Now that New Hampshire is very much in play in the presidential election, large numbers of field organizers, door knockers and reporters will be sure to be heading up. For these hungry masses, I have a food find.
My friend, ONE activist Michael Castaldo, told me about a food find in New Hampshire that seemed hard to believe. He described to me a gas station on the Dover-Somersworth line, 20 minutes from Portsmouth, which offered the best hummus he had ever had. For Castaldo, who’s an expert chef with training in some of San Francisco’s finest kitchens as well as a tireless advocate for fighting global poverty, to say this made me take notice.
Yesterday during a reporting trip on which I’ll have more to say later, I took the opportunity meet Castaldo for lunch and find out for myself. Castaldo gave me directions that did not seem promising: ” ‘Citgo: Quick to Go’ — off the Spaulding Turnpike’s Exit 9.” I made my way to the aforementioned location, and it did not seem right. Sure enough, though, I found a Citgo station. When I went in I found Castaldo waiting near a simple table in the middle of what looked like a convenience store. Behind a counter to his left, a woman, whose name I learned was Michelle, was putting food into aluminum to go containers. We sat down at the table, and food started to arrive.
I met the first dish with trepidation. Kibbe. But unlike the usual somewhat dry ground meat, this was raw (though drizzled in extra virgin olive oil.) Castaldo tore off a piece from a fresh piece of pita and dug in. I was reluctant, but Michelle’s husband Amir urged me to give it a try. He said he gets fresh kibbe meat, in this case lamb, from Butcher Boy, and uses it the day of the purchase. I tasted a bite, and before I could come up with an excuse to not eat any more (I’m no Tony Bourdain when it comes to raw meat) other plates were placed before me. While I was impressed with the taste, freshness and shear ingenuity of this dish, I wanted to direct my appetite for those foods I cherish — hummus, baba ganoush, shwarma.
To say these Middle Eastern dishes exceeded expectations would be an understatement. They exceeded expectations exponentially. The organic hummus was so fresh it seemed to be an entirely different food than what people buy in the grocery store. The creamy baba was also superb. But the mezze that wowed me the most was the tabouli, a dish I always pass over at the salad bar. Not this tabouli, made from fresh parsley and lightly seasoned. Michelle also brought out grape leaves. Unlike most grape leaves, which are overpowered by the taste of dill, these combined the flavor of the vegetable with cooked kibbe and rice inside. Simply outstanding. I also enjoyed her mix of rice, chicken and pine nuts, another dish often overdone in many Lebanese restaurants. Here the chicken was moist and filled with flavor.
Michelle also brought out two superior condiments. I’m a hot sauce lover, but can really vouch for her homemade hot sauce prepared with Lebanese chiles. Even better was the creamy garlic sauce. If you ate it you would swear there would have to be mayo or egg in it. Michelle said she made the sauce with only garlic and water. It would improve any chicken, turkey or roast beef sandwich.
But then Michelle took the meal to a whole other level. She made up two rolled up sandwiches — shwarma and pasterma. One of my long standing pet peeves relating to food is going to a place which offers a gyro or shwarma sandwich and then being served a few pieces of ground meat sliced off a formerly frozen chunk from Kronos or some other national meat purveyor. I will interrogate food servers to make sure I’m getting something made on the premises. At Citgo Quick to Go there was no question. The shwarma meat was tender and tasty. Michelle prepared the sandwiches with all the appropriate condiments including her exquisite garlic sauce. An even greater surprise was the pasterma, a spiced, pastrami-like dried meat popular in Turkey and the Middle East. It was eye-openingly good.
As we ate, Michelle and Amir told me a bit of their story. They are both from Lebanon and came to America to escape the violence and strife in that country. Michelle was a chef in Beirut. When Amir bought the gas station, Subway had a store on the premises. When Subway ultimately moved out a few years ago, Michelle sensed an opportunity and bought its kitchen equipment, including the oven used to bake rolls. She bakes meat pies and other Mediterranean offerings on Fridays.
She also is sure to use organic vegetables. “It’s healthier and it tastes better,” she said. The spices are imported from Lebanon. They are also getting into catering and gaining a reputation. She told me a chef from Boston had heard of the place and drove up from Rye Beach to try it that day.
When I left completely full and carrying my leftovers in a bag, I thanked Castaldo for turning me on to the place. It’s a must visit for food lovers or anybody passionate about Middle Eastern food. I’ll have to have the falafel, made fresh, next time.
Quick To Go is located at 196 Tri-City Plaza. The phone number is (603) 740-9410. Call ahead for catering or just to make sure you’re going to hit it on the right day if you’re making a special trip.