3 Things Craft Beer Can Learn From Western Massachusetts

For the past several years if you measure success by volume, number of breweries, or fan-base size, craft beer is growing strong. I had an interesting chat at the 2015 Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference in Asheville with Jessica Miller of Hey Brewtiful about what that growth meant to craft beer and its bloggers.

Quick background

I grew up in a Tennessee suburb where as a kid I watched an army of national chains slowly absorb most of the mom and pop hangouts. I’m envious of people who grew up around here who can visit great places they knew as a kid. Local favorites thrive here because the community talks about them the same way Nanas brag about their grandchildren.

1. It’s Good For Brands When Bloggers Have Day Jobs

Like me most bloggers attending BBC make their living doing something else. I design and develop WordPress websites, but also build social media audiences and reach out to bloggers on behalf of clients. It’s something I enjoyed in California, but adore in Western Massachusetts.

strawberry picking in Hadley, MA
In Western Massachusetts CSAs are numerous. When buying local means a little hard work, people are all for it.

People here are vocal about what they love. If they blog they’re likely reaching as many people chatting at their day jobs. Those are the conversations that reach crossover audiences, people who weren’t already looking for information. A beer brand might not see the value of a blog run by a grade school teacher, but I read a hilarious re-tweet on Twitter from one who said,

“I hate to burst your bubble, but when the kids go home, we DRINK.”

So when it’s quitting time in Cubicle-Land people aren’t Googling for beer recommendations, they’re asking that girl or guy in the office who has tried every craft beer made within 50 miles of my desk.

2. Small Towns Can Support Great Things

People around here think of the entire Pioneer Valley as “local.” Greenfield is a great example. It’s not a huge town, but it’s supported local projects-turned-national brands like Real Pickles and Pierce Brothers Coffee. It’s currently rallying around new businesses like Artisan Beverage Cooperative and Lefty’s Brewery as they branch out nationally too.

Artisan Beverage Cooperative's Assistant Brewer Sarah Nolan gives a quick tour and a taste of their Ginger Libation from the tap.
Artisan Beverage Cooperative’s Assistant Brewer Sarah Nolan gives a quick tour and a taste of their Ginger Libation from the tap.

It’s easy to find those products in Greenfield, but you’ll also find them at the upscale Northampton package store Provisions or hole in the wall breakfast spots like The Roadhouse in Belchertown. No matter how small the town is around here, you’ll find local brands front and center, and local people talking about them.

Night Shift is a big name in Boston, but their distribution is limited. That doesn't stop specialty store Provisions in Northampton from driving a few hours each week to pick some up themselves.
Night Shift is a big name in Boston, but their distribution is limited. That doesn’t stop specialty store Provisions in Northampton from driving a few hours each week to pick some up for their store.

3. Skip The Pretense

Despite the fact this area churns out some of the country’s hippest stuff, the hipster factor of Western Massachusetts is minimal. Yes, I know millennials in the area living in hand-crafted yurts and others making their own limoncello, but they aren’t obnoxious. They’re curious go-getters who don’t think you have to be elitist or annoying to try things. The cooperative culture is a part of every community here, from the farm shares to magazine startups to freelance writers. We help each other, and the hippest thing in the world is people doing what they love. A brand doesn’t need to give away a promotional beard wax to get attention, just share what they love with their local fans.

Foster Your People

Grass roots advocacy is what gets brands noticed outside their home court. Passion is contagious. When outsiders see a town excited about a place to get tacos or beer or ice cream they want in on that. No matter where you are though there are bound to be bloggers living close to you that are excited about what you’re doing. Get to know your grass rooters. Even if their audiences seem small, the passion they have for the local scene is invaluable to brands who want to grow.

5 places to visit near Portsmouth

One of the biggest reasons we love being back in Western Massachusetts is that two of our favorite people live a couple hours up the road outside Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The entire area is quintessential New England and every time we visit our friends take us to cool places, like The White Barn Inn. We just got back from another trip and thought we’d share some food, drink, and merriment to be had up that way.

Ipswich_at_Spencer_Peirce
The “Thing” is one of 4 Ipswich Ale Tapmobiles. This 8-tap beauty is made from a 1965 Grumman Kurbside.

1. Spencer Peirce Little Farm

A calming and lovely spot to attend an event. They have regular games of Vintage Baseball and there’s other great happenings like The American Music and Harvest Festival coming up in late September. The line up of musicians includes amazing and under-appreciated Indie band The Accident That Led Me To The World. On top of it all most of these shindigs are accompanied by an Ipswich Brewery Tapmobile, restored vintage wheels re-purposed for the noble purpose of serving up great beer.

No Gloves? No Problem! Vintage wool uniforms and equipment in this "bare-knuckle boxing style" baseball league.
No Gloves? No Problem! Vintage wool uniforms and equipment in this “bare-knuckle boxing style” baseball league.

2. Hayseed Restaurant

A fab little brewpub on the Smuttynose Brewery compound. Instead of being directly attached to the brewery it’s got its own little house-like space and that makes for a cozy atmosphere. The food is far above many other breweries we’ve visited. There are lots of options for the vegans, veggies, and gluten-challenged in your party. Our last trip I had a Spring Stew that was packed full of vegetables and tofu in a coconut sauce that just happened to be gluten-free and vegan. The bar has two dozen taps that include the strange and wonderful Smuttlabs beers and a few cask-conditioned offerings to boot.

3. The Friendly Toast

A Portsmouth institution. There’s a location in Boston too that we’ve tried. The food there is good, but the whole experience is not nearly as much fun. At both location the portions are gigantic and the drinks are strong, but in Portsmouth the atmosphere is weird in the best of ways. It can feel a little hipstery at times (your waiter is sure to have tattoos, piercings, and/or Macklemore’s wardrobe), but they give good service and the food is consistently bodacious. Like Hayseed there are plenty of options for any dietary need. They serve all day, but this is the place for brunch baby! Prepare to wait for a table at prime hours.

4. Vida Cantina

The camera on my phone doesn't do this Pork Belly Confit Benedict justice.
The camera on my phone doesn’t do this Pork Belly Confit Benedict justice.

Our most recent discovery and another great choice for brunch. The cocktails here are inventive, numerous, strong, and expertly made. The Chupacabra was both our favorite with blanco tequila and agave atop fresh muddled chilis, cilantro, and lime. The whole concoction gets a vigorous shake for good measure. The food is great too. I had a Pork Belly Confit Eggs Benedict that was perfect and Molly had Chilaquiles which has 2 sunny side eggs, tortilla chips, Vida salsa, cotija, avocado, and crema. We already can’t wait to go back.

5. Breaking New Grounds

Coffee Break? If you’re in downtown Portsmouth there are several options, but this is my favorite. It’s a big space with plenty of tables inside and out. The baristas have their stuff together and even when there’s a line I’ve gotten my chai teas and lattes efficiently and expertly done. They roast the beans in-house and wherever they’re sourcing their dairy, thumbs up to the cows.

Woke up very early to get to Crane Beach to see the mythical Strandbeest, a retro-futuristic wind-powered robot by Theo Jansen
Woke up and got caffeinated very early to get to Crane Beach to see the mythical Strandbeest, a retro-futuristic wind-powered robot by Theo Jansen

If you’re spending some time in Boston or just live near there and want a lovely day trip, skip on up to the Portsmouth area!

The Alvah Stone

UPDATE

Our latest trip we weren’t super hungry, but Molly hankered for a delicious cocktail and we both wanted a nice outdoor spot to relax. The patio at Alvah is heavily shaded, which makes it perfect on summer days that get above 80.

the drinks

We tried 2 cocktails and loved them both. The first, a summer special called The Blue Ribbon. Apropo of the name this beauty won the Hitchcock Center for The Environment’s Battle of the Botanicals, whatever the hell that means. It had Ferrand Cognac, Jameson Black Barrel Whiskey, Becherovka, blueberry syrup, lemon juice, and was delicious. The other cocktail was The Sylvester- Fidencio Mezcal, Espolon Reposado, Aperol, grapefruit, lime, and agave. I love a good smokey mezcal straight, but have never been able to tame it appropriately in a mixed beverage at home. Alvah Stone succeeded where I and I’m sure many other more capable bartenders have failed. It was “just right” on the smokiness, and rocked every square inch of our palettes.

the “small” plates

Oh yeah, and we had a bunch of “small” plates that were generous and each superb in their own way. The smoke was the theme of our night apparently, with the Smoked Sorghum Chicken Wings. It wasn’t the first time we had the Broccoli with XO and Thai Chiles, and if definitely won’t be the last. We had The Cabbage Salad with lemongrass, ginger, chopped peanuts, fried shallots, and herbs. The coconut dressing was surprisingly light and the extra kick of spice was on point. Our favorite small plate of the evening was the Douille Dog, which came on a fresh brioche roll with pickled jalapeño and more of those fried shallots.

final thoughts on our recent visit

We can’t get enough of Alvah and hope they’re around for a long time. They’ve certainly bumped Montague up our list of possible towns to move as our house hunting adventures continue. The staff, as always, were as friendly as they were knowledgeable about their menu.

original review below:

We had fond memories of The Night Kitchen when we left for California a couple years ago, but once we got back in December of 2014 we couldn’t remember the food so much as the absurdly perfect setting. We heard great things about the new tenant, The Alvah Stone, and were not disappointed on our first visit.

We arrived early. We had reservations, but I wanted to check out the bar. The more upscale a place gets the more I like to get my bearings there. Maybe because that’s where I used to be so often when I was on the serving side of the white linen scene. The bar is where the pressure is off. You can take as long as you need to order food (or not order food at all) and you immediately feel taken care of in this “we’re entertaining at the country house” kind of way. The bar is where you get intricate cocktails made with casual-cool fanfare. It’s still fancy-pants, but it’s chill.

Molly had an Old Fashioned. It was pretty by the book, but got extra points for the ice globe that meant it wasn’t watered down at all with chipped ice. I tried the Spencer Trappist Ale and it was perfection on tap. We were told it was the only certified Trappist beer made in the US, so another few points for knowing your stuff. For dinner we had wine and a beer brewed for The Alvah Stone by Brewmaster Jack.

Alvah Stone BeveragesWe moved to a window-side table overlooking the equal parts frozen and roaring river. This was the aspect of The Night Kitchen we remembered. The interior of The Alvah Stone has only improved upon an already gorgeous experience. The interior is rustic, but still elegant and charming without losing its grace. It’s James Bond on his day off fly fishing in weathered attire from Patagonia.

First Course

Alvah Stone Genius SaladWe started off with a Kale Salad that was inspired. Molly is usually not a fan of raw Kale, but Alvah Stone does theirs with a cured egg, pistachios, and quality aged provolone. Cured Egg? Yeah, we had to ask too. We got a good description from the bartender who essentially told us it turns an egg yolk into something like a dense cheese. Sauver has a simple recipe we can’t wait to try on everything. The salad was really my favorite thing all evening after the Trappist Ale.

The Alvah Stone AppetizersWe also had the Turnip Cakes from the “snacks” portion of the menu. They were solid, if a little overshadowed by the salad. We’d order them again if just for the delish Asian-inspired dipping sauce, but we’d definitely get them on their own so they wouldn’t have to compete with any other flavors. For all its bold ingredients (cilantro, scallions, sesame) we found these a little on the mellow side.

Main Course

Alvah Stone Amazing Ribs!I was very tempted by the Sirloin special, but I’d already read the menu by the time I heard it so I had ribs on the brain. They were generously sauced in some house-made genius, but were surprisingly snug on their bones. I love getting down and dirty on some ribs, but like how cooked to disintegration messy meats are usually prepared in finer dining.

I had short ribs at Chez Albert a few weeks ago for example that I could have eaten with a wobbly plastic spoon. That’s not a complaint because they were yummers, just a heads up if you arrive in your Sunday best: you’re gonna work for them ribs, Hoss. My sides were across the board great: smoky cow peas, kohlrabi slaw, and some weird but great squash cake that was like an exotic cornbread.

Alvah Stone FishMolly had seared sea bass with blood orange slivers and what we think was daikon radish, but couldn’t be sure. It was cooked flawlessly.

The Afters

Desset at The Alvah StoneI had a salted caramel custard with whipped cream accompanied by the cutest, crunchiest, chocolateyest cookies. Molly is still talking about the cookies, which had the slightest hint of Oreo if that humble cookie could be reverse engineered and greatly improved upon. Molly got a buttermilk pie that was as by-the-book as her Old Fashioned, but also as good.

All in all we found the experience great. The Alvah Stone seems to be straddling the classics and their own drive to be inventive. They’re doing both admirably, and we think a year from now, or two, those two worlds will be more seamless as they create some “old standards” of their own.

Amanouz Café

A tiny spot on Main Street that has some really great food. One of us always gets the Exotic Salad, one of several “hidden” choices that are only on handwritten signs on the wall. It’s topped with a little bit of everything, hummus, beets, tabbouleh. To be honest it’s never really the same salad twice, but it’s always good. From the menu you can’t go wrong with a tagine or bastilla (both chicken and veggie options are good). They also do a pretty fabulous brunch. Because it’s small it fills up quickly on weekends, so plan accordingly.

Artisan Beverage Cooperative

Ginger Libation Bottling
a local favorite since its first bottling, Ginger Libation helped create a national interest in this adult beverage of yore. They’ve also fostered a market for startups trying their hands at making old-style Ginger Brews.

Artisan Beverage Cooperative was born out of two established businesses sharing space in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Katalyst Kombucha has been rocking the naturally-fermented, probiotic world for a decade. Not far behind are the folks at Green River Ambrosia, who have been making award-winning mead and their signature Ginger Libation since 2007. In 2013 they merged the two companies and became a worker-owned cooperative. We chatted them up recently and they had some fascinating things to say.

Artisan Beverage Cooperative kegs
Ginger Libation is an increasingly popular draft choice in the area, available at The Roost in Northampton, Bread Euphoria in Haydenville, and numerous of our other local favorites

Do you think Ginger Libation fans are more typically beer, wine, or spirits drinkers?

We may appeal a bit more to craft beer drinkers, but we’ve also found a good reception from people that prefer wine or spirits. One of the nicest things that we’ve found with Ginger Libation is how it really crosses through these categories. An idea that we’ve gotten from a number of bartenders is how great it works as a cocktail mixer, so that’s one way spirits drinkers have become big fans as well.

ArtisanBeverageCoop-5

Has being your own thing in the world of clear beer/wine/spirits distinctions presented any problems?

The biggest obstacle that we’ve seen is that people just don’t know how great ginger beer and mead can be. We’ve tried to get around this by getting out with samples to as many tastings, events, and festivals that we can.

We’ve also had some issues in regards to the different tax rates that some states have in regards to wineries and breweries. Because we don’t use any kind of malt we’re classified as a winery, and therefore all alcoholic products we make are considered a wine. Some states have higher tax rates for wine sales. This can make places known for a good craft beer selection less likely to try out a unique product that’s labeled as wine, even if the product would fit well into their store and existing customer base.

ArtisanBeverageCoop-4

Do you think the market is opening up a bit now that other companies are making products similar to Ginger Libation?

At this point there are a few other breweries making old style Ginger Beers. When we first started making Ginger Libation we were the only old-style alcoholic ginger beer on the market. We knew that it was a good enough product that competition was inevitable at some point. To see it happening so soon is really encouraging. It confirms what we’ve been thinking since we first started- that alcoholic ginger beer has a huge market that’s just starting to be tapped.

ArtisanBeverageCoop-2

The original Ginger Libation was a gluten-free, home-brewing project for Brendan Burns. Is the gluten-free boom influencing your products?

Our kombucha, Ginger Libation, and mead have always been gluten-free, so it’s easy for us to keep producing products along that line. What we’ve seen change however, is the craft beer drinkers reaction to gluten-free brews.  It seems drinkers have gotten more adventurous in trying unique brews that might be gluten-free.

What new drinks do you have in the pipeline?

Right now two things that we’ve really been looking forward to is the return of our Local Libation and our Blueberry Libation. Look for both becoming available in bottles within the next 6 months. For Katalyst we have our hopped kombucha as well as a hibiscus flavor, both are only available at tap accounts. With our mead, the biggest thing we’ve been working on has been the branding. We’ve redesigned our labels and our mead will soon be available in 500 ml bottles.

Yeah, I got to try the hopped kombucha on my visit and it was awesome. What’s the best way to try all this stuff?

The best way for people to try out new things we’re doing is to come down to the brewery when we have an open house.  Usually about a month or so before the actual date we start announcing open house times on the Artisan Beverage Cooperative Facebook Page.

Most of your core team grew up in the area, do you have any advice for similar grass roots projects around the country?

One of the biggest things that is going to help is having a well-developed plan and financial estimates. Also, make sure you tap into the support of whatever community small business development groups that you have available in your area. We’ve been very fortunate to be based at the Franklin Country Community Development Corporation. Over the years they’ve provided us with technical assistance, bridge loans, financial and marketing consultants, as well as renting us brewery space.

Many communities have resources available for grass roots startups, and we’ve found that people wanting us to succeed and asking for support from the community goes a long way. Beyond that, the three biggest pieces of advice that we would give would be

  1. Expect things to take more time than you have been expecting.
  2. Expect things to take more money than you are expecting.
  3. Don’t let the knowledge of either of those things stop you from following your dreams.

Bison Moussaka

We love moussaka, but it’s a bit of a pain in the arse to make. It’s not terribly difficult, just time consuming. The cooking time is about an hour and prep is at least that long. It’s worth it though, especially since we almost always make one for now and one to stash in the freezer. A month or so later we pull the extra one out on a busy day and enjoy it without any work involved.

Continue reading “Bison Moussaka”

The Black Sheep

Every good college town needs one of these, a bohemian cafe where you can get a sandwich, a coffee, and some free WiFi. The Black Sheep is convenient to downtown Amherst and has a lot of character. They use local goodies in their offerings and even host the occasional Senator.

My favorite sandwich is the East meets West, a sort of vegetarian Bánh mi with roasted tofu, carrots, red onions, lettuce, and a funky delicious garlic + peanut + hoisin sauce slathered generously on a fresh, squishy baguette. Their other sandwiches are solid too and all of them are available in half-size portions, which is nice.

The coffee drinks are good, but sometimes inconsistent from barista to barista. I’ve had lattes that were 75% coffee with only the most token splash of milk on top (heart attack in a cup) and I’ve had lattes that were the complete opposite, so much milk I couldn’t be sure there was actually a shot of espresso in there. I never mind too much though because the milk is local and delicious, they use local roaster Dean’s Beans, and the crew is super nice and always get the food right, which is why I’m there really. For a cozy, crunchy rendezvous with friends, this is the go to spot.

Blue Heron

BlueHeron_Exterior
The Old Town Hall was built in 1867 and is one of the nicest places to have a meal we can imagine.

I finally dined at Blue Heron for the first time about a month ago. Molly has been raving about the place since I’ve known her. I’ve no idea now why it took this long to try it, because it’s fantastic and we’ve already been back again. Wednesday nights the oysters are half price and there are a few additional small plate options thrown into the mix. It’s all the excuse we need to go.

Cocktails, Old School and New

We sat at the bar for each of our visits because both times we decided to go on a whim and there weren’t any tables. You absolutely need reservations for this place on Wednesdays. It’s probably a good idea most other nights too. The bar is great though, and the bartender, Paul, makes a mean cocktail. Our mutual favorite is The Summer Healer which is Basil Hayden’s Bourbon, ginger simple syrup, grapefruit bitters and muddled lime and cucumber. There are more than a dozen other options and we’ve yet to have one we didn’t like.

The Summer Healer on the left and on the right The Paper Plane, another bourbon cocktail with Amaro Nonino, Aperol, and lemon juice.
The Summer Healer on the left and on the right The Paper Plane, another bourbon cocktail with Amaro Nonino, Aperol, and lemon juice.

Small Plates & Appetizers

First, who doesn’t like sardines? I don’t. That’s who. So my endorsement of this little salad is that much stronger. Molly loves sardines and forced me to try these with capers and herbs on a sliver of tomato bread. Delicious! Something that pleases both the bold sardine lover and the timid alike.

BlueHeron_Sardines

Next we have another sometimes hard-sell ingredient: dates. How do you get the timid interested in those? Stuff them with absurdly good blue cheese and wrap them in bacon of course. It’s a frequent pre-meal treat in a lot of places, but The Blue Heron makes it their own with arugula and instead of the standard reduced balsamic they go with saba, which to me has a little less pinch and a little more sweet.

BlueHeron_BaconDates

Calamari is also one of those things you see on every menu, but here again we see a clever twist: chickpea batter, a yogurty tarator sauce, and what we’d describe as a baby Greek Salad give their tasty squid its Middle Eastern flare. You won’t want to go back to ho-hum marinara after this.

BlueHeron_Calamari

Mains

The Gnocchi is included in their small plates, but even a small portion of these little dumplings is a meal. There’s a different sauce each evening so you can indulge every time you go and still get something fresh and new.

BlueHeron_SmallPlates

The Coffee Spiced Steak Frites is fab, naturally, with a fierce compliment of red wine reduction and blue cheese that make the delicious house-made ketchup and aioli unnecessary. I found the tiniest whisper of the steak’s toppings made already good frites amazing.

BlueHeron_SteakFrites

Dessert

We’ve only had one so far, but it was superb. A tarte tatin made with local peaches topped with fresh whipped cream and ice cream. Molly has made many similar desserts at home so we could tell this had most likely spent little time out of the oven. We wouldn’t be surprised if desserts were made daily because the tarte was melt-in-your-mouth fresh.

BlueHeron_Dessert

An amazing new regular haunt of ours. Worth the trip if you’re even just passing through the area.

Blueberry Jalapeño Cocktail

Cocktails
Three’s Halle Berry on left. Bub’s Reproduction on right.

I was lucky enough to be on a tasting tour a while ago and had a cocktail that instantly made it on my top five of all time list. Three in San Mateo makes a Blueberry Jalapeño Cocktail called the Halle Berry, and the owner was kind enough to let me in on the basics. It’s too good to give away the exact recipe, but I’m pretty happy with our first and second attempts. It’s a great excuse to go back and have another at Three, you know, for research purposes.

Continue reading “Blueberry Jalapeño Cocktail”

Brad’s Place

We moved to Greenfield a week ago and I’m already delighted by the experience. Neighbors made a point of introducing themselves and welcoming us to the area, dog owners (at the amazing Highland Park) eagerly introduced Tula to their highly-socialized pooches, and local haunts like Brad’s Place made us feel right at home.

Just up from the Garden Theater, Brad’s is a no-frills greasy spoon with New England sensibilities. When ordering pancakes you have the default option of fake syrup, or true and delicious maple (for a little extra). The pancakes themselves are dense and generous, with a bit of buckwheat grit that let’s you know they mean business. They’re hearty, satisfying, and perfectly paired with sausage, ham, or bacon (I’ve tried all 3 in subsequent visits). Next time a nice over-easy egg will have to be added.

On out first visit, Molly had an off-menu egg sandwich on rye that was spot on and the waitress didn’t bat an eye or seem put off by the special order. The vibe in the place oozes neighborhood charm. I’m fairly sure we were the only people in there who didn’t know everyone else. Some people didn’t even seem to need to order, their coffee was waiting for them by the time they got from the front door to their seat.

The Brass Buckle

Update

Now that Molly is back from her long business trip Bub is back in full swing. You’re going to be seeing a lot more in-depth posts about our new hometown, Greenfield.

The owners of The Brass Buckle were looking to sell the place not so long ago and we’re really glad they changed their minds. When we first moved into town they did close for a few weeks to give the place a facelift (and I suspect to give themselves a little time off). When they re-opened they did so with new hours, and new days that they were closed.

So long Sunday Brunch

There was a lot of guff on their Facebook page about being closed on Sunday, and in all honesty we’re pretty bummed about that too. We usually do breakfast at home the first morning of a weekend and have more than once now gone excitedly to the Buckle on Sunday only to smack ourselves in the head saying, “Oh yeah. No Sundays.”

Saturday Brunch Then

Today, the new days got through our thick skulls and we experienced finally the new and improved Brass Buckle. We always liked this place (see original review below), but the time off did their cooks some good. If it was a solid B before, we just had a pretty A+ breakfast there.

Grit Cakes. Every Southern Boy’s Dream.

They might not photograph all that well, but these were some of the best collards I’ve ever had. That’s saying something I think because I grew up in Tennessee with a very Southern grandmother. These were vinegary, but not too tart, tender, but not overcooked, and had garlic slices so cooked down they had the consistency of a delicious morsel of pork. The grit cakes were also spot on and soaked the runny yellow yolk with abandon.

Salad for Breakfast. Every Michigan Girl’s Dream.

Molly loves it when restaurants have salad as a breakfast option, so this little special made her morning. The bacon was crispy and delectable with the scrabbled to perfection fluffiness of the eggs. The dressing was also superb.

Sweet and Savory Scones

I was going to get one scone and a pastry, but the choices were Cranberry Pecan or Cheddar, Jalapeño, Bacon. So, naturally I got two scones. The Savory still had enough sweetness to almost feel like dessert and neither were afraid of the butter. Both were supposed to be saved for later, but were devoured as soon as we got home.

Now for a nap.

Original Review from February 2016

This is a nice spot for a low-key breakfast or lunch (they wrap things up by 4 every afternoon). Our first visit I had a strange, pulled-pork Cuban sandwich that was huge, delicious, and reasonably priced. Molly had a couple à la carte tacos that were modestly sized, but tasty. My sandwich was a special, and they had a few others, something they do no doubt to supplement the spare menu. Our next visit we’re looking forward to trying the Cowboy Sandwich, an odd concoction with bacon, a fried egg, hash browns, BBQ, and sour cream on board.

Bread Euphoria

The Best Pizza in the 5 college area is at Bread Euphoria. Hungry Ghost has a great thing going with carry out, but if you want to dine in and pair a great draft, Bread Euphoria is the best place to go. We keep trying other local options in hopes of finding others worth mentioning, but so far the best we can say about those are, “Well, it’s a little better than Pizza Hut.”

UPDATE: Joe’s Café in Northampton is a solid B to Bread Euphoria and Hungry Ghost’s A+. If you have other recommendations for the Pioneer Valley, we’d love to try them!

The half dozen we’ve tried are not much better than a frozen Trader Joe’s pizza. That’s not to diss Trader Joe’s! We always have a few of them at the ready in our chest freezer. They’re perfectly good and fast. If you want your mind blown though, make the trek to Haydenville.

cuteandquaintMore than great crust

Bread Euphoria isn’t even a pizza place. It’s a bakery that offers pizza. I’d say it’s a no brainer that a bakery has kick ass pizza crust (it does, natch) but it’s the inventive genius of their specials that makes these pies worth the drive to us. Our favorite of all time came with peaches and stinky cheese. Might sound crazy, but the point to counterpoint of flavors was incredible. They did a peach one again this year that was stellar, though we did miss the stinky addition. They have conventional choices too, but whenever we see a WTF special we go for it. Trust them. No matter how crazy the combination sounds.

Local Draft

breadeuphbeerBread Euphoria isn’t a bar either, but they have 4 taps to choose from. They have an affinity for Berkshire Brewing Company and Ginger Libation, but the 4th tap tends to rotate regularly. A bottled beer is just fine with a pizza, but who doesn’t agree that a fresh-pulled draft is even better?

Sit down, kick back

Friday and Saturday they have table service, but the rest of the week you can still sit down and enjoy yourself. We never mind the deli-style back and forth. The picnic vibe is fine.

The food

We haven’t mentioned the salads? How foolish of us. Get one. And make sure if it doesn’t automatically come with their maple balsamic house dressing that you ask for it by name. We got a generous side of it with our salad and found it delicious with our pizza crusts. The main components are right there in the name. We’ve tried to recreate it at home and we’re about 90% there.

maplebalsamiccrackOur favorite “conventional” pizza is the Prosciutto which comes with Prosciutto di Parma, carmelized onions, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, and garlic-oregano oil. Something worth mentioning is that when Bread Euphoria lists an ingredient they mean for you to taste it. They’re not just throwing around a dressy-but-meaningless word to make the pie seem more exotic. If they bothered to write it on the chalkboard, you will distinctly taste it.

pizzaperfectionThe sourdough crust has a nice crunch and a fair amount of doughy play once you bite into it. We have no complaints. We do sometimes wish they’d apply their bread-making prowess to a thicker option, but that’s probably because Molly and I both could sit down and eat a loaf of good bread by ourselves.

I’ve already raved about the toppings, so we’ll let the photos speak for themselves. The only other things we’d mention are that this place closes relatively early (6 on Sundays) and is family friendly. Even on a quiet Sunday night with only a few tables there were plenty of kids there being kids. Maybe that just goes hand-in-hand with pizza places?

And oh yeah, that make pretty tasty desserts and hella good bread too.

Captain Jack’s

A no-frills greasy spoon run out of a shack on the side of Highway 10. We’ve made a few stops here hoping to have our minds blown, and while consistently good, so far our craniums are intact. That being said this place is adorable. There’s plenty of outdoor seating, it’s dog-friendly, and they keep the menu simple and serve you quickly. If they have specials (and they usually do) go for at least one of those. We’ve gotten some tasty corn dogs and deliciously buried hot dogs as well as a respectable fish taco. Everything is local and sustainable. So you’ve got that going for you, which is nice.

Chez Albert

Now that we live just outside Amherst a new set of restaurants have become our “local” spots. One of them is Chez Albert. When we lived in Northampton Chez Albert was a place we went on special occasions. Now that it’s right down the road we’re there more often. We’d both love to go overboard each time we go and get cocktails, appetizers, salads, wine, entrees, desserts, coffee, and a night cap, but it’s just not a responsible use of our income. Luckily some summer menu changes have made Chez Albert as fit for a quick meal as it is for fine dining.

New Menu

We sit at the bar a lot since we’ve moved back to the area, because for a while there was a bar-only menu that includes one of the best burgers around. On our last visit though we were happy to see that for the summer at least the bar and main menus have merged, along with the addition of several small plates and sides.

January 2016 UPDATE: We’ve been back several times since we posted this review and the menu has remained in its updated form. There are a few small plates, regular favorites, and several items rotating through. The burger is amazing and priced more reasonably than most bars in Chez Albert’s immediate vicinity. The daily specials are as adventurous as ever. We highly recommend trying the venison if it pops up again.

Cocktails

ChezAlbert_Cocktails

We were seated on the patio and naturally, started with drinks. I had the “Bang Bang” with jalapeño-infused tequila, agave, lime, and cucumber and Molly had a brandy-based cocktail called the Chez 75. Neither were especially sweet, which was welcome, and both were perfect for a cool summer evening.

Appetizers

ChezAlbert_Pate

For appetizers I had the house-made pâté, which would have been satisfying enough with Iggy’s fresh bread, but was all the better with coarse dijon, caramelized onions, bread and butter-esque pickles, and reduced balsamic.

ChezAlbert_CalamariSalad

Molly had a grilled calamari salad with spinach and spicy ginger vinaigrette that we tried in vain to analyze in hopes of reproduction in our own kitchen. We’ll have to have it a few more times before we figure it out.

Main Course

ChezAlbert_DuckConfit

For mains I had the duck from a new “Crispy Confit” section of the menu. It includes oxtail, pork ribs, and chicken wings in addition to the duck and we hope it lasts beyond the summer. The duck was served on a bed of a distinctive slaw and accompanied with pickled beans and the same little bread and butter slivers from the pate.

ChezAlbert_Veal

Molly had veal medallions with lemon, capers, local tomato, and string beans. We went our usual halfsies to try everything and were both happier with our own choices. I’m a sucker for confit anything, despite the fact many restaurants overcook the meat in a quest for crispiness. This was definitely not the case for my meal, and the leftovers even survived another heating without losing any flavor.

Afters

ChezAlbert_CremeBrulee

Finally we had a pair of desserts, creme brûlée and chocolate mousse. Perhaps a bit uninspired, but sometimes the classics, when executed perfectly, are best. The creme brûlée was flawless, and although not advertised I could swear I got a tiny hint of saffron. There was a slight red tint, probably just the setting sun, so that’s probably what got it into my brain.

ChezAlbert_ChocolateMousse

If you haven’t been to Chez Albert in a while they’ve made a lot of changes to accommodate the more casual meal. I would though still recommend reservations. Unless of course you’d like to join us at the bar.

Coco + The Cellar Bar

CocoCellar_ExteriorShot

At long last we’ve tried Coco & The Cellar Bar in Easthampton. We rarely review a place after only one visit, but we had such a good time we made an exception. We’ll post a follow up after our next visit, which we’re sure will be soon.

CocoCellar_BartenderWe met our friend Patty on a busy evening so it was pretty packed upstairs. Thankfully in addition to making some exceptionally-inspired cocktails, the full menu is available at the Cellar Bar downstairs. We can’t wait to return in the winter when the fireplace is in use. The space is as cozy and snug as a nice Irish bar: moody lighting, exposed brick, low ceilings, but all cheerful at the same time.

The tap selection at The Cellar Bar is all craft and mostly local. I was happy to see one of my New England favorites that beforehand I’d only had in a bottle, Maine Beer Company’s Peeper. It’s got relatively low alcohol, which means a lightweight like me can enjoy a few without losing my legs. Its rich malty center supports 4 varieties of hops that pop but don’t overwhelm. Molly started with a bourbon-based cocktail special with fresh peaches and Cynar. While I enjoyed a second round of Peeper she tried The Coco Blossom, which is tarragon-infused white rum, elderflower, red apple syrup, and fresh lemon. She loved them both.

CocoCellar_RibsPolentaFor dinner Patty had ribs with polenta and string beans. The ribs were fork-tender and the sauce was sweet, tart, and though not very spicy, was a keeper for sure. I thought the polenta was a perfect compliment to the sauce.

CocoCellar_NoodlesI had honey miso noodles with greens, roasted chicken, carrots, and toasted sesame seeds. It was better than what I’d been craving, sort of a top shelf version of the Chinese Restaurant favorite appetizer of chilled noodles. The sauce was both lighter and more flavorful than expected, which was a theme apparently if you go by Molly’s dish.

CocoCellar_SalmonMolly had pan-seared salmon with tempura sushi, cucumbers, and pickled shiitake mushrooms. I’m not a huge fan of salmon, but this was my favorite dish of the evening. The little tempura rice rolls were delish and the salmon’s light sauce was impressive: delicate but with a wide and dramatic flavor profile. The tiniest drop imparted so much to everything.

Stay tuned for more photos and reviews. We can’t wait for our next trip to The Cellar.

Commonwealth BBQ

Though still in Massachusetts, Commonwealth BBQ is not in the Pioneer Valley. We’re mentioning it here because it instantly earned a place in our hearts today driving back from a July 4th weekend with friends on the Cape looking for a quick, but good meal on the highway no-man’s-land of food. It’s near the outlets, but little else in the area would scream here is a damn good place to get barbecue. Usually a “restaurant” featured on a blue highway sign would not fill us with hope for quality or authenticity. Commonwealth had both in ample amounts. We tried the pulled pork sandwich, the smoked chicken sandwich, the cowboy beans, the collards, and a stuffed jalapeño. Everything was flipping delicious, the portions were ridiculous, and stuffing ourselves was completely affordable. There’s plenty of outdoor seating and despite its size, they can obviously pull off catering, as evidenced by the large order they stuffed in a car while we had our lunch. There was even a wipe out of a full pan of cornbread in the parking lot and the manager pulled together a replacement on the fly. The only thing missing from the experience was a frosty cold beer, but Wormtown Brewery a few miles away in Worcester has you covered there. Well worth the stop, and we’ll certainly be back.

Cushman Market + Cafe

Because of its location we often forget about Cushman, which is a shame. Every time we drive by on our way to take the dog for a jaunt around Puffer’s Pond we have to stop in and get at least a latte. They use local milk and the baristas are consistently great at crafting a perfect beverage. Their Chai is also fantastic, if a weensy bit sweet. Other then The Roost’s in Northampton I would say theirs is our favorite. That’s saying a lot too, if you like Chai lattes, because Esselon and Woodstar also have solid offerings. The pastries and breakfast sandwiches are dependable and often even exemplary. Brunch is nice here when they have live music. It’s a little chaotic on the weekends sometimes, especially once the kids are back in school, but in general we find they run things Swiss-watch tight. The little attached market is cute and handy if you need a beer or bottle of wine or oddball party favor.

The Dirty Truth

The Dirty Truth is a near-perfect beer bar with 40 taps, big tables, knowledgeable barkeeps, and above average pub grub. It can get a little crazy on the weekends (naturally) but Monday through Thursday evenings it’s one of the most pleasant places in downtown Northampton to sip something exotic (probably Belgium) or a craft brewery close enough to hit with a rock (please don’t throw things at breweries). We only have one question for the owners, How the hell do you not have a website?

Elevation 66. El Cerrito, CA

twobeagleIf our recent trip to the Beer Bloggers Conference taught us anything it’s that there’s an abundance of great beer being made in this country. Here in California there are over 300 breweries alone, both large and small, and we’ve managed to visit quite a few of them in the last year. Our only complaint is that if they have a kitchen, the food coming out of it is not especially good. There are exceptions, El Cerrito’s Elevation 66 being one of them, but overall “pub food” hasn’t grown up with the beer being served with it.

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Esselon

Local Mapleline milk helps make this one of the best places to get a latte or dirty chai in the Valley. The molasses cookies are the best among several great pastry offerings. It’s been a little hit or miss with us in the evenings, but overall it’s solid. Most everything on the menu will have you leaving happy. The benedicts and challah french toast are reliably delicious for brunch, and the tuna salad is spot on even if the salad that comes with most sandwiches is a bit ho-hum.

Flayvors

A close 2nd place for our favorite ice cream in the area, squeaking in behind Mt. Tom’s in Easthampton. It’s great for exotic flavors you might not have thought of before, things like asparagus (it’s really good actually) and lemon cream. You can even walk over to the cows and thank them for providing you with such deliciousness. Another place they shine is in their fruit ice creams: raspberry, peach, black raspberry, and lemon. We’re also particularly keen on “Sally’s Coffee Grounds” which is Coffee meets Cookies and Cream.

GoBerry

We’re probably kidding ourselves if we think frozen yogurt is any better for our waistline than ice cream. It does, however, have active yogurt cultures. What are those good for? Didn’t you see all those Jamie Lee Curtis Activia commercials? It’s good for your intestinal floral, the good bacteria that keeps your tummy happy. Top that bit of almost-healthcare with the wide variety of fresh fruit at GoBerry and we shave half the guilt off our frozen dessert. Our biggest reason for loving GoBerry though is that they use local Mapleline Milk and Side Hill Farm Yogurt, so whatever flavor you choose it has a distinct and wonderful tang. GoBerry has another location in Amherst:

  • GoBerry Amherst
  • 28 Amity Street
  • Amherst, MA 01002

If you’re one of the owners reading this:

Hey, first, love your shops. Thanks for supporting local businesses like Side Hill and Mapleline. You rock. I think many GoBerry regulars would agree that Nutella is amazing and deserves a permanent spot next to Original, with 2 rotating flavors instead of 3.

If you’re a local GoBerry Lover and agree that Nutella is the obvious choice for a permanent second flavor, Leave a Reply below!

The Green Bean

The older sister of The Roost down on Market Street, The Green Bean is an adorable little breakfast and lunch joint. This is the place to go for brunch in Northampton, so expect a line out the door on the weekends unless you show up before 9:30. It’s well worth the wait though and right next door to Broadside Books so you can thumb through paperbacks before you get a table.

The menu is refreshingly different. What do I mean? Well, they take all the standards you’d expect from a restaurant like this and give them a distinctive spin. Instead of omelettes you get “scrambles” which is all the fun of a mix of complimentary ingredients with the laid back comfort of scrambled eggs. It’s also nice that you can adjust the volume on the eggs, going one more or one less for plus or minus $1.50 from your check.

Something everyone should order at least once is the Herb and Onion Bread with Almond Gravy. Salty, sweet, savory, and solid. It’s like biscuits and gravy for the veggie crowd. It’s not as gut bomb as you might imagine. You can do half orders too if you like, so order it as something to split with the table for a sort of breakfast appetizer.

If you’re not feeling breakfast I highly recommend the VBLAT which is smokey tempeh strips, lettuce, tomato, and avocado. You don’t have to be vegan to love this, but if you are of the humane persuasion, so much the better. The vblat’s housemade tempeh “facon” is 99% as good as the real thing. Last but not least their Chai Tea recipe is damn close to (maybe the same as?) The Roost’s, which is our favorite in the area.

The Green Room

Unique only begins to describe The Green Room in Northampton, a cozy bar breathing new life into crafted cocktails. Beer? They have a few. Wine? Sure. One choice of white and one red. Now let’s get down to business. Mixed drinks. There are dozens of varieties of house made bitters, 2 passionate mixologists-in-residence, and every conceivable liqueur (and liquor) you can imagine. This is the place Molly has been waiting for the entire time she’s lived in the area. We met Mike, half of the mixologist team, on our first visit and he made us 2 of the most delicious adult beverages we’ve had in ages. I didn’t know what I wanted, but with a few probing questions Mike produced an herbal rye cocktail with a hint of citrus that put the best Manhattan to shame. Molly ordered the Alpine Slide: gin, Chartreuse, lemon, bitters, egg white, and spruce. They don’t have a website (other than Facebook) and despite being in the heart of downtown they’re still earning speakeasy cred with an exclusively word of mouth advertising campaign. If you live within walking distance, or have a designated driver, make this your first or last stop of the evening. And spread the word. We don’t want to lose this place.

The Hangar

It’s all so confusing! Formerly Amherst Brewing Company, local Wing-tastic bar The Hangar has taken over and all for the better. They still feature some ABC beer, but they also have tons of local and regional beers on tap and some wickedly friendly and helpful bartenders. The wings are as solid as ever, but the real attraction here is the numerous taps, the copious space, and the service. It was our first visit since the transition in ownership and we will definitely be back. Special shout-out to Operations Manager “Stoney” who is the best of the best. Great experience.

High Horse

Molly and I tried High Horse a few months after it opened 3 years ago. We were living in Northampton at the time. I remember liking it, but then we up and moved to California. With only one meal and a few pints to go on, High Horse faded in memory. Now that we live down the road High Horse has become a favorite.

highhorseImpossibly, they seem to have let their website lapse, so finding information on what’s currently on tap or on their menu is hard if you want to avoid Facebook. Without a central authority I’ve seen them called High Horse Brewery, High Horse Brew Pub, and according to their Twitter feed (their handle, yet another variation) High Horse Tap House. It’s all very strange, especially considering the food and beer is so consistent and good. So guys, if you’re reading this, I’d gladly build you a site in exchange for burgers and beer.

The Burger

burger2So I’ll get to the beer in a minute. We’ve been trying to find our go-to burger since we got back. We love The People’s Pint, but now that we’re past the far side of Amherst it’s too much of a hike to do Greenfield as often as we did in Northampton. There are several burgers in our vicinity though that are excellent, and High Horse is in the top spot. The bun, the quality of the beef, the presentation, and the bottomless fries all contribute to that. The thing securing their ranking for us are options.

Most every place that serves burgers has one with bacon, one with mushrooms, yadda yadda. If the burger is good those choices are equally as good, but ultimately those things are treated as exotic condiments. All that to say they don’t make the overall burger better, just different. High Horse makes a good thing great in this department.

Our last visit we had their take on the mushroom burger, The Frenchman. The mushrooms are cooked down in port wine and smothered in local Gruyere cheese. We’ve also tried their Black and Blue, which is crusted with black peppercorn and mustard seed before being graced with strips of bacon and a generous chunk of strong, pungent blue cheese. For a straight up burger you can’t go wrong here, but if you’re on the fence about the up-sell, don’t be.

Veggies out there take note, there’s a non-meat option made in-house too. They have a whole vegetarian menu in fact, so soldier on.

Appetizers

salad2I’m doing this in reverse order I guess. Our last trip we had the beet and arugula salad, which was very good if a bit stingy with the beets. Or maybe they were overly generous with everything else. It was a solid salad and we’ll order it again, but beet-lovers be warned the titular ingredient is along for the ride and not running the show.

We’ve also tried High Horse’s contribution to the advancement and refining of tater tots in something they call Spud Nuggets. You can get these as a standalone appetizer or upgrade your fries if you order a burger. They may have a whimsical name, but they’re closer to the loftiest croquette than something from the freezer section. They’re crisp on the outside and as silky as mashed potatoes inside. The appetizer portion is big, so bring 2 friends or split dinner.

The Beer

A regular rotation of cask selections is usually all I need to hear. The bartenders at High Horse deserve a collective round of applause. They’re knowledgeable, friendly, efficient without being “are you done yet?” pests, and they’re eager to sample anything you ask about.

Last visit I had their Another Lover IPA on cask and it was delish. A little piney, but not overpowering with a nice hop finish. It didn’t eclipse the Satisfaction IPA they also have, but wasn’t exactly its own thing. They’re paternal twins, not cousins, but if you like West Coast style backbone in your IPA you’ll dig them both.

Our shared favorite was their Beyond The Pale British style pale ale. I’ve had several British-style Pales on this side of the Atlantic and while they’re generally good they don’t take me back to London pubs. Like too many Americanized Belgium-style beers, they tend to be overdone in my opinion. Beyond The Pale is a big exception. We both loved it, and I wished I had a Fuller’s there to do a side by side. I think High Horse’s Beyond would have won out. It’s got the maltiness, the killer aroma, and the right touch (and variety) of hops on the end. It’ll be hard for either of us to order anything else now that we’ve tried it.

We’ve also tried their Minx Saison and Hadley Smoked Lager. The former was good if a bit mellow. Their cask choice sometimes features an aged version of the Saison called Soleil D’or we both found a bit odd, if still good. I keep trying smoked beers hoping to find one I don’t hate, and High Horse’s fit the bill. I still couldn’t get through a pint of one on my own, but it’s an interesting choice to throw into a flight/sampler.

Final Word: great burgers, atmosphere, staff, and brews. Worth the drive from further afield, and if your local, well, we’ll see you there for sure.

Hope + Olive

What is it about Greenfield? There are so many little gems there, but they rarely get the attention they deserve. We’ve been adoring The People’s Pint, for example, for years and have only recently posted a short snippet on our last trip there. Hope & Olive is another place that deserves so much more than what we’re providing now. The cocktails we’ve had over the years are always inventive, fun, and delicious. There was a crazy watermelon sangria-type thing happening last summer that was absolutely remarkable. A few years ago I had an Indian Pudding that deserved its own Michelin star. The regular menu is also fantastic: The short ribs, the crispy brussels, the slow-roasted carnitas. We’ve never experienced a “Meh” moment in this place. On top of it all the owners are super nice and regularly helping out. Wish we were eating there tonight!

Jim Rockford Memorial Tacos

Molly and I were both sad to hear the news of the passing of James Garner. My first and fondest memory of him was in The Great Escape and later in a little gem with Sally Field called Murphy’s Romance. Both my Southern grandmother and Molly’s Aunt Mary were huge fans of The Rockford Files, but we didn’t watch it ourselves until last year.

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Joe’s Cafe

This was my third trip to Joe’s Cafe, but my first eating there. They have a loyal following who don’t care if you like the place or not. There are 2 confusingly-placed doors that empty directly into the tiny space next to tables, no host, and lots of regulars standing around blocking staff and new customers alike. It’s total chaos. The first two times there we fought our way through the crowd to have numerous staff move around us while maintaining an impressive absence of eye contact. After 5+ minutes of that we left both times. If you took Hungry Ghost and Bread Euphoria out of the competition, Joe’s would beat every other pizza place within 25 miles without breaking a sweat. You’ll definitely have a sense of accomplishment if you eat here. Once we had a table the service was excellent.

Little Star Pizza. Albany, CA

sign

Not Just A Great Pie

Little Star Pizza is one of our favorites. Not just for the pizza, though we both think it’s the best Chicago style around (including Zachary’s up the block which we like, but don’t love). The decor in the Albany location is cozy and rustic, the draft selection is always good with a steady rotation of things to try, and the staff is the best. We’ve tried just about everything on the menu now and have settled into a regular rotation of preferred items.

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Magpie

Magpie is another one from our this-review-is-overdue list.

Magpie is the sibling of one of our favorites, Hope + Olive. You get the same rustic charm of an interior as it’s fancier counterpart, but casual. If Hope + Olive is the formal dining room, Magpie is the counter-top bar where you hang out in the kitchen. They bill themselves as a pizzeria, and their pie is definitely excellent, but they’re a lot more.

A respectable choice for Cocktail Hour

orange-twisted spicy Mezcal with little Rickey on the right.

The bartenders at Magpie are as inventive and knowledgeable as anyone. I’m a bit of a lightweight and I especially love the mocktails they come up with when I don’t feel like getting a buzz with my pizza. Our last visit I had a delicious Tamarind Lime Spritzer, a virgin Rickey I think I’ll call it. It was just sweet enough and was able to highlight its tart and tamarind goodness.  Molly had a smokey, spicy Mezcal cocktail with as much kick as our favorite margarita in the area, Mission Cantina‘s Tres Alarms.

Cold Soup. Why isn’t this everywhere?

Broccoli Rabe and Gazpacho with garlic toast

I started with their Gazpacho because I’m a sucker for cold soup and am totally annoyed more restaurants in the area don’t make it. The toast was garlicky perfection with the very traditional warm-weather staple. The portion was a little big, but I enjoyed every last drop.

Portions at Magpie are capital “G” Generous

Delicious Crispy Eggplant with a roasted red pepper sauce and melted parm

Sometimes we think they’re too generous. One of our first visits we ordered 4 “Starters” with our pizza and had to take most of the pizza home with us. Our last visit, if you count my Gazpacho, we had 3 starters and again took home half a pizza. That’s not a complaint because the prices are incredibly reasonable, but we want this place to stick around for a long time. With some of their Starters I’m not sure I could even buy the ingredients for the cost of ordering something like their delicious Crispy Eggplant.

Oh yeah, the pizza!

Fagioli!

Magpie’s crust is where it’s at. It’s thin with plenty of crisp and glutenous springiness in play. Their toppings range from more traditional to ultra creative, so Molly and I don’t have a shared favorite. Our last visit I won the pizza-choosing contest and we got Pizza Fagiloi with white beans, aged balsamic, arugula, and chopped tomato. I think this is my go-to for the foreseeable future, but Molly says she prefers the Pepperoni and Mushroom (with its caramelized onion under-layer). It says a lot about their crust that it can perfectly serve as a vehicle for something heavy or light.

But wait, there’s more

Magpie also does desserts right. It’s rare that we order them because we’re stuffed after dinner, but the occasions we have indulged (post indulgence) we haven’t been disappointed. It’s also worth mentioning they have ample entrees, regular specials, and outdoor seating that’s fun for people watching, a long bar facing the life going by on the street.

Enjoy yourself some Greenfield.

McCarthy’s Pub

This bar couldn’t be less pretentious and we love it. The draft selection always has one or two good craft beers mixed in with domestic barley-water like Bud Light. The food is far more than passable pub grub. The wings are excellent and the burgers are very good, and cooked  how you ordered them. If you like them bloody, they’ll bring them to you that way. We’ve had a few misses when they’re wildly busy, so if there’s a lot of hustle and bustle you might want to stick to something difficult to overcook (like the wings or the “drunken” pastrami sandwich). It’s a great place to catch a quick bite, watch a game, or gamble away your life savings on Keno.

McLadden’s

We don’t usually like to review places that aren’t local. McLadden’s Northampton is currently one of 3 locations with 2 more on the way, all of which are in New England. The trigger to our non-local radar is that being there (or visiting their website) is a hyper-polished branding experience. The LLC behind this place obviously wants it to be a craft beer Applebee’s similar to The Yard House. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s worth mentioning. This is not a “mom and pop” establishment, but we’ve had great experiences there anyway. First of all, 105 taps. That’s right, one hundred and five. On our last visit we also had an extremely knowledgeable barkeep. She wasn’t stingy with samples and was honest with her opinions of any beer we asked her about. Thanks to her we didn’t feel as though we were getting a corporate experience. We each had a sandwich from their spare and mildly-inspired menu. The food was tasty and we happened to be there on a half-priced sandwich night, so that was nice. We’ll continue to visit McLadden’s, ever watchful and cautious of their growth (don’t go all Goose Island on us please).

Mission Cantina

is one of the few restaurants that’s close to our new apartment. We were excited to move back to the Northampton area, but wanted a nice big yard for our nice big dog. It’s hard to shop for a new apartment on one coast from the other, but we managed to find a place in Belchertown we’ve already grown to love. The downside of course is that we’re not walking distance from great places to eat. The last time we lived in these parts we were a half mile from downtown Noho.

We were stoked when our friend, artist Scout Cuomo, introduced us to Mission Cantina our first restaurant meal back in the Happy Valley. The place is the epitome of charm and after our travels in Oaxaca earlier this year it was nice to see our new love for Mezcal will be well satisfied. We’ve already been back (twice) and we’ve only been in town a month.

Mezcal? Yes, Please!

I consistently order the basic Mezcal Margarita on the menu. There are several Mezcals to choose from, but I’ve been happy with the house-selection since our first visit. It’s awesome. I love that each bartender at Mission Cantina has their own style. The drinks have been consistently good, but always a little different. Molly likes the daily drink specials, and on our last visit fell in love with the Cranberry Jalapeño Margarita Special. I liked it too. It reminded us of our own Blueberry Jalapeño Cocktail from last year. It definitely had more kick that ours, and that’s not a complaint.

Queso Fundido, as much a requirement as a Margarita

fundidoWho doesn’t love cheese dip? It’s a guilty pleasure wherever you get it. Most places are satisfied with a steamy serving of cheese. Mission Cantina is hardcore about theirs. It’s got spicy bits of Chorizo cooked in and comes topped with fresh diced tomato, onion, cilantro, the works. And it’s all served up in a cast iron skillet so hot you could brand yourself with it. That last bit means that by the end of your Fundido, just like a sizzling dolsot bibimbap in a good Korean restaurant, you’ve got crunchy and caramelized bits. I spoon these scrumptious morsels onto everything else I order.

Keeping it simple

Mission Cantina does not have very extensive food offerings. The whole menu fits on one double-sided, letter-sized laminate, and one whole side of it is alcohol. What they do have is tight, and we especially appreciate that the taco section includes single servings. That sort of thinking allows you and a few of your friends the luxury of ordering, “one of everything” if you like.

The Tacos

tacosI’ve had the Combo Taco Plate for all three visits and gotten a different combination each time knowing we’d be reviewing them. There are ten choices, and we’ve hit all but two. Here’s the rundown:

  • Grilled Chicken – quality white meat chicken that’s well charred without being dry. Subtle seasonings that still come through. Probably my favorite to spoon a generous scoop of Fundido on.
  • Carne Asada – dead on Asada if a little by the book.
  • Chorizo – haven’t tried this one yet.
  • BBQ Pork – the sauce on this was a teensy bit heavy, but the caliber of the pork was perfect.
  • Carnitas – This is my favorite. Like the Asada it doesn’t offer any surprises, but the A+ execution is really all you can ask for.
  • Braised Beef – close second to the Carnitas. Plenty saucy, like a beef stew taco. My favorite to take as leftovers because out of the fridge cold it’s like a good roast beef sandwich.
  • Grilled Shrimp – I’m not as huge a shrimp fan as Molly, but I’d order this one again. I prefer the Crispy Fish, but Molly gives the little crustacean her vote for tacos from the sea.
  • Poblanos Rajas – haven’t tried this one yet.
  • Vegetables – A generous mix that doesn’t leave you feeling cheated for not getting meat.
  • Crispy Fish – California is the land of the fish taco and we’ve had some incredible ones there. I like that Mission’s doesn’t seem to follow the West Coast beer-batter convention. The fish is pan-fried and plenty crispy, but without a heavy breading. This made the shaved cabbage and special crema of that particular taco shine.

 Pozolé Rojo, ¡Que Authentico!

 

pozoleI’m not the kind of foodie to complain about bastardized cultural dishes, but it is nice that the Sopa tradition of Mexico (ignored by most “Tex-Mex” places) is well represented at Mission. Molly had the Pozolé on her last visit and we both agreed it’s better than a cup of hot cocoa on a chilly winter evening. The broth alone would satisfy me, but the chunks of pork and stewed veggies make it all the better. The soup is hidden in their appetizer menu, but a large portion is plenty for dinner.

Mission Cantina is located at 485 West Street in South Amherst and is always busy. They will not seat an incomplete party, not even at the bar. If you go on the weekend you’re going to have to wait. During the week, well, you’ll have to wait but not as long. Don’t despair though, the Mission is catty-corner from The Moan and Dove. Put your name on the list at Mission and then skip across the road for a pint while you wait. You won’t regret it.

Mrs. Murphy’s Donuts

Their chocolate glazed was just written up in the Huffington Post as one of the 12 best donuts in the country, but every single donut they make is amazing. Molly’s favorite was the honeydew and mine is a toss up between the chocolate frosted and the strawberry cream. They don’t make too many varieties, so it’s possible to get most of their line-up in one dozen. Do that. Expect lines on the weekends, but if you’re crazy enough to be up before the sun Mrs. Murphy’s opens at 4 am.

Mt. Tom’s Ice Cream

There’s a great quote from Steve Earle, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan‘s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” The Pioneer Valley has a lot of great ice cream, but Mt. Tom’s is the absolute best and we’ll stand on a table at Herrell’s and say that. If they only had one flavor, Burnt Sugar, it would still be the best ice cream in the area. You can do no wrong here. Try everything. They’re sure to have crazy flavors and they’ll even dazzle you with the basics. It’s decadent, but not chokingly over the top. Worth the drive if you’re not close by.

The People’s Pint

The People’s Pint is long overdue on our list of restaurants to fully review. For now we’ll start with the fact that this is the home of our favorite ESB, Hope Street Amber. They do a damn fine job on their IPAs too. The kitchen has a smoker and they aren’t afraid to use it. The pulled pork is some of the best we’ve found outside of the south, and the smoked chicken chili is winter’s best friend.

The Problem With Beer Festivals

Fridge Beer
What we happen to have in our fridge at the moment

Beer at Home

The average cost of a craft six pack is $10. There are always more expensive options. One of my favorites, Ballast Point’s Habanero Sculpin, is around $15 and last week we bought the variety pack, Petrus Sour Power, for $24. So we don’t mind spending more to get something special. We buy beer most every week because we like to have options in the fridge. The advantages are obvious: drink what we want, at our own pace, and at the end of the night we don’t have to drive anywhere.

The National Beer Bloggers Conference

Sierra Nevada Brewery Tour
The Beer Bloggers Conference included a private tour of the Sierra Nevada brewery given by founder and owner Ken Grossman

For the last 2 years we’ve attended the national Beer Bloggers Conference. The cost for admission has been $120 per person. For that amount we get beer, panel discussions, brewery tours, swag, several meals, and transportation to and from the various activities. It starts on a Friday and runs all day and night until Sunday afternoon. If you’re from out of town there’s travel and accommodation to factor in, but as far as the event itself goes the entrance fee has you covered.

Sierra Nevada Cookout
This lavish cookout was just one of several at The Beer Bloggers Conference. Other perks included the bus that shuttled us safely from one location to the next.

The WTF math of Festival Beer

Since we’ve been back in the area there have been several regional beer festivals. After reading up on them we’ve gotten excited about each one. Most of them take place on 2 day’s worth of evenings and feature 40+ local breweries. Food is on site and available for purchase. The events have all sounded great, but we haven’t gone to any of them. Why? Because the cost for these festivals is about $40 per person, per day. The per day part is crazy to us.

If I went into Spirit Haus and saw a six pack advertised for $10, picked it up and was then told at the counter that price was actually only for 3 of the beers, I’d politely switch it out with something else. It’s not the expense that would turn me off, it would be the deliberately misleading labeling. If instead there were several interesting “3-packs” advertised as $10 I’d most likely try them all.

Firkin Event @ The Foundry
A recent Firkin night at The Foundry highlighted local breweries, was priced per sample, and allowed the brewmasters to mingle with attendees.

Festivals get even worse

If you’re a vocal and passionate supporter of local craft beer you’d want to sample all participating breweries, but at these festivals that’s not possible unless you go to both nights of the event. Why? Because half the breweries are there one night, half the other. That’s like the hypothetical six pack above being a variety pack, the store only selling you 3, and asking you to return the following night (but only between 5pm and 10pm) to purchase the remaining 3.

If it sounds like I’m telling local beer festivals to go to hell, I’m not. You can’t insult someone who has spit in your face, taken your money, and walked away laughing.

To top it off festivals don’t seem to care about safety. Many people spending that much for one 4-hour day of an event are going to try their damnedest to get their money’s worth. Festivals don’t include any sort of transportation options in their admission prices. That means that if a person were to responsibly hire a car, go to both days of an event, and purchase food each evening they were there, the festival would wind up costing substantially more than a national, all-inclusive conference. That seems extremely exploitative to us.

Suggestions?

We think a beer festival should be about 2 things: getting great, hard-working local breweries the attention they deserve and providing a safe, unique place for local beer fans to enjoy themselves. I hope festival organizers make money for themselves in the process, but that can’t be the main point of these things as we feel it is now.

We have three suggestions:

  1. Charge one, low admission for the entire event and then sell a flexible quantity of drink tickets so that festival-goers don’t feel compelled to drink so much they can’t even see straight to call an Uber.
  2. Have ridesharing forums on festival websites.
  3. Have all breweries in attendance every day of the festival.

We’d love to hear your ideas too, so comment below!

The Roost

Updated on April 4, 2016
The Roost turns 5!
The Roost turns 5!

This past February restaurant owners Adam Dunetz and Robyn Goodmark marked the 5th Anniversary of The Roost in Northampton. It’s hard to believe it has only been 5 years when so much about the place has become a part of our regular routine. Molly and I think their ginger-drenched and maple-hinted Chai Lattes are the best in the area. We also love their all-day egg sandwiches, spicy chocolate snickerdoodles, the local taps, and the overall vibe of the place.

Goodies from The Roost
Goodies from The Roost

The Roost oozes personality, from the rustic decor to the eclectic tunes to the hipster-thrift staff. If someone were to ask me what Northampton, Massachusetts was like I would walk them through The Roost and say, “Basically this, times 30 thousand people.”

The Roost has a special place in my heart too as the last place I worked in food service. I manned the counter and espresso bar when they opened before spending a year in the prep kitchen. In the grueling world of restaurant work, Adam and Robyn were as good as it gets as managers. I chatted them both up recently about the last five years and what they see going forward for what’s now a local benchmark.

Bub: The Roost manages to be different in a town that already has a lot of unique bars and restaurants. What are your biggest influences on how you built and run The Roost?

Robyn: Adam’s wife Liz has an awesome shop on Market Street called Sticks and Bricks. She refinishes and repurposes furniture and housewares using reclaimed materials. Her industrial/modern/rustic aesthetic was a big inspiration. She helped us create a space where all kinds of people can come to meet, eat, drink, talk, play and enjoy.

cut-wine bottle light fixtures and cast iron custom shelving are just some of the accents Sticks and Bricks added to the atmosphere of The Roost.
cut wine bottle light fixtures and cast iron custom shelving are just some of the accents Sticks and Bricks added to the atmosphere of The Roost.

Adam: I was thinking about two things with The Roost: businesses I remember from living in Portland, Oregon and a European-style café. We wanted to create a community hub where people interact, eat good food, drink good coffee, beer, or wine, in a casual and comfortable way.

Bub: How much of what you learned opening and running The Green Bean helped shape what you were doing at The Roost?

Adam: You learn a lot every time you do something. The Green Bean was a business that I’d spent two years looking for a space for. The significant change about how I approached the Roost was- here’s this empty space, what would be the perfect thing to go in there? It might not seem significant, but when you’re committed to an idea that you’re looking for a space for, you’re basically jamming the idea into the space. When you see a blank space and let your imagination run wild, it’s likely you’re going to come up with a better fit between space and concept. Interestingly, opening up The Roost gave me a ton of insight into the Green Bean. It’s like you can’s see the forest through the trees, but the second you step outside, you see everything.

Bub: You both have musical backgrounds, did any of that experience find its way into how you setup The Roost?

Robyn: I spent the bulk of my time (about 10 years) after college running my own business, which was a touring band that involved managing and tour managing ourselves, running our own line of merchandise and recording. I learned a lot about keeping a lot of balls in the air. The Roost is my first real restaurant gig. Before we opened I went to work for Adam at The Green Bean for about 6 months to learn the basics and get my feet wet.

Roost Co-owner Robyn Goodmark.
Roost Co-owner Robyn Goodmark.

Adam: I’ve worked in food service pretty much as long as I’ve been working, but I spent a few years touring with a band too. I think there’s something about playing music that helps you see things differently, or gives you license to follow your own inspiration in creating a space. We weren’t trying to copy anybody in making The Roost. We dreamed it up, talked it out, and made it happen. I see music in that.

Bub: You host movie nights and game nights, any thoughts on live music?

Robyn: We opted not to make our space set up for live music since there are so many other places in town where you can go see bands play. We want people to be comfortable for the time they’re here. We want them to have meetings, write books, play games, watch movies; all while being aware of how many seats they’re occupying and for how long. We want to make The Roost a place with room for new customers to feel welcome.

Bub: What’s coming up for The Roost?

Robyn: Hopefully being here for a good long while. Continuing to make the job better for our employees, being able to provide paid time off and other benefits. Continuing to provide delicious food and drinks while supporting as many other local businesses and vendors as we can. Building our evening business so that The Roost can be one of the great night spots in town for beer, wine and dessert plus the fun of game nights, karaoke nights, movie nights and collaborations with local breweries.

Recent Tap Takeover by Brewmaster Jack
Recent Tap Takeover by Brewmaster Jack
Bub: You’ve already had a good bit of that. Can you tell us a little about your collaboration with Brewmaster Jack?

Robyn: Brewmaster Jack is a great local brewer, who lives in the neighborhood and was a regular customer from the beginning. We got to know him over the years and when he started his business we were happy to start carrying his beer. It always sold well, and got a great response from customers. It was fun to collaborate on a signature beer for The Roost and people have really enjoyed the Cock-a-doodle-brew. Not sure if we’d do something like that with anyone else, but we are open to ideas that help support other local businesses. We’ve already done a batch of “Tap Takeovers” with Abandoned Building Brewery and Fort Hill Brewery. We’ll be doing another one with The People’s Pint on the 29th of April.

Northampton regulars come home to roost.
Northampton regulars come home to roost.

Rustic Bakery. Larkspur, CA

lattesSoon after moving here over a year ago Molly and I started going to Larkspur Landing on Sundays for Food Trucks. Off The Grid does a remarkable job of organizing these. There are different trucks every week, the quality of the food  is (mostly) stellar, and genuinely great bands often play on site. It’s a laid back party-like atmosphere.

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Saw Mill Site Farm

This isn’t a restaurant or bar, but we’re excited enough to mention it for Western Mass foodies. Saw Mill Site Farm has a line of horseradishes, and holy root vegetables Batman are they delicious. We’ve tried the original, which is stellar, but it’s the beet variety we tried last night that was over-the-top good. It’s got all the bite of straight-up horseradish, with the tart, explosive zeal of the beet. It made our kielbasi and cabbage dinner an event. We purchased some at Atkins Farms, but Saw Mill Site Farm does mail order too. Get some!

Tart Baking Company

Like many locals, we were sad to see Bakery Normand close. It was a great little place to get brioche. We took our time, almost out of mourning, before we tried Tart. Now we wish we’d gotten there sooner. The pastries here are spot on. Molly is thrilled to see savory hand pies, and I’m pretty stoked to have knish back in my life. The greatest discovery from this joint though is espresso + tonic. I know, I was skeptical at first too. Lemon tonic no less, but after the shock of the first sip we were both hooked.

The Foundry

What a peculiar little spot. Formerly The Yellow Sofa and before that, who can remember? The Foundry is run by Sally and Sonny, 2 lovely people who as far as I can tell never take a day off. They have a short draft list, but it’s always a damn well-curated one, and Sally knows every last beer they serve inside and out. They have regular tap takeovers and cask nights and all sorts of events in between. They have an interesting food menu that, to be honest, we have yet to try. In addition to drafts they also pull a pretty good shot of espresso here. They may be overshadowed at times by bars close by boasting 40+ taps, but this is a cozy little spot worth investigating.

The Wagon Wheel Restaurant

The Wagon Wheel is a place we’ve meant to go for a long time. We’ve heard good things for years, but until we moved to Greenfield it wasn’t exactly on the way to anywhere. Now that we’ve been, several times, we admit to being fools for not making a special trip when it was further away.

plated up

The place has a lot of cozy, kitschy charm. The walls are decorated with paint-by-numbers, old clocks, and the kind of commemorative plates you would buy at gift shops in the seventies. All of that is incidental compared to the food.

Let me start with the greatest pancakes on earth

They’re called Big Wheel Pancakes and you should order them on your first visit. Let me describe them with a hypothetical conversation I imagine the creator having with his or her pancake mentor:

“What if I made a pancake like an omelet?”

“What are you talking about!? You’re crazy!”

“No, I think it would be amazing. Everyone likes to eat bites of pancake with breakfast meats or fruit. Why not just put it all in the pancake?”

“You’re drunk with power!”

“I’m doing it.”

Big Wheels for adults

The Big Wheel Pancakes are two gigantic, fluffy wonders with sausage, caramelized onions, cheddar, and baked apple pieces fried right into them. They are insane. Add a little fresh maple syrup and a generous pat of butter and you will weep openly at the table the first time you have them. You’re welcome.

Other winners are the homefries deluxe and their signature homemade corned beef hash.

Did I mention they make their own ice cream?

Well, they do, and although we’ve only tried one flavor so far, Strawberry Rhubarb, it was as good as some of our favorites from Flayvors or Mt. Tom’s. We recognize that as a wild boast, so are stopping short of declaring all their ice cream is that good until we’ve tried a lot more flavors. Expect an update before the end of our summer research.

Have you been to Gill lately?

What Craft Breweries Can Learn From Wineries

BeerLearnFromWineA little over a year ago I lived in Northern California. I worked for the two years I was there for a Digital Marketing Agency, and we had several wineries as clients. I cut my teeth in social media and blogger outreach on those accounts. I was impressed with how engaged most were with the people vocal about their wine online. They regarded those conversations as an essential connection to both existing and perspective fans.

You are not a product

I was on a conference call with a winery once, and someone used the word “product” to describe the wine in a campaign we were all working on. Someone from the winery interrupted the conversation. They said that “product” lost the importance of the relationship between the winery and its advocates, and shouldn’t be used. The word reduced things to a financial transaction.

I thought they were being melodramatic. I thought, Come on! Your wine is a product. The more I thought about it later though, the more I agreed with, even admired, the person who’d stopped the meeting over the use of the word. The winery was obviously interested in increasing sales. That’s why they’d hired us. At the core of everything though, was a sincere passion for the wine they made. They realized their fans shared that passion and that’s what made those conversations on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram so important.

Sadly, I don’t see that level of online engagement from many craft breweries.

I met some amazing brewers at the 2014 and 2015 Beer Blogger’s Conference, and some lovely Reps at various tastings. They’ve all been generous with their time and their beer. I even had a long conversation in a grocery store with a driver for a local brewery a few months back. He helped me pick out a beer for a dinner I was making, and it wasn’t even from his brewery! In short, I adore brewers. They’re the coziest people in the world when you meet them in person. The problem is their engagement on social media is often one-sided, robotic, sterile even. It’s like being stuck on a service call with a digital recording that never connects you to a real person.

A model social media citizen

Here’s where numerous wineries excel at forming online relationships. Let’s look at La Crema Winery. They found our blog on Twitter. They, a winery, followed us, a beer blog. We were surprised, but checked them out and followed back. What the hell. We like wine! We look for their wines on menus now and try them when we see them. Although we definitely drink more beer than wine, as a result of their engagement, we actively listen to what they have to say.

Take a look at their Twitter account: La Crema Winery

When you look at their feed you see that they’re following a good percentage of their fans back. They’re also re-tweeting things those fans care about, some of which don’t even have anything to do with their wine. That sort of engagement shows they see themselves as part of a bigger picture, that their fans are more than just revenue.

I’m tired of talking about me, why don’t you talk about me?

Now let’s look at one of our favorite breweries: 21st Amendment Brewery

We followed their feed for a while, because we buy their beer and are interested in what they’re doing. Like a lot of breweries though, we no longer follow them. Why? Well, none of our mentions or likes or re-tweets resulted in any sort of conversation. We still buy their beer and love it, but as far as social media goes, what’s the point in following someone who never interacts? It’s like inviting someone to a party and all they want to do is stand on a chair and recite poetry.

When you look at their Twitter feed you see a huge fan base, but they’re following the tiniest fraction of their supporters in return. They’ve liked a bunch of posts, but every last one of those seem to be about them.

There’s nothing really wrong with that. Oprah doesn’t follow anyone. Neither do a lot of wineries for that matter. It’s a totally legit way to make use of social media. It’s just not interesting to people actively using social media. The active users are people looking for information to entertain and educate themselves (yes, it actually is used for that too). When those people find something that excites them, they share it with their followers. The passive people just there to collect information from your passive Twitter account aren’t terribly influential. They’re not getting the word out.

Ultimately, everyone is promoting something on social media. If that’s all you’re doing though, you’re missing an opportunity to connect with your biggest advocates. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I saw this great advertisement on Twitter today.”

White Barn Inn

For the first time in a long while I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution, and it all started with our trip to the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport. Our friends Mike and Craig took us there for a welcome back to New England dining extravaganza and it was amazing. Before our visit I was excited about the food, but worried I might not fit into either of my suit jackets (The White Barn Inn has a dress code). I left with tight pants, a satisfied smile, and a desire to dress like an adult. No hoodies in public for me in 2015.

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