Monday, November 22, 2010

Working Class French Food

Chez Vachon
136 Kelley Street
Manchester, NH

Hours: 6 AM-2 PM Monday-Saturday, 7 AM-2 PM Sunday
Alcohol: none that I could see
Food: French-Canadian-tinged diner food

One little-known fact about New Hampshire is that it's the most heavily French state in the union.

Like other parts of New England north of Boston, French-Canadians moved down from Canada in the 19th and early 20th centuries to work in the mills, the same way that Poles, Slovaks, Italians and blacks from down South moved to the Rust Belt.

Then the mills died out in New England earlier than industry died in the Rust Belt, as the textile industry moved South to where the cotton's produced after those states passed Right to Work laws in the 1940s and 1950s.

But New Hampshire, at least, has come back, with high-tech and services replacing the old industrial economy.

French culture still runs strong in cities in New Hampshire, but parts of it have dissipated. The only men you usually run into named Armand, Emile or Jean-Guy are grandfathers now, and while people my age still take about their memeres, I think most of the current generation's Americanized enough that they call them "grandma" like the rest of the country. And even most of the older folks don't speak French anymore, though they remember that their parents did.

But Manchester is still dotted with inexpensive diner-type restaurants that are open from 6 AM 'til 2 PM to cater to mill workers that haven't worked in mills in 50 years, and most of them still serve French-Canadian specialties like pork and salmon pies or crepes. And since it's New England, you can always get beans with your meal instead of home fries.

And then there's Chez Vachon, which bills itself as "home of the famous poutine," backed up by an entry in the "How New England Are You" feature in Yankee Magazine.

Poutine (pronounced "pooh-teen" in Quebec, but bastardized to "pots-in" at Chez Vachon) is not what you usually think of as French cuisine -- they'd never serve it at a fancy place that go to when you're trying to impress a young woman.

But it's a staple at casse-croutes (literally snack bars, but in practice closer to diners) in Quebec.

The concept is pretty simple: cheddar cheese curds and brown gravy over french fries.

In Quebec, that's pretty much the beginning and end of it, but in Manchester, one usually orders poutine with "fillings" -- that is, topped with hamburger, mushrooms, steak tips, bacon, chicken fingers or even chorizo or Spam.

One of the keys, I find, is waiting a minute to eat and stirring everything up so that the cheese curds melt, and it all forms this delicious goop.

They even have a breakfast variety here, using home fries in lieu of french fries, and with a couple eggs on it, that's OK but frankly not worth the heart attack. There's just something about the french fries that makes the whole thing tick, and eggs and gravy taste kind of weird together.

I asked the waitress what people usually get with poutine, and she, being young and new at the place, didn't really know, but another waitress, her mom it turned out, chimed in that bacon and hamburger meat was a popular combo, so I opted for that. Another waitress later said that chicken fingers were popular too.

Since it was almost two in the afternoon yet, and I hadn't eaten all day, I didn't follow my own advice and dug in immediately without mixing it up, but it was still delicious, and the bacon and burger were a nice addition.

It wasn't long before it was all gone and I was asking about dessert. The "hot apple pie" (which involves deep-frying) sounded interesting but also like it would be too much heart attack for one day, so I went with their chocolate cream pie. It didn't disappoint -- the cream was more substantial and more chocolaty than other chocolate cream pies I'd had.

Since pork pies are my favorite French-Canadian dish, and since pork pie plus poutine is just too much cholesterol for one trip, I've made other trips to the place, and the pork pie here is the best I've had. The crust is flaky, and the inside tastes less industrial than what you get at a lot of places in Manchester -- it tastes like memere could have made it. It actually has a varied consistency, but every bite is good.

After eating my pork pie and onion rings at the counter, a former Mayor of Manchester, Emile Beaulieu, sat down next to me. He told me that he likes making the filling for pork pie and putting it on toast for breakfast at home. He lives in neighboring Goffstown now, but he goes to the place four times a week. He had a burger and fries, which was on the specials list that day.

This time, I went with the lemon meringue pie for dessert, and again, it actually tasted like a someone's grandmother had made it. The filling had a stronger lemon taste than you usually have at a restaurant, and the meringue was nice and firm. The restaurant has a tri-folded list of whole pies customers can buy -- clearly they must do a really good business with pie-making.

The rest of the stuff on the breakfast and lunch menus looked really good.

Like any neighborhood restaurant worth its salt in Manchester, Concord or Nashua, New Hampshire, scads of presidential candidates have been through, with the evidence being deposited on the walls. There's also bumper stickers from various and sundry candidates on one wall in a collage, and a yard sign for a State Representative candidate in the window, even three weeks after the election's over.

It doesn't look like much from the outside, but even among a whole bunch of really good breakfast/lunch places in Manchester, this place stands out.

Rating: Bought the T-Shirt


  1. Suit 603 --

    There is no such thing as "too much heart attack" or "too much cholesterol."

    Please note you have been sentenced to two weeks of Suit probation which means you can only eat carrots.

    Suit 69

  2. You'll see carrots-R-us in my next review.

  3. Poutine is a typical French-Canadian specialty. Not that bad, really.
    The cheese used is quite particular ("fromage en grain" or cheese curds) as it makes funny noise when you chew it. :)


  4. You had all kinds of pie and didn't try the crepes?! What a shame...for anyone reading this they are fantastic! And their prices are great to. This has been my go to breakfast destination ever since I discovered it.

  5. Yeah, the crepes are pretty good (like the maple cream ones), but my go-to at breakfast there is their omelets.

    Their still-hot muffins are also delicious.