Spring — it’s the season of renewal, warmth and freshness. Goodbye to the cold, long winter nights and hello to the long, warm days. Our palates are now yearning for something different: exciting cuisine that will refresh jaded taste buds.
Here are four New Hampshire restaurants that are serving up a diverse blend of culinary delights that deliver the new energy we crave.
For Kendra Smith, 45, her passion for cooking originated out of necessity, growing up as the oldest of three children in a single-parent household in Lowell, Mass.
“My dad was in the military and a single dad,” Smith says. “The first thing that I loved to cook was French fries, because we always had potatoes,” she says. “I mean, we didn’t always have a lot of food, but we had potatoes. If you have potatoes and grease, you can make French fries.”
Her passion for soul food grew from her father’s Alabama roots as they split their time between their home in Lowell (and later Nashua) and visiting her grandmother down South.
According to James Beard Award-winning author Adrian Miller, “soul food” is “a coined term that brilliantly captures the humanity and heroic effort of Black Americans to overcome centuries of oppression and create a cuisine that deliciously melds the foods and cooking techniques of West Africa, Western Europe and the Americas.”
The term gained popularity in the 1960s when Black culture entered the mainstream. As Smith grew up, so did her love for cooking. Today, she pours her soul into Soel Sistas, which stands for: Simply Offering Edible Love.
She launched in the spring of 2019 with a number of catering events. Then it all propelled in March 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the schools closed, Smith saw an immediate need feeding students and those in need.
“I just couldn’t see the kids being hungry. Because I saw them every day, I knew which kids got free lunch. That means if they weren’t getting free lunch at school, they were most likely not eating,” she says.
While Smith doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar spot where one can sit down, her renewed success has been through catering, a food truck and pop-up events.
Smith currently runs her operations and her Feed the Kids program from the Arlington Street United Methodist Church’s commissary kitchen in Nashua. She offers pre-order lunch for pickup on Thursdays and Fridays.
Plus, you can occasionally find Soel Sistas at various pop-up events at Nashua’s Lounge 38 on E. Hollis Street.
If there’s a big town event, look for the food truck with the line around the block. Popular items include vegetarian collard greens (no ham hocks) and her Bestie Burger — a double cheeseburger with bacon, macaroni and cheese and barbeque sauce, named for Jose Castacio, one of Smith’s best friends.
Those interested in supporting Smith in the Feed the Kids project can visit the Soel Sistas website at www.soelsistas.com.
R&J Texas BBQ
As a native Texan, Lakisha Regina Davison never imagined herself living in the Granite State.
“We fell in love with the beaches,” she says.
She also never imagined changing careers from managing operations at Wal-Mart stores across the Northeast to going after her PhD in public health and sharing a piece of the Lone Star State’s culinary staple — barbecue — with northern bellies.
“Me and the kids were talking at dinner one night and we were like, there’s food here to eat, but not our comfort food from Texas. So we were looking for something, looking for a place that reminded us of home, and we couldn’t it find anywhere. And the kids said, ‘Well, your cooking is good. You should just open your own restaurant.’ And I thought, you know what? Maybe,” says Davison.
After a few years, Davison says they decided to give it a try. R&J Texas Style BBQ began in 2018 as a catering business. It evolved into a food truck in 2020 during the pandemic. After a brief stint in Milford, Davison settled in Hillsborough in February 2021.
The result was a great success. “And now people come. People from Texas, they find us. They say, ‘Oh, we’re so glad you’re here. It’s been so hard to find something that reminds us of home,’” says Davison.
The restaurant’s name is an homage to their favorite spot back home in Texas with a similar name. “They are R&J Barbecue. We’re R&J Texas Style Barbeque on Wheels. So we’re different,” Davison says.
So what makes their barbecue so unique? The secret is in the way it’s prepared, according to Davison. “We are slow and steady,” she says. “We use wood and charcoal. We take our time with our barbecue, and we make our own barbecue sauce. And I make my own seasoning. So, everything is homemade. We take our time.”
A few popular items on the menu are gumbo, etouffee, brisket, grilled chicken and oxtail.
When you walk inside R&J’s, Davison says she wants her patrons to feel like they are at home.
“You don’t walk in feeling like you have to be told where to sit. We ask you where you would like to sit. We try to make your experience special,” says Davison. “You’re part of the family. You are our family when you walk through those doors.”
While the restaurant is closed during December and January due to slow traffic, they were scheduled to reopen in February.
Gumaa’s Bar & Grill
Prior to 2020, Estella “Mya” Gumaa worked as a pediatric technician at one of Manchester’s area hospitals. However, the challenge of having six children at home during the pandemic left her yearning for something else.
Although she has a medical background, Gumaa’s first training ground was in the kitchen while growing up in North Sudan at the age of 7. “It’s a must in Africa; every woman is in the kitchen cooking,” says Gumaa. “It wasn’t my main interest, but I grew to love it, and somehow people love my food.”
In addition to raising six kids and working at a hospital, Gumaa was often called upon to cook at various community events in the city. “I knew I wanted to open up a restaurant with a mixture of African and Caribbean cuisines to cater to everyone in the area,” says Gumaa. “There isn’t much presence in Manchester, and there was a need.”
She opened her eatery, Gumaa’s Bar & Grill, at 343 Lincoln Street in Manchester last year. It’s a cross-mixture of African and Caribbean cuisines, just as she wished. One can find oxtail on the menu, a popular staple in the islands. “We eat this back home [in North Sudan]. We just cook it differently,” she says.
Fufu, another item, is a mashed yam or other starch used as a side dish with meat or vegetable stews and soups known across the diaspora. “I put my own recipe on things,” she says.
Her okra beef stew and spicy rice provides a kick that combines well with the tenderness of the beef.
In addition, the tilapia is another must-try item. It’s a considerable portion (the entire fish) that can be ordered, breaded or fried.
Tamara Tasya and Markus Subroto are no strangers to rolling up their sleeves and creating lovely savory foods from their homeland in Indonesia. They do so in their cozy kitchen, also known as Tasya’s Kitchen on High Street in Somersworth.
Indonesian food blends a variety of culinary tastes and recipes based on various ethnic groups and foreign influences. Indonesia includes more than 17,000 islands, making it the largest archipelago, and 1,300 groups.
Tamara hails from Surabaya on Java Island, and Markus is from Samarra. “The cuisine is very different when you travel from one end of the country to the other,” Tamara says.
After taking a hiatus from their first Somersworth restaurant business to raise a family in 2004, they opened Tasya’s on High Street in September 2019 at the urging of their community.
“We felt the time was right to get back,” says Markus.
Since then, they have been getting lots of traction in the Seacoast and the Indonesian diaspora community. The restaurant was featured in a video produced by the United States Embassy in Jakarta as one of five Indonesian restaurants to visit in the United States. Doug Emhof, the second gentleman and husband to Vice President Kamala Harris, makes an appearance in the video.
Indonesians have a strong presence on New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. About 2,000 Indonesians live in Somersworth as of spring 2021. It is also the home to the Little Indonesia Project, a long-term effort to connect Indonesian communities with the Granite State and beyond through expressions of art, culture and economic opportunities via a vibrant, revitalized business district.
The restaurant may be small, with seating for less than 20 people, but it is mighty in taste. Patrons immediately feel like they are visiting an exotic place thanks to the vintage airline travel posters and photos of Java that make up the décor.
Recommended to the curious newcomer: the Tour of Indonesia, described as their signature menu item with a little bit of everything: beef rendang, chicken satay, curry chicken, spicy egg and tofu, crispy potato, peanut, anchovy in sweet spicy palm sugar, pickled veggies, jasmine rice and soup.
The beef rendang, slowly prepared over several hours, a must-try, is so tender it melts in your mouth, and pairs nicely with their homemade chili paste. In addition, try the fried chicken which is remarkably crispy and still juicy.