scored a plate of tots that could feed a fraternity chapter. So strap in, hold on tight and take a bit bite out of Cheap Eats Providence!
the spot: The Duck and Bunny 312 Wickenden st Providence RI 02906
the eats: Portuguese Sweet Bread French Toast
the bucks: $9
the full nelson: so Portuguese sweet bread is a big deal around here
Just over five years ago, I was researching restaurants in the Boston area and discovered a culinary phenomenon unbeknownst even to me: Portuguese cooking in America. Providence has a whole section of the city where one can find authentic Portuguese restaurants but the influence has spread beyond specialty eateries and into breakfast joints like The Duck and Bunny, thanks to great bread making. The French Toast I scored starts with Portuguese sweet bread which is a soft sweet bread, at times flavored with a touch of lemon and vanilla, similar to Hawaiian bread. It is battered and fried like typical French Toast, but what really sets great French Toast apart from a version one can find at a diner is what goes on top. In the case of The Duck and The Bunny, that means an epic Maple Berry compote consisting of whole strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries that are broken down in a pot with orange juice and sugar and then thickened with maple syrup. And fresh whipped cream never hurts either. I’d pay $9 just to take a picture of this French Toast. But don’t think the menu stops here, self taught chef Erik Anderson can also transform Portuguese Sweet Bread into a a savory bread pudding via bacon and caramelized onions and what the man can do with crepes may have you swear off pancakes for life. Last but not least the is the atmosphere of The Duck and Bunny which is billed as a snuggery. Apparently that’s “a thing”. But my money is on what’s on the plate, and under $10 for dessert worth breakfast is always a Cheap Eats win.
the spot: The Sandwich Hut 1253N Main st Providence RI 02906
the eats: Meatball Sub
the bucks: $7.95
the full nelson: a meatball sandwich you wish you grew up with
I was born and raised in St. Louis where I literally grew up on hot subs topped with marinara and provolone, so believe me I was salivating at the opportunity to visit The Sandwich Hut. First off, the place is a Providence classic, going strong since 1963. And it is family owned. And the meatballs could be the best I have ever had, certainly the best I have ever had in sandwich form. But The Sandwich Hut is more than classic affordable Italian American cooking. Its about a family and business that to me embodies the American dream of the 20th century. Like many American success stories, it embodies adversity, discrimination and eventual triumph. Back when Sandwich Hut founder Joe Tatulli was growing up, Italian Americans were looked down upon. With dreams of becoming a mechanic, his career path was hindered because of his heritage. So he left that job and opened up The Sandwich Hut. 54 years later, The Sandwich Hut is still going, now with Joe’s daughter Denise Kammerer and grandson Peter at the helm. Now I mentioned these were among the best meatballs I have ever had, well Joe’s daughter Denise has been making them since she was 13. That is legit people. I’ll also add this: The Sandwich Hut serves up generous portions. The small is like a large and the large is fit for a tailgate. I got half a muffuletta on another visit and shared that. Believe me you will want to take this whole sandwich down in one sitting but the regret comes about an hour two later, when you say to yourself “I should have waited. I could have the second half right now”. And then you realize that you can always come back tomorrow. The Sandwich Hut is one of those culinary gems you just hope and pray will always be there and remain in the family’s hands. What you taste isn’t just authentic Italian American home cooking, it is also hard work and a hard earned legacy. And who doesn’t want second helpings of that?
the spot: GPub 1253N Main st Providence RI 02903
the eats: Quahog Stuffie
the bucks: $4
the full nelson: a whole lot of clam for not a lot of clam
Unless you hail from New England, odds are you have never a good stuffed clam, let alone a great one. Occasionally at a semi premium super market, I would come across a stuffed clam in the seafood section to make at home. The results were as exciting and memorable as the heating instructions(pre heat oven to 350, heat through and serve at once). All of this changed when I went to GPub and became indoctrinated into the world of Quahog stuffed clams aka “stuffies”. First off you need excellent clams which the Quahog varietals certainly are. “Excellent” really means fresh and these clams certainly do bring out the briny and salty flavor of the sea. Beyond the freshness of the clam, the signature of a great Quahog stuffie lies in the stuffing recipe itself. Garden variety stuffing recipes include clams, breadcrumbs, bell peppers, onions, celery, onion, garlic, spices, herbs, bacon, sausage or Portuguese chorico. Yes, like the French Toast at The Duck and Bunny, Portuguese culinary traditions apply to stuffies as well. GPub’s chef Kevin Robinson takes a slightly different approach by using fresh Mexican chorizo, which he makes in house. That would be a score for a taco folks, but this is going into a Quahog stuffie. More familiar ingredients like bell peppers and onions come into play but, Kevin being the consummate chef that he is, ups the ante with Panko aka Japanese breadcrumbs. Like all great stuffies, the clam is overflowing with stuffing that is studded with briny morsels of fresh clam. A local classic done up with a true chef’s touches and it set me back $4. Providence is fast becoming my kinda town.
the spot: Ogie’s Trailer Park 1253N Main st Providence RI 02909
the eats: Everything but the Kitchen Sink Tots
the bucks: $12
the full nelson: bring an army
One of my favorite movies scenes of all time is in The Professional when Gary Oldman turns to a cop who asks if he wants back up and replies with “BRING ME EVERYONE!!” You’ll need that plus a few more to take on and take down the “Everything but the Kitchen Sink” Tater Tots at Ogie’s Trailer park. This dish is as sharable as a whole Peking Duck or a 40 oz Bone in Rib Eye and while it may not take up all the real estate on the table, just try and pick it up: as dense as tots can get. Chef Adam Cardillo starts off with a house made chili that mixes ground beef and pork with onions, bell peppers, pickles, jalapeños, whole stewed tomatoes, three kinds of beans and spices that simmers for 6 hours. And that is just one of toppings. Adam adds 4 ounces of house smoked pulled pork as well plus his signature béchamel sauce and a hot dog because at this point, why not? Yeah, by far one of the most over the top meals I have EVER had. But what else would you expect from a restaurant that bills itself as a trailer park? Beyond the over the top tots, Ogie’s has a killer bar and great patio and is as much a place to hang on Friday night or on a Sunday Funday. Just remember that if you go for the tater tots, make sure you bring a crowd and your A game appetite.
And that was Providence my friends. A small but charming New England city, whose history and culinary traditions set you up for a wholly unique East Coast American experience. And it doesn’t hurt to come when its 72 and sunny like it often is in June. Although I do imagine coming back to this very spot in the dead of winter, to find this same gorgeous view covered in a blanket of snow. But snow means the possibilities of grey skies and then I wouldn’t be able chow all these Cheap Eats and rock the blue shades. Maybe I’ll just stick to the summer time – old habits die hard.
Until next time my friends . . .