The foodie guide to Springfield

By Margaret Whitehead

For Hampshire Life

Published: 12-11-2018 11:38 AM

When I moved to Springfield from Washington, DC, a longtime local warned me that it was a food desert. There were few grocery stores, this person said. Not really any places to eat.

This judgment, luckily, proved to be false. Springfield is one of the richest and most diverse culinary landscapes I’ve explored. The places that follow include sit-down restaurants, lunch joints, markets, delis and artisans. What they have in common is that these are all foodie places: spaces that inspire an energy and excitement about food.

1. The soup and sandwich Narnia: Nosh

Starting in late 2016, when Nosh opened shop in a closet — literally — downtown, word started going around of a sandwich shop so hard to find that it had earned the moniker “Narnia.” It became a bit of a game in the city, Nosh owner Teri Skinner says. “Can you find Nosh?”

The trick was to turn off of Main Street, head down an alley, duck through a door and into a hallway, then approach the closet door at the end of the hall. Inside the closet was Skinner, doling out soups, cookies and sandwiches on homemade bread.

Nosh is less Narnia these days, since Skinner expanded into a full-scale lunch operation in August 2018. You still have to leave Main Street, but now Nosh abuts the alleyway, its large glass windows showing off gorgeous wood-and-industrial tables and the original brick floors Skinner herself stripped of tile and plywood.

Thanks to a stint cooking for vegetarian veterinary school students, Skinner’s lunch options are evenly split between carnivore- and herbivore-friendly dishes. The sandwiches are creative and adventurous, featuring mango, fig jam, spinach pesto, and spaghetti squash “pork.”

Nosh’s burgers are wrapped in filo dough instead of bread, and there’s an option on the menu to make any sandwich into a salad. A handful of their menu items are named after the customers who inspired them.

Skinner, who starts each morning at 3 or 4 am, kneading dough for the day’s sandwiches, works from the philosophy that food should be fun. “I know a lot of people don’t like to cook,” she says, “but most people do like to eat.” 1341 Main St. Springfield; 413-237-1822

2. The neighborhood Mexican hideaway: Moctezuma’s Tradition & Flavor

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At this family-run hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant, the ceiling is strung with bright Mexican papel picado banners and glowing backlit Jarritos soda bottles perch behind the counter. It’s BYOB and informal, where you can feel at home and cozily anonymous.

The food — authentic traditional Mexican dishes and co-owner Luis Gonzalez’s spin on Tex-Mex — speaks for itself. House favorites include the carne asada, made with sirloin tips rather than the classic skirt steak, and Moctezuma’s salsa, fresh with roasted onions and garlic.

684 Belmont Ave. Springfield; 413-317-7977

3. The Italian food and bocce emporium: Mom & Rico Daniele’s Specialty Market

I was peering into a large cardboard box on a dusty shelf that contained a few jumbo pasta shells when Rico C. Daniele, who hails from Bracigliano, Italy, thrust a piece of salami on bread at me. The salami was one of over 700 kinds he’d tried, before deeming it the best salami yet. He didn’t stop talking to me for the rest of my visit.

Daniele convinced me to buy his homemade tomato sauce. He told me about bocce and showed me more bocce paraphernalia than I knew existed. He showed me a t-shirt about bocce bearing a toilet humor slogan I didn’t understand, rapidly read it aloud, then laughed.

He gave me stock tips, a bumper sticker for a proposed “Police Day” and an armful of pears. When I left, head spinning, he shouted my name over a speaker system in the parking lot. I’d never even gotten the chance to explain why I’d come.

At Mom & Rico’s, open since 1976, there are bags of fresh pasta with a handwritten sign saying “so so so good!” There’s an adorable sit-down area with tangerine-and-cream-colored cafe chairs. Its off-kilterness is its charm.

“I try to do it like the old days,” Daniele told me. “Keep it simple, but do it right.”

899 Main St. Springfield; 413-732-8941

4. The Cajun-Creole institution: Chef Wayne’s Big Mamou

Chef Wayne’s Big Mamou is so well-established that I’ll try not to beat it over the head, but there’s good reason it’s a Springfield institution.

I’d been hearing about Wayne Hooker’s Cajun and Creole food — jambalaya, spicy chicken gumbo, fried oysters, po’ boys — since moving here, and the first time I stepped inside, I realized immediately it was going to be fantastic. You can’t beat aroma as a gauge.

This place is easy to miss, a small storefront near Union Station downtown. Inside, it’s a different story. Small tables pack the modest front room and gator decorations set the Louisiana mood. There’s an air of conspiratorial glee, too; the last time I was there, two tables of diners were chuckling over how great the BYOB restaurant is, and how under wraps it is to non-locals.

 

63 Liberty St. Springfield; 413-732-1011

 

5. My personal favorite pho house: Pho Saigon

My neighborhood, called “The X” after its main six-point intersection, has a surfeit of Vietnamese groceries and restaurants, including banh mi cafes and Chinese-Vietnamese take-out joints.

I learned pretty fast that a good way to pick a fight with a Springfield resident is to announce where I prefer to get pho. But the overarching truth is that Springfield has some of the best Vietnamese food in the country, and if your biggest problem is where to get pho on a given day, you’re doing all right.

Owned by the Vuong and Cun family since 2007, Pho Sàigòn is beautifully decorated, from the orange Vespa in the window to the family’s personal Vietnamese lacquerware. The servers are so friendly, I want to move in.

Their chicken pho has a rich broth, and the savory crepe-like bánh xèo, which the restaurant calls “happy pancakes,” are crispy and packed with crunchy, fresh bean sprouts. They come with a homemade sweet fish sauce that competes with the dish itself. And speaking of sauces, try the peanut sauce accompanying the spring rolls. And the spring rolls. Try those, too.

400 Dickinson St. Springfield; 413-781-4488

6. The go-to Mediterranean grocery & Lebanese grill: Cedar’s Food Mart & Grill

Cedar’s is a foodie dream and community institution since opening in 2012.

It’s the brainchild of two siblings: Lina Gheit, a former bank manager, oversees the meticulously curated Mediterranean grocery. Her brother, Mohammed Baki, a chef, masterminds the Lebanese grill.

While I chatted with Gheit about vegan versus regular ghee, she ran her fingers along the rows of jars and paused to greet customers by name.

There are generous bags of ground sumac, rows upon rows of bulgur and couscous, pickled eggplant and bags of oil-saturated homemade pita chips.

The grill is tucked back in the corner. They’re still fussing with their za’atar blend, but the za’atar pitas were the best I’d had. Baki says the food “comes from heaven,” and he’s not wrong.

405 Armory St. Springfield; 413-273-1215

 

7. The community-oriented coffee roaster: Monsoon Roastery

Monsoon Roastery is an ambitious and community-driven local roastery. Spouse team Tim and Andrea Monson have been slowly growing their business from in-home, to in-garage, to small office in an old monkey wrench factory, to soon-to-be retail store and espresso bar.

The crux of their work happens when a customer orders coffee online, and Tim roasts it before driving it to the buyer’s house. This in-person connection drives Monsoon’s goal to source top-quality, fair-plus-trade coffee and get it into people’s hands for $10 a bag. My favorite is OverTime, a single origin robusta from Rwanda with twice the usual caffeine.

Monsoon has partnered with Vanished Valley Brewing Company on their “Hey, Don’t Forget the Coffee” Imperial Stout, supplies coffee beans to Nosh and Goodworks Coffee House and brews their in-house coffee using Chemex Coffeemakers. (In addition to being Tim Monson’s former employer, Chemex is the Chicopee-based manufacturer of the glass pour-over coffeemaker invented in 1941.)

Monsoon also holds biweekly classes on brewing water temperature, the intersection of taste and roasting and cold brew techniques.

The roastery is moving out of the monkey wrench factory in January 2019, and opening up a sit-down coffee bar in Gasoline Alley at 270 Albany Street, Springfield. (In the meantime, they’re at 143 Main St. #302 Springfield; 413-366-1123)

 

 

8. The home of picture-perfect Turkish meze: Saray II

Saray II is chef Halil Kuru’s sequel to Saray, his restaurant in West Haven, Connecticut.

Kuru, who started cooking at age 13 in Giresun, Turkey, opened the Springfield Saray in 2014 in response to the area’s large Turkish community. A renaissance man, Kuru carves rose bouquets into watermelons, butchers on-site to ensure fresh meat and sources top-notch ingredients, many directly from Turkey: tiny succulent okra, vivid green pistachios, the spices mixed into the 600-plus-pound rotisserie lamb.

 

 

1374 Allen St. Springfield; 413-796-5505

 

9. The veritable foodie museum & grocery: Food Zone International Supermarket

On a recent trip here I counted 14 shelves of spices — ranging from linden flower to annatto seed to bija to MSG to alum stone — and gave up counting before I reached the “Asian” aisle.

This gloal trove carries yam fufu from Ghana, Jamaican mango achar, bamboo shoots, banana porridge, lotus rootlets, fried red onion, corn husks, quince preserve, honeycombs drenched in honey, dense bricks of halva and unpeeled garlic bulbs in brine. It has sour tamarind, sweet tamarind, red curry, yellow curry, green curry, panang curry and massaman curry.

Here you can find five types of guava paste, eight kinds of dried chilis and six varieties of canned quail eggs.

355 Belmont Ave. Springfield; 413-731-5600

10. The quintessential Italian deli: Frigo’s Foods

A serious Italian market, Frigo’s is a tightly packed maze of gorgeous market shelves organized to shuffle customers in one door, past the deli, to the fittingly brusque cashier. The hot sandwiches are comically large but tasty, and one bundle of dried Mafaldine pasta was so long it came up to my thigh.

90 William St. Springfield; 413-732-5428

 

 

11.The Dominican & Puerto Rican smorgasbord: Mesa Buffet

Though only a year old, this family-owned buffet is clearly on its way to becoming an establishment.

I recommend filling up a plate with quarter-size portions of everything — breadfruit fritters, red beans, the savory, slightly sour mashed fried plan tains and dense coconut pudding — then going back for more.

1301 Liberty St. Springfield; 413-417-6855

 

 

Margaret Whitehead’s writing has appeared in Reason Magazine, Narratively and Good Housekeeping. Her fiction won the 2018 Thomas Morton Memorial Prize in Literary Excellence. She lives in Springfield.

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