A Foodie Excursion to Hillsborough
Susan Laughlin explores the dining scene in the town of Hillsborough
Mama McDonough’s Irish Pub owners Rich and Jennifer Helling
You could consider Hillsborough the gateway to iconic New Hampshire. Just beyond are the beautiful historic towns of Hillsborough Center, Washington Center and Washington — all picture postcards of what New Hampshire once was. Unfortunately, it seems that Hillsborough, like many other once-thriving mill towns, is struggling to find a place in the current economy. Storefront closures are the main feature, shockingly so. Regardless, I was determined to find what heart and soul remains. The good news is there are a number of local spots that give hope for brighter days.
At the intersection of Henniker and School Streets (Rte. 149), German John’s is a stalwart survivor. This bakery offers authentic German breads, kuchen, strawberry cheesecake and more. A few small tables offer a place to enjoy a schnecken, käse schnecken or even a liverwurst sandwich on hearty rye. With the owners “Betriebsferien” (closed for vacation), I had to find morning sustenance elsewhere. Fortunately, Mama McDonough’s across the intersection offers breakfast on weekends.
Owners Jennifer and Rich Helling have owned Mama McDonough’s Irish Pub for three years. Obviously, the structure has been there for many, many more years. The floors had some of the widest pumpkin pine I’d ever seen. The breakfast menu had it all — omelets, pancakes and even eggs Benedict that promised their own homemade sauce. The sauce was OK, but not the elusive lemony, homemade Hollandaise that many promise and few deliver. Offerings of Bloody Marys and mimosas can get the weekend started on a good note.
The Sausage Source
Discovering that just about every eatery I had planned on visiting that day was within a 100-foot journey, I just left the car parked and set out to The Sausage Source across the parking lot. There, owner Rick Brown was making his sandwiches on a tiny grill in his workroom. Customers sitting at the few tables were big fans. Brown makes his own sausage, grinds his own burger meat and provides supplies for home sausage makers, especially hunters. I couldn’t leave without trying one of his Italian sausages fried up with onions and peppers on a bun, and it was fresh and tasty. His list of sausages is long, and he provides the bratwurst for the Hillsborough Schnitzelfest in September.
Just 15 minutes later, it was time for lunch. I crossed back through the parking lot to hit Tooky Mills Pub — seems it is an institution in town that has survived 17 years through the bad and good times. There must have been good years. Chef-owner Sean Burt runs the cozy and welcoming bar. It’s decorated with mill paraphernalia, including socks and long johns. Unfortunately, the socks and sock stretchers are reproductions. “Oh, they made argyle socks in the mills?” “No, we just bought these,” replied a server. And, thankfully, the long johns have been laundered.
Regardless, the atmosphere was welcoming and cozy. Again, the floors were pumpkin pine, but narrower than next door. The food was good, including the burger. I was informed it was given a “Best” by New Hampshire Magazine. After a little questioning on that, they narrowed it down to our listing of pub burgers from the March 2014 issue. I murmured a bit about having a little something to do with the story. Still, I think they thought I was an impostor. Customers that day loved the Buffalo chicken, in a salad or a basket, and word has it the mussels are worth the drive. The tap list is limited, but Guinness on draught is always a welcome sight.
Mediterrano owners Chef John Kalem (left) and Ibrahim Bilgin
With an appetite just about tapped out, I headed across the street to Mediterrano Turkish & Mediterranean Restaurant. Thankfully, my high hopes were fulfilled. Five star ratings on Yelp and TripAdvisor don’t just happen, or at least not very often. It was on the strength of crowdsourcing that I made the journey of 54 miles and 100 feet.
The restaurant is housed in an original Victorian home on Henniker Street. Within the bright blue home, the former parlor, living and dining room are now a series of small dining areas painted in warm colors and set with formica tables and simple, padded banquet chairs. A few photos, art work and wall decals set the tone — we did this ourselves, and we proudly welcome you to our “home.” And proud they are.
Cousins John Kalem and Ibrahim Bilgin happily announce this is the only Turkish restaurant in the state. Sadly, it is true. Mavi Bistro in Hudson and Adria and Seven Hills in Nashua closed within two years of opening. The good news is Mediterrano has been open for three years. How can they survive in Hillsborough? “Customers ask why we don’t move to Concord or Manchester. It turns out we don’t have to. As a destination restaurant, people from Concord, Peterborough and Keene are willing to make reservations and come here,” says Bilgin. The cousins are trained and experienced in the hospitality industry and do the simple things it takes to make people happy with good service and good food. Yes, build it and they will come.
Turkish food is relatively healthy by its very nature. Salads are dressed simply with oil, lemon juice and seasonings. Grains and beans are traditional but appealing as condiments. The hummus is a palatable version made of chickpeas and tahini, while the baba ghanoush elevates eggplant to star status. The grape leaves are outstanding — light and tender and without meat. Beef, chicken and lamb are not the center of the meal but the center of the plate, surrounded by seasoned rice, marinated onion relish, pickled red cabbage and a lightly dressed salad. The menu is limited by the owners so they can make sure everything is as it should be. There are two salads, a few soups and meat grilled on a döner kebab or ground meat hand-formed around the metal spear. The lavash bread is the show-stopper. It appears on the table almost the size of a bread box. Tear it open to release the steam and dip into the hummus or use the bread as a wrapper or scoop for any part of an entrée. Dessert is even simpler — housemade yogurt or baklava. A big plus was the ease with which those with food allergies or aversions can choose menu items without unwanted ingredients like gluten or dairy.
I couldn’t help but contrast the success of Mediterrano with the closed shops up the street. People are willing to make more than a 100-foot journey when they are treated like real guests and not just customers. Yes, build it — build it very well, and they will come.
Other Spots to Check Out
203 W. Main St.
Typical Chinese in a new, bright red, Asian-inspired building. Order at the window inside, find a seat and they bring it to you.
High Tide Take Out
239 Henniker St.
Fried seafood and ice cream sodas offered for casual dining on their screened porch or outdoor picnic tables. Seasonal.
53 Henniker St.
Tacos are good, maybe even great. Primarily a take-out place.
356 W. Main St.
Fresh sushi in Hillsborough!
83 Henniker St.
Non-Dining Hillsborough Highlights
Pretty countryside, homes and farms on the less-traveled roads in the area. Plan on getting lost for a while.
Hillsborough Balloon Festival & Fair
Remember that balloon launches are usually at dusk and dawn, weather permitting. An artist fair is held in Butler Park on Saturday, parade on Sunday.
Schnitzelfest New Hampshire
September 24, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Franklin Pierce Homestead State Historic Site
301 2nd NH Turnpike, near the intersection of Rtes. 31 and 9.
Childhood home of our 14th president. Tours available Friday through Tuesday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
National Engineering Landmark
See award-winning stone arch bridges and the bridge to “nowhere” at the intersection of Rtes. 9 and 31, which commemorates the fact that the area hosted 12 dry-laid stone bridges in the mid 1800s. Five survive today.
See the historic interior of the Fuller Public Library, 29 School St.
Historic Hillsborough Center
For a great view and picnic spot, take the North Road (the right hand road after Hillsborough Center’s right fork) and drive 1/2 mile until you see a large clearing on the left. Turn left and drive up to the top of Kimball Hill to view mountains to the south (locals refer to it as High Mount).