A few years ago, my coworker Nick invited us to his house in Lebanon for a summer party, and in addition to coworkers, a lot of his neighbors were in attendance, and there was a pretty good spread of food. One thing that everyone was commenting on was that someone had brought two giants trays of food: one was fried spring rolls, and the other was beef skewers, and both were really good. Talking to Nick, he said that was his neighbor Sarin, who was a Hypertherm worker who did some catering on the side, and he was looking to start up a food truck. Well, a few months later he pulled it off, and a “Phnom Penh Sandwich Station” food truck started showing up at different spots around the Upper Valley, usually at the Lebanon green around noon, and the Hanover green for the late evening crowd. The food was quite good, mostly involving either rice dished or banh mi sandwiches served up out of the truck, often as a lunch special with some minted tea. The service wasn’t always fast, but that was for a good reason: for the main dishes Sarin doesn’t cook anything ahead of time: order a pork sandwich, and the marinated pork goes onto the grill right as you order, and it takes a few minutes to cook. Well, people didn’t mind the wait, and business was brisk. Enough so that, last Fall, Phnom Penh Sandwich Station opened their brick-and-mortar location.
It’s never a good thing when you hear that Restaurant Impossible (or any of its counterparts on other networks) is coming to town. To even be eligible to be on a show like that, your restaurant has to be on the verge of failure, and the owners up against the ropes. Being on a show like that literally is one of the last grasps of the desperate. So which local, failing, and desperate restaurant was Restaurant Impossible here to fix? Sadly, I can’t say I was surprised to hear it was Gusanoz, our local Mexican restaurant (indeed, probably the only place locally I can call Mexican without putting quote marks around it). Gusanoz is no stranger to these pages. Indeed, since I started writing Offbeat Eats, including this review I will have written them up four times (a record!). And, indeed, I’m not sure the paint had even dried on Restaurant Impossible‘s renovations back in May before my readers, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances started asking me if I had been by and checked out the “New” Gusanoz. Well, in short, I hadn’t. I might have checked it out right away, but that time of year was busy (back to back trips to Austin and Chicago, indeed, the very day Gusanoz was getting its makeover I was eating Carnitas at Carnitas Don Pedro in Chicago). And then several other trips (in no particular order, San Antonio, Iceland, and Germany) came up, and I decided that, overall, it was best to give them some time to settle in to the new state of affairs and see if the Restaurant Impossible changes “stuck”.
One of the primary reasons I started this blog was that the greater Upper Valley area suffers from a dearth of restaurants. I’ve long been surprised that many of the area towns lack a decent number of eateries, and for a long time downtown Lebanon has lacked a real breakfast joint. Rumors would occasionally swirl around about a place opening up (there was even talk of another Farmers Diner happening here at some point), but nothing ever materialized. Until last month. Andy Hill used to be one of the bartenders/managers at Salt hill Pub on the other end of the Lebanon Mall, and I remember him telling me a few years ago that what he really wanted to do was to open his own breakfast spot in the community. Well, after several years of planning, he and his wife (city councilor and former mayor Karen Liot Hill) were finally able to bring the plan to fruition, opening the Lebanon Diner on the west end of the mall (across from The Cave, in a location that’s been, in my time here, a smoke shop and an eyeglass shop).
One of the downsides of living in Northern New England is that the climate here doesn’t really lend itself to outside dining most of the year. So, while much of the country (such as the Austin area I reviewed in April) has been enjoying a substantial food cart renaissance, with all sort of entrepreneurs deciding to open up their own restaurants (or mobile versions of their brick and mortar stores), the trend hasn’t been as wildly popular here. Recently, however, several things have changed. First, several of the area’s nascent Farmers Markets, such as Lebanon and Hanover, have grown from being new, small markets that were overshadowed by the large Saturday Norwich Farmers Market, into substantial markets in their own right. So prepared food vendors have several more outlets for their food, which has allowed several vendors to flourish, from Mama Tina’s Tamales, to Vermont Crepe and Waffle, to The Cupcake Queen, to Wicked Awesome BBQ.
Third time’s the charm? Recently, Carol and I read in the paper that West Lebanon’s Four Aces Diner had reopened. The Four Aces has had a bit of a rough history. A genuine Worcester Diner (#837), it originally was located downtown, but after a fire was relocated to its current location at 23 Bridge St (and is now enclosed by a surrounding building). Since I moved to the area, in 2001, it’s been through a couple owners. After closing up shop in 2008, it reopened as a “more upscale eatery” in 2009, but I wasn’t impressed (for my meal, “upscale” apparently mean “benedict with cold deli ham, broken sauce, and runny eggs”) and didn’t go back. After a bit more than a year that owner packed it in as well, and the Four Aces went on the market…
Every once in a while something happens that causes me to revisit a place, be it finding out that I missed (such as finding out that I had missed the best dish at the now-closed The Pines Cafe in Palmdale, CA, or finding out that a place has a new menu. This is actually my third writeup of Gusanoz (my second introduced you to their burger business, Revolutionary Burger), but a few weeks ago they made another menu change that I thought was worthy of checking out: they added breakfast.
Revolutionary Burger is a bit of an interesting experimental concept, in that they don’t have a storefront, and aren’t their own restaurant, they are basically a sub-restaurant of the local Lebanon restaurant, Gusanoz. Apparently, one of their employees recently went on a trip to Southern California, and really enjoyed a trip to iconic In-N-Out Burger, and decided to try making a similar burger here. So they invented the Rev Burger, which is their rendition of the basic In-N-Out-style California burger: 100% real beef, never frozen, char-broiled over open flame, a toasted bun, lettuce, tomato, onion and, of course, the “special sauce”. You can order it with american cheese as well, making a “Che Burger” (Anyone else chuckling at the irony of having the Che Burger made with American cheese?). You can even order them In-N-Out style, for example, ordering a “2×2” which is two patties and two slices of cheese. They also offer fresh-made fries, shakes, and beverages (basically, a similar small menu to the In-N-Out they are copying).
You know the place. Every area has one. That restaurant that most everyone knows exists, but, for some reason, never thinks of actually going there to eat. In my case, that place is the Baited Hook restaurant in Lebanon, NH, on the west shore of Mascoma Lake (yes, folks, that is Lebanon, go look on a map…). It’s a small restaurant with both indoor and outdoor seating, and an ice cream window for the nicer months. I’ve seen this place ever time I’ve driven down Rt 4A since moving here, but for some reason I never thought of stopping in.
For this week’s takeout lunch, I hit the Little Store in Lebanon, NH. This is one of those odd little convenience stores that are around the Upper Valley that we all drive by on a regular basis. Indeed, when I first mentioned the Little Store to most people, I got back a “where?” in response. But inside, it has a lot packed into a little space. In addition to the typical convenience store amenities (drinks, chips, some wrapped sandwiches under warming lights, and the ubiquitous McKenzie hot dog warmer), it also has a full meat and deli counter (mostly McKenzie products). And, most importantly, every day they have hot lunch specials, hand-written on a piece of paper taped to the front of the deli case.
Sometimes, the breakfast gods just aren’t smiling at me. Saturday, Carol and I decided that we needed another breakfast, and so we decided to hit The Fort in Lebanon. I rather like the Fort in a number of ways. It’s neat, there’s almost never a wait, and the food is definitely trucker-approved (most of the clientele is truckers when I’m there). This time, I ordered a breakfast skillet with sausage special (eggs cooked in a skillet with sausage, home fries, onions, peppers, and cheese), and Carol ordered the papas y huevos burrito.