Valley News – The Haute Vallée culinary scene has diversified and informed over the years

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The shortage of catering staff in the Haute Vallée is well documented, but one factor has not been examined.

There are lots of restaurants, food trucks, caterers, sandwich shops, roadside stalls, diners, food markets, farmers markets, dining halls – lots of places selling food.

For long-time residents, this can be a bit difficult to figure out. It’s now possible to get passable – if not downright enjoyable – tacos from Randolph to Claremont and many places in between.

The same goes for barbecuing, which was once rare, but is suddenly plentiful. Between them, Hanover and Lebanon host four Thai restaurants.

How did it happen?

Not on purpose, and not all at the same time.

There has been a recent wave of growth, sparked by increased interest in local food, changing tastes, and a growing population, including transplants of places that have lively food scenes.

Hanoverian Chris Ng, who started the Upper Valley Foodie page on Facebook, dates the current wave of transformation from White River Junction, where Tuckerbox windows, a cafe in the morning, and a Turkish restaurant for lunch and dinner , overlook Phnom Penh Sandwich Station, a Cambodian restaurant in the former Polka-Dot Diner. Across the street from Tuckerbox is Piecemeal Pies and down the street is Big Fatty’s, a place for beer and barbecue, and Trailbreak Taps and Tacos.

These places, he noted, followed a previous wave that brought Tip Top Café in 2002 (now called Thyme) and Elixir at the other end of the decade.

“Tuckerbox came in and ‘wow’,” Ng said over coffee at Lucky’s Coffee Garage in Lebanon. “This gave great competition to Hanover, where Hanover was the perfect place for restaurants.”

Ng grew up in Hong Kong and came to the Upper Valley in 1985 after living in Toronto and Brooklyn. His wife is from Thetford. He works as a wealth advisor at Ledyard Financial Advisors.

He loves food and enjoys cooking at home as well as keeping up with restaurants. He knows the names of restaurateurs and chefs and remembers places like Café la Fraise, a French restaurant that operated for 10 years in Hanover from the mid-80s to the mid-90s that newcomers won’t remember. not.

“I think maybe this is the growth of the region,” Ng said of the food revolution. “It’s becoming more and more metropolitan.

And “people dine out more often.”

Slowly, but quickly, the Haute Vallée underwent a revolution in its culinary landscape, moving from formality and artifice to a looser, more improvised and more authentic sort of style. Catering has become more democratic.

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When Josh and Joe Tuohy were painting and cleaning up the space they turned into a Salt Hill Pub in downtown Lebanon, four or five people ducked their heads and said, “You know this place is cursed,” they said. Josh Tuohy remembers recently.

That was 18 years ago, and it’s safe to say that every curse has been broken.

“There is a lot more to do and a lot of different places to eat than before,” said Tuohy.

Dining options have also expanded outside the central towns of the Upper Valley. Lyme has several dining choices within walking distance of the village; Poor Thom’s tavern has moved to Meriden; Samurai Soul Food has carved out a niche for itself in Fairlee; Randolph is home to Saap, a famous Thai restaurant.

Woodstock has a long history of offering a variety of dining options, starting with a first wave of restaurant openings. Barnard resident Jim Reiman and his friends Patty and Marc Milowsky opened The Prince and the Pauper in 1974. They had worked together at Sirloin Saloon, a restaurant in the Burlington area, and decided to open their own restaurant.

Two years later, they opened Jesse’s Restaurant, on the Hanover-Lebanon line. They had several other partners, including Jesse Ware, who owned Real Log Homes, built the original restaurant and gave it his name.

In a way, restaurants like Jesse’s; The Prince and the Poor; Murphy’s on the Green, which opened in Hanover in 1992; Stone Soup, which opened in Strafford in the mid-1980s; Skunk Hollow Tavern at Hartland Four Corners; and others, form a kind of foundation upon which the growing food scene rests.

Before those restaurants, Reiman said, there was a gastronomic divide – in places like the Woodstock Inn, the Hanover Inn, the Coolidge Hotel and other white tablecloth establishments, and everything in between: the dinners, fast food, a few family restaurants and roadside stalls.

Before this time, attitudes towards food were more utilitarian.

After World War II, America took on the role of feeding the world, said Martha Lorden, cook, food truck operator, cookbook critic, food historian and retired social studies professor. at Hanover High School, in an interview.

Lorden grew up in Claremont, a member of the Esersky family. Her grandmother ran a bakery and made black bread for Polish and Russian immigrant families.

“There has always been a kind of poise associated with cooking in the Esersky family,” Lorden said.

In the post-war years, “living better with chemistry” and “canned condensed milk” were the order of the day, Lorden said. People who needed food weren’t too concerned with authenticity. But as the economy grew and globalized, palaces became more sophisticated.

Beyond the food trends of the 1970s and 1980s, when dining out became less formal and cheaper, “the generation that followed was certainly a lot more educated about food,” Reiman said.

By then, the chefs had been on TV for years, from Julia Child to Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali, and people had traveled to where the dishes originated.

“This next wave of customers were a lot more educated and knew what they wanted,” Reiman said.

What would then have been grouped under the title of “ethnic food” was practically non-existent.

Ng said that when he moved to the Upper Valley there were two Chinese restaurants, the Pagoda, where Steve’s Pet Shoppe now resides in Lebanon, and China Lite, then in West Lebanon Square near LaValley Building Supply. .

Classic New England Greek-style pizza was widely available by then.

Now Asian food is everywhere, to the point where Ng once maintained a Facebook page only on local Chinese restaurants. Pizza is more common, if only slightly more diverse.

Jewel of India opened in Hanover in 1992; Mel and Damaris Hall served dishes from all over Africa at White River Junction; Yama appeared in western Lebanon and Gusanoz opened on Miracle Mile in Lebanon, followed by taco shops and taco trucks. From arepas to samosas, the world banquet is at your fingertips.

“The Upper Valley is really conducive to culinary adventures,” Lorden said.

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More and more, information about where to eat, like all news, has moved online. People used to hear about a new place through word of mouth, Reiman said. The Upper Valley Foodie Facebook page is full of weird information requests. Who has the best sweet corn? Where is the best Chinese food?

For Ng, these requests are a little lacking in essentials. How do you find what is “best” for your own taste buds unless you go and try it yourself? The Internet is not a substitute for local knowledge.

“I can’t say I know what good Thai food is,” he said. “I haven’t had time to learn this yet.”

While diners are more open to new experiences and can have them at reasonable prices, they’re also in a rush more often, noted Reiman. There are many opportunities to enjoy a meal and people crave those experiences, but just as often, meals are as quick and casual as they are tasty.

This is not always a bad thing. What worries Lorden is when people seek out dining experiences as value judgments. Yes, organic food deserves to be supported and local food keeps the money in the community, but this old way of eating that only considers cost and daily needs retains its validity.

“There is currently a philosophy around food production that is trendy,” she said. But the idea that there is “good and good food” and “bad and bad food”, she said, “this tension has always bothered me.”

Painted on the front and back of her bright orange food truck, Martha’s on a Roll, is the slogan by which she lives: “Eat it all. It is not an invitation to indulge, but an encouragement to try things.

The food truck – not just his, but their proliferation – is an open invitation. Now in its fourth season on wheels, Lorden serves American comfort food, but other trucks are distributing global street food and other dishes from distant cultures.

While waiting for his order at Martha’s on a Roll in front of Dan and Whit’s in Norwich on Wednesday morning, Jeff Dunning spoke about the food truck he launched this summer. Texas-style barbecue is its niche. The benefits of running a food truck are many, he said.

“The mobility, the lower overheads, the ability to have my own business rather than having to work for humans,” Dunning said.

It’s a chore, he added. He works up to 100 hours a week.

Lorden said she had shrunk a bit.

“I don’t know how long I’ll be doing the food truck,” she said. But “making and selling food is a great way to connect with people.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3207.

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