Down East 2013 ©
By Nancy Heiser
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
How do you make the best sticky and cinnamon buns in the world? Practice, practice, practice.
That’s just what James Hatch did this winter, as workers dismantled and renovated Home Kitchen Cafe in Rockland, the casual restaurant he owns with his wife, Susan Schiro.
Striving to perfect his recipes, the chef baked and delivered trays of warm buns to the crew almost daily — who, craftily, told him to “keep practicing.” In late February, after five months of downtime, the eatery reopened, and its outrageous “Sinnies” and “Stickies” are now being sold to a grateful public.
The renovation expanded the inefficient, galley-style kitchen — the primary goal, as the owners wanted to turn out food faster and grow their customer base — and put all their operations under one roof. It also altered the seating map and freshened up the space.
The most obvious change to customers is the attractive, second-story deck with its view of sailboat-filled Rockland harbor. An indoor area with tables takes the place of the old ground-floor deck. An L-shaped dining counter of concrete with glossy acrylic glaze in a natural green anchors the front room, and the ratio of counter seats to floor seats is somewhat reminiscent of a diner. The place is more popular than ever — despite the additional seating, you should expect a wait, especially on weekends.
Breakfast is served all day. But at Home Kitchen Cafe, squatters have a nearly full view of a sparkling kitchen instead of a slice through a tiny rectangular window. And there’s no fryolator, a deliberate choice. “We serve plenty of fish and plenty of home fries, but everything is done in the pan,” says Hatch.
The restaurant is full of color: orange, lime, and yellow cheer up the walls, the dishware, and the menu — not to mention the food, which includes an array of bright, fresh vegetables and vibrant accoutrements. There goes a golden frittata of roasted red peppers, sauteéd onions, mushrooms, fresh spinach, tomato, potatoes, and goat cheese — an edible palette. Here comes a burger with roasted poblano peppers, homemade salsa, and pepper jack cheese. Everything the restaurant serves, with the exception of meat and condiments, is made from scratch.
The breakfasts are a casual food fiesta. The huevos rancheros consist of a salsa-poached egg atop black beans, avocado, and homemade corn tortilla (you’ll never want packaged again). Eggs Benedict comes in several variations, from traditional to Florentine to crab-cake.
And just when you think you’ve figured out this place — egg specialties, familiar sandwiches, Mexican influences, and amazing baked goods — it surprises you with something from Southeast Asia, like Thai cobb salad of charred chicken breast, red cabbage, lettuce, roasted corn, and a spicy peanut dressing with croutons that carry a tinge of those herbs you get in Thanksgiving stuffing, and Banh Home, Hatch’s version of a classic Vietnamese pork meatball sub with pickled daikon, carrots, fresh jalapeños, and cilantro on a grilled sub roll. “A hundred ingredients go into that,” he says.
Ethnic food choices come from “what I love and want to put on the menu,” he adds. The chef has worked in commercial kitchens since high school and had a career as a luthier before joining Susan, an artist and graphic designer, in a T-shirt business.
James sweated over a business plan for two years, looking for a niche and researching recipes. Susan works the front of the house. The couple credits their eighteen years in the silkscreen business for their knowledge of customer service. Still, they took a leap of faith with their move to establish a profitable eatery in a seedy building in a less desirable stretch of Main Street just after the economic downturn of 2008.
From the start they knew they wanted “home” in the name, for all its connotations. Susan created the cafe’s funky logo and sign, using a bold and slightly askew font — James says it perfectly represents what you find inside. And just like at home, the cafe is now serving dinner, made possible by the redo. Susan long had the catchphrase ready: spend the night at Home.
Nancy Heiser has written about food for many national and regional magazines.She lives in Brunswick.