Manchester, NH is a funky little town. New Hampshire’s Queen City, it has a lot of character in some of its neighborhoods. Downtown is located in what used to be the mill district (indeed, most of the Millyard is still there, being converted into various offices, industrial lofts, and the like), and there are even a few ethnic neighborhoods. One of these is the West Side, where two of the larger neighborhoods (Notre Dame and Rimmon Heights) are actually Quebecois in heritage. The area had some tough years, with “urban renewal” between the 1960s and 1980s actually razing two decent neighborhoods and turning them into dismal strip malls, but the area has generally rebounded, diversified a bit, and, well, even gentrified a bit. But in addition to the notable large French Catholic Churches, the neighborhood still has a lot of Quebecois heritage, especially in the food scene. There’s probably no better place for this than Chez Vachon.
Nestled into a quiet residential neighborhood, Chez Vachon is in some ways a time capsule to another era. Walking through the door, you don’t get the sort of fancy fine-tablecloth dining associated with “French” cooking… no, this is a neighborhood Quebecois joint: a densely packed breakfast joint filled with tables of hungry diners, waitstaff running about with giant plates of food, and of course, a giant wall mural of photos for the “Poutine Challenge” (5 lbs in an hour, if you were wondering). But despite being busy from the mid-morning rush, we were quickly seated and glancing over the menu of great Quebecois items.
Of course, we had to start with… Poutine. Despite its origins just across the border in Quebec, poutine is still a relative rarity in New England dining, and when featured, it’s often not quite right, usually served up with the wrong cheese (shredded cheese instead of curds makes for “cheesy gravy fries” and not poutine). But here’s it is served up authentically, including the name. While many other places may happily serve you up “poo-teen”, here they’ll firmly correct you: the proper Quebecois pronunciation is “puts-in”, and you best remember. But soon enough, we found ourselves with a rather sizable plate of fries just oozing with curds and gravy (and the plate shown here is the smaller “appetizer” size). And it was everything I like about a good poutine: crispy fries, a good, slightly spicy gravy (here it is chicken based), and the absolute requirement for a good poutine: fresh, still-squeaky curds. It’s practically a joy to grab a fry and use it to dab up a bit of gravy and a partially-melted curve. That, and this is easily the best poutine this side of the border.
Next up was my Benedict. Chez Vachon starts with a good, solid Benedict: a nicely crispy English Muffin, two nicely poached eggs, and a good, tangy Hollandaise sauce. And for my order, a nice little twist: smoked meat. Yes, Chez Vachon is also one of the best (and regionally, only) places to get some good, proper, Montreal-style smoked meat. That close cousin to pastrami, a few slices of tender and spicy beef add just a little kick to the Benedict. I’d have this again in a second.
Carol, meanwhile, opted for crepes, and Chez Vachon’s version is a good example of the difference between “French” and “Quebecois” food. These crepes were no whispy, thin, dainty pastries cooked delicately over a crepe iron… but shockingly huge (over a foot, really!) and surprisingly thick pancakes, crisped up very nicely (with no lack of butter), enrobing some Nutella and blueberries, and served up with copious amount of maple syrup. After the poutine, this is about as “Canadian” as you can get. And absolutely delicious. I just have no idea what we were thinking ordering three of them!
And there’s even quite a few items we haven’t yet had a chance to try: they also have pork pies, smoked meat sandwiches, open-face sandwiches, and farmer’s skillet breakfasts. I definitely need to come back and explore a bit more… bringing a healthy appetite with me. Chez Vachon is truly a gem of Manchester’s West Side, and a nice little picture into a neighborhood of yore.