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Thwaites Market (Methuen, MA)

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the site, I’ve got a variety of ways that I discover the places that I review here on Offbeat Eats, and one of them is basically happenstance: I’ll be traveling someplace off my usual beat and notice a place, usually an old, established one, that’s got a long line out the door. That happened to me back in February: I had to drop off some equipment for work in Haverhill, MA, and on the way home to NH, the usual route, the “Loop Connector” between I-495 and I-93, was closed due to an accident, and my GPS directed me on a detour through downtown Methuen (which I’d hadn’t explored in a few years). My detour took me down Oakland Avenue, and as I approached Railroad Street, I was stuck at the traffic light for a cycle. My eye got drawn first to a small sign “Parking here for meat pies only,” followed by seeing a modest line of people waiting outside the door. Heck, I like meat pies, so I turned into the parking lot, parked, and got in line at Thwaites Market.

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Ruby Donut (Ayer, MA)

While the pandemic has definitely hit a lot of restaurants and bakeries hard, those places that are either primarily or entirely takeout found themselves uniquely situated to weather this particular storm; hang up a few plexiglass screens, and potentially update to a new POS system, and you’re good to go. So donut shops seem to have done quite well during the last year, and most of the shops I’ve ventured into are doing quite the business. However, my local area is basically just three different “donut” operations: Dunkin (meh), Lou’s (good cider donuts, awesome crullers), and Muriel’s (the ne plus ultra of deep-fried, lard-laden crispy cake donuts). But sometimes I crave a good bear claw, a fritter, or, best yet, a Boston Cream donut, and getting good versions of those requires a bit of travel. In this case, recent work obligations have me again traveling frequently to Boxborough, MA to do vibration and thermal testing (in the parlance, the “shake and bake”), and my best traffic-avoiding route takes me right by a favorite donut shop: Ruby Donut in Ayer, MA.

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Kowloon (Saugus, MA)

In the post-war Era, literally thousands of “Polynesian” and “Tiki”-themed restaurants showed up around the US, peddling a mostly even mix of Polynesian, Maori, Asian, Pacific Island, and Escapism. Providing a spot where you could get away and sip any one of a number of Tiki or tropical drinks, nosh at a pu pu platter, and, for the larger establishments, maybe even catch a floor show. Sure, if one is looking for “authentic” food (Chinese, Polynesian, Japanese, or otherwise), this isn’t your place, but like I said in last year’s House of Wu, these sorts of places still have a valuable niche in American cuisine, with somewhat equal parts sentimentalism, nostalgia, preservation, adaptation, and, admittedly, bastardization. Once plentiful, changing American tastes, a wider variety of competing cuisines, changing local economies, and different challenges of running a huge restaurant have taken their toll, and many of these 1950s and 1960s places have faced the wrecking ball (including the recent 2018 closings of both Chicopee’s Hu Ke Lau and Lynnfield’s Bali Hai, both former Tiki icons). Despite the trend, Kowloon, in Saugus MA, still hangs on (and heck, it’s one of New England’s highest volume restaurants).

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15sx (Andover, MA)

As a NH resident who is primarily going to Boston, Worcester, or Natick when I visit, there are some surprisingly large regions of Massachusetts that I haven’t explored in much detail, just because they sit between my usual traffic routes, such as Melrose (just north of Malden) which I visited for the first time earlier this year, or Andover, which I’d somehow managed to visit every surrounding town but not Andover itself. But a recent Robotics event I was judging in Salem, NH had me looking for cheap but decent hotel accommodations, and I ended up at a reasonably pleasant Holiday Inn Express in North Andover. And, while my various robotic judging activities did include a reasonable amount of food, after things wrapped up one evening I was still interesting in having a light dinner, so I drove over to downtown Andover to finally check it out. It’s a pleasant New England downtown area with a good number of shops and restaurants, and while I originally was eying Andolini’s Italian restaurant, since I was looking for just a light dinner, I ended up in what is essentially their annex next door, 15sx.

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Lao’De Café (Lowell, MA)

A regular feature of my enjoyment of both cooking and Asian cuisine in general means that occasionally we’ve got to head down to Massachusetts on a run for ingredients. This time, it was a trip down to Penzey’s Spices (my favorite for getting high quality spices), then a trip over to the surprisingly affordable and expansive selection of Indian ingredients at Patel Bros in Waltham, followed by the inevitable trip to H-Mart in Burlington, MA for our Japanese and Korean groceries. After a rather successful trip to all three, we headed back home to New Hampshire, passing through Lowell, MA around dinner time. As you can see from my other reviews around Lowell, it’s a neat little town, with one of the more rich and diverse histories. Named after industrial pioneer Francis Cabot Lowell, Lowell was originally founded as a mill town, replacing farmers’ field in Chelmsford MA with a combination of textile mills, factories, and canals as one of the nation’s earliest industrial centers. After a lull in the mid-20th century as, like almost every other mill town in New England, things moved to the South and overseas, Lowell hit a second wave of development in the late 20th century with a combination of education (Umass-Lowell), computers (Wang was founded in Lowell), and then and interesting demographic change as it became a major center for Southeastern Asian immigrants, forming substantial Cambodian, Laos, Vietnamese, and Indian communities. This gives it a very interesting mix of everything from old school blue-collar diners (like The Owl), Portuguese food (Cavaleiros), over a dozen good Cambodian places , and even a handful of Laos places. Which brings us to Lao’De Café.

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Sichuan Garden (Brookline, MA)

A few weekends ago, Carol and I went down to Brookline, MA on an expedition to meet up with some of my fellow Fraternal Order of Moai colleagues for some exploration of some of Boston’s cocktail bars new and old. One place we were looking to explore was a relatively new addition to Brookline: Blossom Bar. Nominally replacing the previous Sichuan Garden restaurant, it sounded like a nice place to start our wandering, since they opened at 11am. Well, it appears our intel was wrong; Sichuan Garden is still alive and well in restaurant form, their cocktail bar distinctly doesn’t open until 5pm; at 11 am they are still just a restaurant without cocktails. While slightly disappointing, I was quickly soothed by the fact that the food menu looked good. Really good. So once our posse arrived, we ordered up a bunch of appetizers and food to sustain us on the rest of our trip through Boston.

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Florence Pie Bar (Florence, MA)

A rather lot of our travel has us passing through Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, and as I mentioned a year ago in my review of The Copperline in Chicopee, MA, the area has a quite an interesting combination of rural towns, college towns, and mill towns, and that’s led to a rather nice selection of quirky little restaurants. In this case, we wanted a light breakfast on our way down to Connecticut, so we stopped off in Florence MA (just west of Northampton) to check out Florence Pie Bar.

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Riff’s North (Turners Falls, MA)

One of the areas I do really like exploring is Western MA’s Pioneer Valley. A semi-rural area much like VT/NH along the Connecticut River, it’s got a nice selection of college towns (Amherst, Northampton), quiet former mill towns (Easthampton, which is surprisingly SW of Northampton, and Greenfield), and the like. Nestled among these towns are a bunch of great little restaurants, breweries, art galleries, farm stands, and the like, and it’s nice to occasionally get out and explore a new town. In this case, while we’ve been to Greenfield a few times, I had never really had a chance to explore the village across the river, Turners Falls. It’s actually part of Montague, MA, but Turners Falls is a fairly compact downtown area along the now-defunct Turner Falls canal (now a reservoir for a dam downriver in Greenfield). In any case, it’s a rather nice little downtown, with an arts center, some galleries, and a rather nice selection of restaurants. After looking at a few menus, we ended up settling on Riff’s North.

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The Student Prince (Springfield, MA)

A recent trip down for the weekend to New York City had us driving again through Western Massachusetts, stopping off for dinner in Springfield. Western MA has quite a few pockets of different immigrant heritage cuisines, including Italian, Polish, and German. Indeed, there’s one German place that’s been on my radar for a long time, and that’s The Student Prince, which has been serving up German and German-American food in Springfield for over 80 years. Our trip through at dinner time was a perfect excuse to finally stop in and check them out.

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Travel Guide Review: Only in Boston

From time to time, I do review travel guides, and as you can read from my review of Only in Edinburg, I’ve become quite a fan of the Only In Guides by Duncan J. D. Smith, primarily since he isn’t trying to provide a general purpose travel guide geared to the basics of how to use the bus, where to stay, and which museums to visit, but instead focuses on the unique and hidden attractions of a city. This makes it a particularly good travel guide if you find yourself visiting a city that you already know well (for example, I got his London guide after a solid decade of touring about London myself, and still found a lot of good recommendations). So, with that in mind, I was pleased that Duncan recently published a new guide, Only in Boston. Yes, I bought a travel guide for a city that only 2.5 hours away and that I’ve visited probably a hundred times.

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