Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Places like Hot Suppa serve the kind of food that I go for in a big way: hearty down-home fare that when it’s done with care and cunning can be a soul-satisfying experience. But when the pageantry of such comfort grub goes awry, the allure is short-lived.
In other words, I’ve had two lackluster meals at Hot Suppa recently when my expectations were set so high.
The first experience was Sunday brunch. It’s a hot ticket here, and I anticipated a long wait for a table. At 9:30 on a Sunday morning it took 20 minutes to be seated.
But I was urged by a local food maven to go—at least for its iconic corned beef hash and barbecued brisket. That and the notion of honestly made home-style regional cooking on a higher plane than just diner fare was hard to pass up.
I ordered hash with all the fixings and my friend chose eggs Benedicts. Out came impressively huge portions. My hash was picture-perfect: magnificent with its glistening armor of burnished crust and cubes of carrot, onion and potato peeking out underneath.
Beyond the veneer, however, Hot Suppa’s version unraveled. I dug into what amounted to a pile of shredded corned beef -- a method of hash making that has its pitfalls. The shreds of meat tend to dry out and it’s just too stringy to eat easily. I much prefer a mixture of cubed meat or chunks of meat that are cooked together with plenty of sautéed onions in butter or oil, stock or heavy cream (for the crust formation), parboiled potatoes and carrots.
The vegetables were undercooked instead of being soft and creamy and worst of all the meat was tasteless. Served on the side were two over-easy eggs that were so small they must have been pullets.
My friend’s serving of Eggs Benedict was fine. The fried green tomatoes we ordered were fabulous.
About a week later we went there for dinner. Was I a glutton for punishment? No, I was willing to give this place a second spin and figured the chefs (two brothers) would shine at the dinner hour.
On a weeknight it was much less frenzied, and I was eager to explore the largely southern style menu.
Coincidentally we were seated at the same table we had at brunch, a corner table that was comfortable enough. But the restaurant’s lighting at night presents a serious design flaw. With a few exceptions no matter where you sat the track lights hit you squarely in the eyes. It was like being blindsided in a tunnel with no way out.
I ordered the fabled barbecued brisket and a side of tomato soup. I thought the soup was going to be a first course but it was served with the entrée. I had a side of collards and corn bread. I urged my friend to have the fried chicken. He chose macaroni and cheese to accompany.
I’m sick of hearing about “mac and cheese” rants and raves. None of our eateries really make it right in true soul-food fashion. It should be scooped out of a crusty old baking dish with a brown crust on the sides and top and utterly oozing with cheese — the more processed the cheese the better.
Hot Suppa’s rendition is purported to be right up their in rapture land. Instead, what I sampled was a lathery mush of macaroni swathed in an insipid cheese sauce.
The chicken was OK, if not somewhat dry. But my collards were drenched in a turgid green cooking liquid.
Alas, the fabled brisket was another disappointment. It’s described on the menu as mesquite smoked and “not so lean.” I can forgive the mesquite -- hickory, pecan or oak are much better choices. The not so lean meat was as raunchy as cutting into slices of fat back.
We had a forgettable cake dessert and called it a night.
The story about this place is a nice one. Two brothers roamed the country digging into dives, fish fry’s, diners and barbecue joints to bring back the essence of regional American cooking. The menu certainly reflects it, and the restaurant’s popularity with Portlanders is legion. Unfortunately my experience didn’t jibe with the majority.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.