During this disorienting, mostly dismal year, I, like everybody, missed out on nearly all of my favorite communal food experiences: stocking up on freshly boiled syrup on Maine Maple Sunday; dilatory, late-summer barn suppers at Turner Farm on North Haven; even scarfing scandalously overpriced hamburgers in the nosebleed section at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
But the one I was looking forward to most was gingerly clutching onto a sugar-dusted fairground funnel cake, guiding the drips along the wax paper away from my arm, onto the dirt while sneaking tiny, steamy bites before the dough cooled. I also loved the way my jacket smelled afterwards: like spilled cider and fryer oil.
I realized a few months ago that I’ve eaten less deep-fried food than perhaps ever before. While my cardiologist is probably elated, I’m less pleased about the dearth of crunchy, golden batter in my life. With Hanukkah in full swing right now (it started Thursday evening and runs through this coming Friday), the timing seems perfect to bring back a little deep-fried delight.
Whether you’re celebrating the holiday miracle of lamp oil that never ran out or just yearning for something indulgent to round out your weekend, I hope this guide to a baker’s dozen of the area’s best deep-fried foods tides you over until the Ferris wheel begins turning again.
One of the messiest and most delightful Hanukkah treats is a plate of sufganiyot. Kissing cousin to other yeasted, filled doughnuts like Spanish buñuelos, Polish pachki and German Bismarcks, most sufganiyot are spherical or disc-shaped and filled with sweet jam or vanilla custard.
They are also tricky to find in Maine. Perhaps you were lucky enough to preorder a box from Rose Foods before their deadline last week. But if not, don’t despair: Tony’s Donut Shop makes both kosher doughnuts and seasonal sufganiyot, as well as strawberry-jam-filled jelly doughnuts, available year-round ($2).
Tony’s Donut Shop, 9 Bolton St., Portland, 772-2727, tonysdonutshop.com
Speaking of doughnuts, the gold-standard cruller lives on the New Hampshire border at Lil’s Café ($3.25). Piped with striations to latch onto drips of glaze, one of these together with a cup of milky coffee make the trip to Kittery worthwhile, regardless of your starting point.
As a bonus, you can purchase a 4-by-4-inch art print of the vanilla-glazed version of this cruller for $10. Painted by Lil’s baker Emily Cady as part of a fundraiser to keep Lil’s staff employed during the pandemic, the proceeds from each sale are split among the café’s staff.
Lil’s Café, 7 Wallingford Square, #106, Kittery, 703-2800, lilscafe.com
Latkes, or oniony potato pancakes, are another classic Western European Hanukkah dish. Just like sufganiyot, finding reliably tasty latkes at Maine restaurants can be tricky, especially the fat-and-fluffy variety (bulked up with mashed potatoes) found at New York delis. Your best bet is to go for the golden, crisp-edged potato pancakes from Schulte & Herr, which come with house-cured salmon, cornichons, capers and sour-cream-based horseradish sauce ($11).
Schulte & Herr, 349 Cumberland Ave., Portland, 773-1997, schulteundherr.wordpress.com
One of the best things about Hanukkah is that celebratory dishes are all guided by one theme: frying. So essentially, anything fried counts. This is why, at this time of year, I always ask for an extra order of Tipo’s arancini, savory risotto balls that are breaded, then deep fried and ladled with herby Italian tomato sauce and sprinkled with parmesan ($8).
Tipo, 182 Ocean Ave., Portland, 358-7970, tiporestaurant.com
If Italian-American dishes are more your style, try the marinara-doused, skinny-sliced eggplant parmesan prepared in the legendary red-sauce style of Lisbon institution Graziano’s Casa Mia. Presciently reincarnated in 2019 as a takeout and catering business, Grazi to Go seems ready-made for pandemic times. Portions of their terrific eggplant parm are enormous, and if you order a half tray, you’ll wind up with enough to feed your entire family for days – maybe not eight days, but who’s counting? ($15/portion or $45/half-tray, or about a dozen servings)
Grazi to Go, at 26 Village St., Lisbon, 464-8181, grazitogo.com
On the smaller side, it’s hard to go wrong with Shere Punjab’s paneer pakoda/pakora ($4.25), deep-fried oblongs of squeaky house-made paneer (low-fat cheese). Before a dredging in runny besam (chickpea flour) batter, each cheesy chunk gets tossed in vibrant chaat masala spices, chili and turmeric. You’ll never look at a mozzarella stick the same way again.
Shere Punjab, 46 Maine St., Brunswick, 373-0422, sherepunjabme.com
I always associate deep-fried seafood with summertime dining, but after a January detour into The Highroller Lobster Company, I’ve come to reconsider my prejudices. I chalk that up to their deep-fried Lobby Pop, a double-skewered whole lobster tail battered and fried like a corndog ($13) – best dunked liberally into tart, aromatic charred pineapple mayo.
The Highroller Lobster Co., 104 Exchange St., Portland, 536-1623, highrollerlobster.com
Right before we all started sheltering in place, I tried to convert my fish-phobic niece to lobster-on-a-stick, but failed. Something about crustaceans looking like insects put her off. What eventually won her heart was a plateful of sweet, plump deep-fried scallops ($19.99/pint) from Docks Seafood. This summer, during the peak of tourist season, Docks and its pared-down staff were often overwhelmed by surges in business. But now, it’s just us. Take advantage of the lull.
Docks Seafood, 15 Evans St., South Portland, 899-4433, docksseafood.com
A few miles farther south in Biddeford, you’ll find one of my favorite breakfast sandwiches: Biscuits & Company’s Morning Cluck, a sausage-gravy-topped, crisp-battered chicken breast served inside a Maine Grains-flour biscuit along with an over-easy egg and slices of applewood-smoked bacon ($14.95). I can make great biscuits and passable fried chicken at home, but one thing I can’t seem to replicate is the tart, tongue-prickling Sweet and Spicy red pepper relish they serve with this early A.M. treat.
Biscuits & Company, 25 Alfred St., Biddeford, 710-2333, biscuitsandcompany.com
Chicken is also the star of Friet Kapsalon (also known as “Barbershop Fries”), a new menu addition at the charming Vittles & Variety in Lewiston ($8.50). The plate starts with a large order of crisp French fries that are layered with pulled chicken breast sprinkled with a shawarma-inspired cumin, cardamom and turmeric spice blend, shredded mozzarella, cheddar cheese and lettuce. Trendy in Rotterdam since its creation a few years ago, this snack represents a warm, gooey nod to co-owner Anneke MacIsaac’s Dutch heritage.
Vittles & Variety, 125 Scribner Blvd., Lewiston, 333-5111, vittlesandvariety.com
Levantine spicing is also alive and well in Portland. In Nura’s Fry Pocket, you’ll discover crisp-fried nuggets of falafel, pickles, tahini, hummus and the restaurant’s signature shawarma-seasoned fries, all lubricated by lashings of fiery harissa sauce and jammed into a za’atar-spiced pita ($12.25). It’s a clown car of a sandwich, and it’s incredible.
Nura, 1 Monument Way, Portland, 536-0065, nuraportland.com
If you unrolled Nura’s Fry Pocket, you’d get something that resembles Quiero Café’s Patacon: another bulgingly overstuffed entrée. Here, though, the base is a disc made from smashed, deep-fried plantains that are layered with queso fresco, avocado, garlic aioli and your choice of protein ($13). My favorites are spicy chorizo, pulled pork carnitas, or slices of tender, grill-roasted beef (carne).
Quiero Café, 8 Pepperell Square, Saco, 494-7267 or 3 Deering Ave., Portland, 536-7033, quierocafemaine.com
TEMPURA-BATTERED BEEF TONGUE
For those who prefer their beef fried, Kushiya Benkay has the solution. As part of its kushi-katsu menu of skewers that aren’t charcoal-grilled like yakitori, the tiny Portland restaurant offers bias-sliced, tempura-battered beef tongue ($4). Drizzle a little wasabi mayo on the tender meat to unlock the skewer’s secret: Its flavors evoke a Katz’s Deli sandwich slathered with spicy brown mustard. Who knew?
Kushiya Benkay, 653 Congress St., Portland, 619-7505, kushiyabenkay.com
Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]