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Scratch Kitchen is a sandwich shop occupying a small semi-circle space at the ground floor of a downtown Salem parking garage. As the name implies, just about everything's made from scratch: the meats, the soups, the breads, the fries, the pickles and even the ketchup. About the meats: there's no claim about being a barbecue joint, but many of the meats are smoked onsite in the Ballantine smoker near the doorway. And most of those meats are pork. There's a bar intended more for watching the kitchen craftsmanship than for mixology, but there's a nice selection of bottled craft beers on hand. The remaining deuces-and four-tops stretch across the room whose end furthest from the smoker is an assembly area for local musicians a few nights a week.
The core of the Scratch menu is sandwiches, with smoked offerings constituting a fairly good sized chunk: the "Not Your Average Smoked Brisket," pulled pork topped with cole slaw (and optionally a fried egg), a BLT with house cured and smoked bacon, a Cuban with smoked pork and house cured ham, a smoked and chilled salmon wrap. Sandwiches beyond the smoke include braised pork belly grilled cheese, turkey club, vegetable and grilled cheese pannini, beef and boomers, burgers with local grass-fed beef, a pressed chicken "Wally" (Waldorf salad) and the "Ever Changing Reuben." The bacon is an add-on option for any sandwich at $2.
Smoked meats outside the sandwich realm include the brisket as a plate, the bacon as a side, a smoked wings appetizer and the "Hog Heaven" platter that includes pork, bacon, ham and pork belly. Other entrees include baked haddock and chicken and pesto pasta.
Three different salads can be topped with chicken, brisket or haddock, or morphed into wraps. Fries can be had au naturale, topped with bacon powder or served with a blue cheese fondue. A mac and cheese entree includes bacon.
The menus use local ingredients and change frequently with the seasons and the moods of the kitchen.
I spread six visits over a seven-month period, hitting Scratch on two weeknights, one Saturday afternoon and three Saturday nights. The visits might have been more compressed and the review might have surfaced sooner had it not been for a) Scratch's only-on-the-bubble status as a barbecue joint, b) the Salem location that made visits near-impossible in the month leading up to Halloween, c) the temporary menu change that eliminated Saturday lunch, replacing it with brunch, and d) Scratch's Christmas week hiatus that coincided with my vacation and planned visit.
Ribs: A special on two different visits, St Louis cut ribs were offered for $2 per bone. Slight of size but not of smoke, these brought a slightly-firmer-than-typical texture and a slight steaminess. An understated sweet and tangy sauce let the smoke and rub stand out.
Wings: Sufficiently browned and lightly sauced, these wings bring a whiff of smoke before the plate hits the table. And when I say smoke, I don't mean bitter and sooty, but rather a smoke that's simultaneously strong and downright fragrant, a hard combination to achieve and an impossible one to beat. Add to that a pre-smoke curing that flavors them even more, a crisp exterior from flash frying, a tender/juicy interior and a thin coating of the simplest glaze (that's gradually progressed from sweet to sweet-and-sour), and you've got some of my favorite wings in the region.
Bacon: Available for use as a side or finger-food appetizer, the house made bacon ($4.00) usually hits the sweet spot that simultaneously achieves crunchy crisp and tender, bendable chew. There's enough fat to lubricate but not enough to get in the way. Flavor combines smokiness and salty porkiness.
Pulled pork sandwich: The Heritage bred pulled pork sandwich ($8.00) tried on two different visits crammed a good amount of pork inside the bun, along with cole slaw and enough tangy barbecue sauce (think Tabasco, only slightly thicker) to keep things moist. The pork itself isn't much to look at, with a mostly brown color that has a little bark and no smoke ring, but it's definitely smoked. Tender and moist but shy of juicy, it has a muted smokiness and bland overall flavor that's disappointing considering how smoky and flavorful the brisket has been (read on). Yet somehow it works, with the vinegary and creamy components mingling nicely with the meatiness. Does it compare with the better barbecue pulled pork sandwiches I've tried? Not really, but for a sandwich shop, it'll do.
Brisket sandwich: Thick cut brisket is brisket and then some in
the "Not Your Average Smoked Brisket" sandwich ($9.25), because its deeply flavorful cured interior and heavily rubbed exterior make it more of a smoked pastrami. With slightly crisp edges, a boatload of spicy rub, undeniable smoke, appealing pink coloring, a tender interior and moistness that's more juicy than steamy, this is a hit most of the time (on one visit, rub and coloring were both less pronounced than usual). The condiment is a thick mustard that feels whipped but packs a surprising flavor punch that keeps pace with the boldness of the meat. The bread, also house made, lags behind a bit, feeling airier and less crusty than ideal. As are all sandwiches, it's adorned with a small assortment of pickled vegetables.
Brisket: Since the brisket is also available as an add-on option for salads ($5.00) and as a platter with fries and spinach ($18.00), I ordered it as a makeshift side on one visit and as the platter on two others. The results were pretty much the same as the sandwich, sometimes with a little more fat, but that's easily discarded. I prefer the brisket in this format, where the smokiness and spicy can be enjoyed with no distractions from bread and a mustard that has the ability to overwhelm if applied too vigorously. The mustard's still there for dipping if you want it, but it's nice to alternate: one piece dipped, one piece not. The fries trade one starch for another with better results.
Cuban: This sandwich ($9.75) is the flipside of the brisket sammy, because here the thick, fresh crusty bread (ironically, purchased and not baked onsite) is the star and the fillings (ham and pulled pork), while not disappointing, are less impressive. The gouda is soft and creamy; the garlic mayo condiment has nearly as much bite as the mustard.
BLT: Classic bacon, lettuce and tomato ($7.75 ) is elevated by the quality of the house made bacon that's consistently strong on flavor (smoke, pork, fat, cure) with varied thickness and crispness. The tomatoes must vary with the season, because the fresh ones in summer became oven cured in the fall. The mayo is spiked with garlic and herbs, making it stand out more than typical. Overall, I like the individual ingredients in this sandwich, but as with the brisket, I prefer the bacon all by its lonesome to taste that flavor unencumbered.
Burger: The "Inflameous" Scratch burger ($11.00) is all natural and grass fed, cooked to the requested temp (medium or medium rare, depending on with whom I'm splitting it) with precision. It's a lean blend that sometimes doesn't thrust enough of its own flavor or moisture on you, but the tart bacon jam picks up the slack very well, gushing a profusion of non-beef moisture. This burger further picks up the slack with plenty of surface moisture. Thick, well melted Cheddar is mild and velvety. Overall, it's a burger that looks fantastic but comes up just a little dry aside from the toppings.
Hog Heaven: Including all of the pork offerings (pulled pork, bacon, pork belly, ham) plus fries, pickled vegetables and slaw, the heaping platter ($19.00) tried on the first 2012 visit made a good gateway to the as-yet-untried ham and pork belly.
Ham: Six or so deli-thin slices on the Hog Heaven platter had more of a light turkey color with none of the anticipated pinkness from curing. Flavor delivered, mixing light smoke and light edge char with a heavier hit of maple. Tenderness was a non-issue given the thickness. Overall, this was a solid ham that succeeded more as an improvement over straight lunch meat than an attempt at barbecue, but Scratch never claimed to be a barbecue joint.
Pork belly: A longstanding item as a special, the pork belly eluded me until it joined the Hog Heaven platter. The two slices were about twice as thick as the bacon, with about twice the fat, requiring careful navigation and discard. Flavor was expectedly bacony, with similar crispness and a little more tender chewiness. Although I liked it, I prefer Scratch's bacon, which at its best is among the best I've had and which can be eaten less gingerly.
Barbecue sauce isn't really a factor here. There's a thick, tomatoey version on the ribs and a tomato/vinegar number on the pulled pork sandwich, but they're not a part of the table condiments.
Onion rings: A basket of hand battered rings dazzles every time, partly because of the generous volume (nearly the size of a football for $3.50) and partly from the variety of the rings themselves. While some rings bring machine-like repetition of size and shape, Scratch's mixes things up: some very thin and very dark, some cut thick to retain more juicy onion essence along with the batter, which has plenty of flavor and plenty of salt. I wouldn't dream of visiting Scratch and not ordering them.
Fries: Another humongous basket ($3.25) brings midsized hand-cut fries with moderate browning, a crisp and rigid texture and plenty of skin. Salting has been consistently lighter than on the onion rings, always needing an addition at the table to keep up with the unfamiliar earthiness and ramped-up starchiness of these potatoes. The accompanying ramekin of house-made ketchup is just as sweet as the bottled product, but a little thinner, sweeter and much more sour.
Bacon dusted fries: You can get the fries bacon-dusted for the same price, and upon arrival the addition looks more like coarse sea salt, but those white crystals are bacon powder made from the Scratch bacon. I like this flavor addition, but it's more sour than bacony for me.
Spinach: An accompaniment on the brisket platter, the spinach is cooked past wilting but still retains its bright green color.
Cole slaw: This is a crisp and crunchy rendition that's more about the vinegar than the mayo, and there's some nuttiness in there as well.
Pickled vegetables: Crunchy. Tart. Very tart.
There are some sandwich joints (like Cutty's in Brookline, All Star Sandwich in Cambridge, or even the Armsby Abbey in Worcester) where the sandwiches succeed because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. At Cutty's in particular, the sandwich construction and sandwich ergonomics are as much of an art as the ingredients themselves. At Scratch Kitchen, it's usually the meat that grabs your attention, with the rest of the components merely along for the ride. That's not necessarily a bad thing, just an observation.
Be sure to call before attempting to eat here to make sure they are open. On a few occasions I've attempted a visit and found the place closed, whether for a seasonal hiatus, private party, personal matter or change in hours.
The Bottom Line
The results have been mixed so far. Scratch Kitchen is a restaurant I want to love and definitely already like, but that gap remains after six visits. Some items I do love (wings, onion rings), some items I like a lot (brisket, bacon) and some could use some improvement (pulled pork, burger). Beyond the obvious hits, there's something about Scratch that keeps bringing me back, expecting to see that bust-out potential fulfilled. As for right now, if you order the right combination for your taste, there's potential for a very good meal.
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