For the last several years, I’ve sailed right on by Hazel’s Take-Out, located at the intersection of Old County Road and Route 17, probably hundreds of times. I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to stop. Maybe it was the slightly out-of-the-way location; after all, if you’re in that neighborhood, you’re probably on your way to see your fancy Camden therapist, or you’re either about to do some business at Hannaford, or you’re running your groceries home. I guess there are probably a select few of you that are also spending the summers lounging at nearby Lake Chickawaukie, but I can’t even imagine what having that kind of time to spend outdoors/skin that is remotely sun-tolerant/confidence in my immuno-resistance to snail parasites must feel like*, so when I’m in that part of town, I’m usually just passing through on my way to do something else.
*Awww, I’m just teasin’, Chickie. You know I love you.
Not anymore. As of today, Hazel’s Take-Out has become a destination unto itself. The amount of online buzz about the place and the steadily growing line out in front of the bright red-and-yellow modular building has reached critical mass, and warranted a stop. And boy, am I glad I did.
With an open season lasting from May-October, the crowds of people loyal to Hazel’s menu of take-out classics is growing steadily, season-by-season. Sweet sausages, served county fair-style in satisfyingly squishy rolls, hot dogs, an array of burgers with assorted toppings, homemade chili and iced tea, as well as the assortment of fried seafood baskets and lobster rolls that are practically a requirement for doing business in this town, at this time of year, all served at prices that make Hazel’s a budget-friendly choice for a mid-errand weekday lunch.
On my first visit, I found the parking lot totally full, with all eight outdoor picnic tables already full of hungry diners munching away, with a line at least ten people deep stretching from the front of the building. I shouldn’t have worried; the crew behind the line at Hazel’s is cranking out some serious volume, and the line moved quickly, with new orders coming out of one of the yellow doors every couple of minutes.
The fried clam basket special ($15.95) was outstanding, made with an ample portion of fresh whole-belly clams fried into little crispy, craggy pillows of briney perfection, without so much as of a hint of chewiness. The clams come served with coleslaw and tartar sauce, atop a bed of Hazel’s fries, and it is here that we must pause for a little aside:
Look. I’m not a french fry guy. I don’t like making them, and I sure don’t like eating them. When presented with options for side dishes at a restaurant, I will almost always go with the house salad, or the coleslaw, or the chips, or the three-bean whatever, or literally almost any other option. I only care about fries at all when they’re downright outstanding: Fluffy, baked-potato insides, with a crisp outer layer, served piping hot. Anything less than that is so soul-crushingly disappointing, that I usually don’t even take the risk of having to endure that sort of emotional rollercoaster.
This time, ordering the fries was the right move. The fries at Hazel’s are hand-cut daily, and twice-cooked to achieve something as close to french fry perfection as I’ve ever tried in these parts. Crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, with a lightly seasoned coating that keeps the fries crispy and shards off into little crispy stalactites that are perfect for scooping up healthy swipes of ketchup.
I only care about fries when they’re downright outstanding.
I’ve made more than a few fries in my time, and I have no earthly idea how they achieve this kind of french fry-making dark magic. I was so intrigued that I even asked; the waitress explained that they were hand-cut and double fried, but there’s got to be more to it than that. I’ve double-fried plenty of sad, limp potatoes, and never pulled off anything on the level of these fries. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d swear that they’re coated in seasoned potato starch or tapioca flour before frying, to achieve that golden outer layer of perfection, but I can’t be sure. For now, just do me a favor, and order these fries.
In fact, while you’re in a fry-ordering mood, can I suggest trying them “Garbage-Style,” ($5.25), the way I do? Topped with Hazel’s homemade chili, a fluorescent yellow flood of movie theater nacho cheese from a can, raw onions, diced tomato, and pickled jalapeño, this is the kind of food that makes the chubby 8th grader with the cystic acne that lives inside us all stand up and cheer with uncharacteristic approval. This is junk food taken to extraordinary, delicious new heights, and for me, represents the perfect balance of “homemade awesomeness” with “processed nonsense” that gets in your head and keeps you forlornly scraping the bottom of the paper boat until you’ve consumed every last morsel.
The “Spicy Sausage” ($6.75) was delicious as well, served with hot relish, mustard, grilled onions, and optionally, sautéed green peppers and jalapeños. It’s spicy enough to get your attention, without becoming overpowering, served on a squishy roll that barely contains the heft of its toppings. The sausage itself is plump and sweet, with a coarse grind and a satisfying snap.
Hazel’s is serving the kind of food I love: On the surface, traditional American junk food, served unapologetically and quickly by a friendly staff. But this food never feels slapdash, and someone is paying careful attention to the details: Golden, crispy seafood, excellent rolls and bread, handcut french fries and onion rings, homemade where it counts, store-bought where it’s more cost-effective and keeps the prices down. When details like these are well-attended to, the resulting dishes elevate roadside bad-for-you food to something much greater, and I can’t wait to go back for more.
Hazel’s Take-Out; 557 Old County Road, Rockland, Maine 04841; (207) 594-5940; Facebook