At El El Frijoles (no connection beyond the pun to L.L. Bean) husband and wife Michael Rossney and Michele Levesque serve taquería takeout or sit-down from a barn in their backyard. "Maine is a state with some pretty gnarly Mexican food, pretty terrible stuff," says Rossney. "We're trying to do a little bit better."
The couple starts with ingredients from close to home. They buy handpicked crab from Rossney's mom's next-door neighbor on Deer Isle, eggs from a farm down the road, and harvest chard, squash, tomatoes, and strawberries from their raised-bed gardens.
"Our cooking is a Downeast Maine take on Mexican home cooking and taquería food," Rossney says. "We use avocados, limes, and cumin, we make pork tinga and carne asada, but also blueberry salsa and blueberry agua fresca, crab quesadillas, local halibut tacos, and lobster burritos. It doesn't have to be all the way Mexican to taste Mexican."
Helen and Scott Nearing, grandparents of the back-to-the-land movement, moved around the corner from Sargentville to Brooksville in the early 1950s to garden, play music, haul seaweed, build stone walls, write books, and live simply off their land. Since then much of this harbor-lined and farm-dotted peninsula has become an unlikely destination for connoisseurs of locally grown food.
The Blue Hill Co-op, a hippie haven in the increasingly tony but still relatively untouristy town of Blue Hill is basically a mini
Bread bakers, winemakers, forest foragers, a raucous country fair, and a thick web of small organic farms keep the community flush with everything from pasture-raised pigs to raw Jersey cow milk. For a quick taste of the peninsula drive up the dirt driveway to The Blue Hill Wine Shop for wine and beer and lively banter with cellist turned wine curator Max Treitler, and then barrel down to El El Frijoles, where you can crack the beer, uncork the wine, bat around the badminton birdie, and stuff yourself with Maine Mexican.
Treitler's place is a dimly lighted shop in a post-and-beam barn behind an old farmhouse on a knoll over looking the bay on the outskirts of town. Treitler, 38, has a nimble sense of humor. He stirs his coffee with a pen and tussles with Jeeves, his tufty-eared Maine Coon cat.
Treitler moved to Blue Hill from Brooklyn four years ago, and a couple of years later took over the shop from a couple who had owned it for 25 years. Wine is Treitler's specialty, but the shop also stocks beer, coffee, tea, cider, pipe tobacco, cigars, and serves as a pickup spot for the artisan sourdough bread baked in a wood-burning clay oven and sold in weekly shares by musician-farmer-bakers Lydia Moffet and Tim Semler.
"I stock wines that are almost entirely bent to suit my own prejudice," says Treitler. "Usually they're wines that are counter to the internationalization of taste, wines that have nothing to do with any modern global flavor profile. I underemphasize the fancy stuff and focus on wine that shows specific character, particularly real oddball stuff - like I have Turkish wine because it interests me."
For El El Frijoles Treitler recommends "fun bodega beers," like Sol, Pacifica, and Bohemia. For wine he thinks Vinho Verde from Portugal. "It's cheap and informal," he says. "You can dump it in plastic cups and slog it down."
The road from Blue Hill to Sargentville dips and dives past farms and fields and grand glimpses of Penobscot Bay. Three years ago Levesque and Rossney moved to Maine, where his family has roots, from West Oakland, Calif. "We decided to move across the country and open a taquería," says Rossney. "We read 'Running a Restaurant for Dummies,' [and] Michele learned recipes from Mexican guys and their wives at the fish market where she was working. We ate tons of Mexican food. There were dozens of taquerías within a couple of blocks of our house, and we spent two years testing recipes."
Rossney's family has owned property in Sargentville for more than 100 years. Now 14 members of his family live here. The couple bought their old house and barn from Rossney's uncle, sketched out Latin-flavored renovations on a paper napkin, and trusted themselves and family members to do the work. They made mosaic countertops, devotional candles, and a slate chalkboard for daily specials. They painted the walls blue and yellow and orange, hung posters and bought an ancient Vulcan stove that they took apart, ground down, put back together and painted yellow. The finished place resembles a Baja beach shack in a barn in the middle of the woods.
On May 1 El El Frijoles opened for its second season. May in coastal Maine is still winter. "It was the same 19 people eating here three times a week," says Levesque. Now, in late August, they are busy all the time, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The food is bright and fresh, served in colorful baskets with generous sides of avocado and marinated chopped salads and, right now, super sweet fresh watermelon. A salsa bar on the counter is jammed with a rotating lineup of chunky, limey, help-yourself hot sauces. In a neighborhood where most restaurants serve food either fried to death or bluebloodfancy, El El Frijoles is the type of place that makes you want to settle in and become a regular.
"People are driving from Portland and Camden, people are calling for reservations," says Levesque. "Reservations for a taquería? Two hours in the car to eat tacos. Ridiculous, but great. We're just trying to be good and be fun and make good food and make enough money so that we don't have to get jobs in the winter. So far so good."
Jonathan Levitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.