Friday, April 18, 2014
Finding real down-home cooking is getting harder to find in our finicky restaurant constellation of megalomaniacal star chefs. But occasionally one encounters a one-off place like Deb’s Diner, where home-cooking is not hyped on a billboard or a recommended in a tourist guide. Instead, it’s the real thing.
On any given morning through the lunch hour, the Deb's Diner parking lot is full
The diner is at the Waldoboro town line and comes upon you pretty quickly as you travel Route 1. Landmarks include the turn-off to Route 32 and the Hannaford, just a few hundred feet south of Deb’s little spot on the road.
The place is as big as a single-wide, and during its short business hours—7 AM to 11 AM on Sundays and 7AM to 2:30 PM weekdays and Saturday—the place is packed.
The counter only seats 5 but you get a ringside seat watching Deb at the stove
That's Deb (background) at the stove and her daughter up at the register not looking pleased
From the road, it doesn’t have much curb appeal and looks very much like the dive within. But I was curious about it after reading an article published by the Cooking with Paula Dean magazine about the best biscuits in America. Deb’s Diner ranked 6 out of 10 nationally.
A sucker for great biscuits, I drove up to Waldoboro on Sunday for breakfast at Deb’s. It occurred to me as I undertook the 65-mile trek that maybe I should call ahead to see if these famous biscuits were available. I was assured there would be plenty.
At 10:45--not a hipster in sight--I encountered a scene out of local-America-out-for-breakfast on a Sunday morning. The five stools at the counter were taken, and only one table was left out of the 8 in the front and rear dining rooms.
Deb's dining room is generally filled with locals and summer residents
Deb at her biscuit post--when she runs out during serving hours, she often whips up another batch; she uses her trusty, specially outfitted tin can to cut her biscuits
After scanning the special’s list I chose the Irishman’s Breakfast, which was two eggs any style over crisp homemade corned beef hash, Hollandaise and homemade toast.
No biscuits? I substituted biscuits for toast, though the big slices of toast on other diners' plates looked amazingly good.
Understandably, the kitchen was very slow since Deb is the kitchen staff all rolled up into one. It took about an hour for my meal to arrive.
"My grill is getting sort of tired and slowing things up," Deb admitted to me when we spoke after the breakfast hour.
Two poached eggs and Hollandaise over delicious homemade corned beef hash; that's a side of maple glazed thick-cut bacon, a special at breakfast
As a special order, these biscuit were grilled on the flat-top
...And slathered with butter
Was it all worth the trip? The hash was gloriously good. The poached eggs and Hollandaise were deliciously perfect. And the piece de resistance—the buttermilk biscuits--were everything I hoped they would be.
Full of flavor, feather light with a slight tang from the buttermilk and a lingering sweetness, these were first-class biscuits.
I had a chance to talk to Deb after the breakfast rush. My first question was to find out what made her biscuits so good.
Surprisingly she told me some of her secrets (though no recipe forthcoming). She uses cake flour instead of all-purpose.
“It makes a much lighter biscuit,” she explained.
Next up her sleeve of tricks is that she makes her own baking powder with Bakewell Cream and baking soda. She also adds some sugar to the flour mixture and uses sea salt instead of table salt
All that and her magic touch make these airy little biscuits so high and light.
Then I got to see her biscuit-baking pans. Here were well-worn, old-fashioned aluminum roasting pans that looked like they dated back to the Crimean War.
Deb's indefatigable biscuit pans
I asked her why she didn’t use a standard baking sheet?
“These are much better,” she explained. She puts the biscuits in so that they touch (“Helps them rise,” she said) and brushes the tops with a touch of garlic butter.
She and her kitchen help, which includes her daughter, test out a lot of recipes before they hit the menu. Customers love her chowder, eggs with sausage gravy and biscuits, fried chicken, potato salad and Cole slaw, to name a few.
Most of Deb Thibault’s recipes came from her mother who in turn used an old McCall’s Magazine cookbook for a lot of her recipes.
Deb's breads are very popular as is her chocolate cream pie (in the background)
“It’s a great book,” Deb said, and she uses it too, tweaking the recipes to her liking. These include her popular macaroni and cheese, cookies and muffins and a lot of good old-fashioned test-kitchen American cooking that was so fail-safe years ago.
Deb Thibault happily--and tirelessly--at her stove
Deb's Diner, 1495 Atlantic Hwy., Waldoboro, ME 207-832-6144
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.