If you have eaten at XYZ in Manset, Southwest Harbor, chances are excellent that you were on vacation when you did. After all, the restaurant, run since 1994 by co-owners Janet Strong and Bob Hoyt, is open only a few months each year, from June until Labor Day, then on weekends until mid-October. It’s also adjacent to Acadia National Park, one of the state’s biggest seasonal attractions. Even the locals around here – on “the quiet side” of Mount Desert Island – are, more often than not, summer residents.

But whether or not you’re officially off the clock, XYZ has a sneaky way of making you feel as if you are. It starts when you turn into the driveway and make your way up a dusty gravel path, past a natural clearing in the woods. In an instant, the rest of the world feels impossibly remote. By the time you reach the restaurant’s entrance – guarded by a fiberglass donkey named Rebecca, posed amid coffee cans painted and filled with geraniums – the disconnection is complete.

Your sole obligation now is to chat with Strong, who runs the front-of-house, and choose either a simple XYZ margarita ($7.50), or a swank margarita “especial,” ($12), made with pure agave tequila and Cointreau. Either choice is a good one, and Strong, once the publisher of the Bar Harbor Times newspaper, will tell you as much in the affable, no-nonsense style she shares with Hoyt, the restaurant’s chef.

The couple started traveling to Mexico in 1983, where they “discovered what real Mexican food was,” according to Strong. Later, after her parents bought a house there, they met Juana Perez, a cook who taught them how to prepare the traditional regional dishes that eventually inspired the menu for XYZ. “It’s not nouvelle cuisine. What we do is more 1950s than 2020s,” Hoyt explained. “The biggest compliment I get in Mexico is when somebody says, ‘You cook like my grandmother.’ ”

A perfect example of this is XYZ’s take on a classic puerco verde ($26). The kitchen parboils, then bakes pork shoulders in a Oaxacan green tomatillo mole, florid with poblano chiles, allspice, garlic scapes and cloves. After four hours, the pork shoulders end up supersaturated with flavor and so tender that, as Hoyt says, “they just shred themselves.”

Even if you’re not in the mood for pork, you can taste a relative of that mole in the green tomatillo-based serrano chile salsa that is served with every meal. It and its companion, a smoky red, ancho-and-chipotle-based salsa, are intended to be spread on thin slices of baguette, rather than scooped up with tortilla chips. The absence of chips has become a bone of contention for some online reviewers expecting the sort of meal they might get from a drive-thru window, but Hoyt’s finely textured tomatillo salsas demand more than crunch and salt. They are at once so delicately herbal and so penetratingly garlicky, that only the softness – and more importantly, sweetness – of bread gives your brain enough time to parse the electric complexity of what your tongue is tasting.


XYZ’s pollo en salsa naranja ($26) also conjoins pleasure and pandemonium, this time through tart, aromatic orange and peppery heat. To achieve the effect, Hoyt simmers chicken thighs in a thick sauce made by blending orange peels, lime juice, ancho chiles and skinny, nuclear arbol chiles. The concoction works especially well to balance out the robust, fatty flavors of dark meat.

When my plate arrived, I caught sight of the garnish – a single, slender red chile tracing the meridian of the split chicken thigh – and wondered: Is this a promise or a warning? Five minutes later, as I blotted dots of perspiration on my forehead, then immediately went back for another bite, I realized the answer was both.

XYZ’s menu offers more than classic dishes. Hoyt is a confident cook who is not ashamed of mining inspiration from unorthodox sources, like a now-defunct El Paso restaurant whose recipe for “adobe pie” he pilfered and transformed into the XYZ pie ($8). On a base of crushed chocolate wafer cookies sit two layers of ice cream: one coffee and one butter crunch, separated by a layer of chocolate. A woman seated at the next table desperately swatted away the mosquitoes that had snuck in through the incompletely sealed patio screens, all the while entreating her boyfriend, “The pie! Don’t let them get on my pie. I need that!”

Hoyt also borrows occasionally from Mexican street cooking, as in the garish, puckery red cocktail sauce served with the Mazatlan shrimp cocktail ($10). “Nobody can ever figure out the fruitiness and effervescence, but it’s just equal parts ketchup and Orange Crush, blended with chile de arbol for heat,” he said. “It’s a sauce that comes from Mexican beaches, where they cook with the soda they have everywhere.”

A portrait of Janet Strong and Bob Hoyt.

He also improvises expertly with more traditional tools and ingredients, creating original dishes for the restaurant. Take the sopa de aguacate ($9), a chilled avocado soup with tequila and chile. You’ll find plenty of cold avocado soups in Mexico, but they are generally made with chicken broth and cream. XYZ’s is vegan. Hoyt exploits the lack of dairy and umami to showcase a frothy leanness of flavor from cilantro, citrus and white tequila.

Another outstanding original is the cazuelita de jaiba ($15), a five-ingredient “casserole” of Maine crabmeat, almost poetic in its spareness, yet arranged precisely into covert iambs and trochees of flavor from white onion, serrano chile and buttery Monterey Jack cheese.


Both the soup and the crab casserole appetizers appeared practically before our server finished jotting down our requests. That’s part of Hoyt’s system. From 5 a.m. until the late afternoon, he’s the only one in the kitchen, so his ability to satisfy a packed house relies heavily on advance preparation. He also knows exactly where to cut corners at negligible cost, which means that frequently, dishes are plated rustically – favoring taste over visuals.

It’s a smart trade-off, especially during the last two weeks of July and the month of August, when XYZ is filled to capacity every single night, and both Hoyt and Strong put in 15-hour days. Nothing about the summer feels much like a getaway to them. Instead, they bide their time until they can slip away southward for another off-season in their Oaxacan home. I like to picture them unwinding with a few margaritas “especiales” of their own while making notes on new flavors to introduce to Southwest Harbor next summer.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant.

Contact him at: andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: AndrewRossME

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