A couple of weeks ago, Meredith and I had the opportunity to sit down with Palace Diner’s Chad Conley and Greg Mitchell for the first of a new interview series that we’re starting on the site. We were particularly excited to kick off the series with Chad and Greg, after they recently closed the diner for a month for some much needed rest and two pretty amazing trips. Chad spent his vacation with friends in Panama and Toronto, while Greg and his fiance Meg traveled west to southern California, Hawaii, and the other Portland. After an (always) outstanding meal at Palace, we spoke with them about their trips, their travel styles, and the community they’re building around the diner. The way that they both use food and cooking to get a better feeling for an area’s culture is something that Meredith and I can certainly appreciate, while their authentic, relaxed approach to exploring the places they visit will no doubt serve as inspiration on our own future trips.
M&M: Of your trips, do you have any that you might consider to be the most memorable?
CC: This trip (to Bastamentos) was a particularly good one for me, especially because I was visiting a friend who’s been in this totally foreign – totally foreign to me – culture, so I was able to show up in a situation that would normally be really intimidating for me and just be at home. His girlfriend’s family welcomed me, I got to meet all of her huge extended family, I got to party with them, I got to eat with them everyday, I got to get to know all of his friends there and that part of the experience is pretty rare for someone traveling to a place that’s that foreign. It made it pretty special, having access to foods and all sorts of cultural experiences that I wouldn’t have had if I wasn’t visiting him.
GM: Similarly with what Chad’s saying, a lot of traveling I do at this point, it ends up working out well but it’s definitely because of financial reasons, too – you end up traveling where you have friends or family and it turns out to be a really great thing because you’re immersed in the culture. Probably the most memorable memory from my trip was visiting some friends from Los Angeles who are both botanists and they took us out to Joshua Tree National Park and gave us a botany tour of the park. We picked up a bunch of ingredients at this Mexican supermarket in Pasadena before we left and went camping in Joshua Tree and made a Mexican taco feast in the desert, camped out, and drank beers. That was probably the best food experience of the trip. In thinking about the trip, we ate a lot of really great meals out but the most memorable one was just being out in the middle of the desert and grilling.
M&M: You just returned from traveling, so you might not even have an answer right away, but are there any places you’re hoping to visit next?
CC: This part of Canada around Maine is really fascinating to me and I’d like to explore it a bit. Across the border in a few different areas, but I would love to go farther north and east. I also like the idea of going up there because there are parts of the experience that are really closely related to living here, but the differences really stand out in a fun way because of that similarity.
GM: I really want to do a Southeast Asia trip and check out Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and probably parts of Thailand. I think that part of the world is becoming more and more popular for people who like to travel and people who like to eat, and I would love to see parts of it before they’re totally destroyed by tourism. I know the north of thailand is less touched than the south, and even that’s a popular place right now. I’d love to get there before the next ten years of tourism make it less interesting. I love Asian food. I like to cook Asian food. I like to eat Asian food.
M&M: What about your perfect day off in Maine – what does that look like for you?
GM: I wake up really late and come to Palace Diner and watch everyone work… No, I had a pretty perfect day off yesterday. It usually involves two or three things – one is a great breakfast which is usually not at home – I like to cook at home, I just don’t like to cook breakfast at home because we do so much of that here. We went to Saigon and got banh mi for breakfast, took our dog for a walk in the Standish, Sebago Lake area, and then came back to town and went food shopping and made an awesome dinner. That’s the trifecta. Something outdoors like a good walk and two good meals – two of the three pillars are good meals.
CC: Sleeping in and going out to breakfast is a great start. A motorcycle ride at some point – whether it’s to get from point A to point B, or just for the hell of it. That is a great thing.
GM: Yes, when a motorcycle ride can be intertwined with your outdoor activity that’s even better. A summer evening motorcycle ride for a drink or dinner, that’s nice.
CC: Going to the beach in the summertime, going to Ferry Beach. On my days off I like to be social at least one part of the day – whether that’s going to a party or having people over for drinks. To me that’s my day off, hanging out with people.
M&M: And cooking at home, you like to cook Asian food at home, Greg?
GM: I attempt to cook Asian at home. I have no background, I’ve never worked in an Asian restaurant. I have a few cookbooks.
CC: We both bought rice cookers this past fall.
GM: Chad got one. That sounded awesome to me. I really love Asian food and there’s not a ton of it around here – there’s a few places to go for certain things, but there’s not a huge variety of Asian food in Maine, and it’s very different from what we do here so I enjoy the challenge. We cook a lot of American, fun, rich foods here, and when I’m at home I want to eat spicy rice, different meats, lots of herbs, soy sauce, fish sauce, lime. I just crave those flavors all the time, so on my days off after being here and snacking on tuna and eggs for five days straight I just want to eat nothing but Asian food.
CC: I’m a much less ambitious home cook than Greg. I cook a lot of – think of it as healthy bachelor pad food. Simple vegetables, rice. If we make breakfast at home, just pancakes or eggs and toast. I like to eat very simply. When Rachel was away for a month this past fall, that’s when I bought the rice cooker. And that’s how I found myself eating brown rice and vegetables, things that came together pretty quickly and were really healthy.
GM: The other thing I like to make is pasta. I worked in Rome for a bit, so Roman pasta is cacio e pepe, alla gricia, carbonara, and for me those dishes are very homey and simple. I can whip up a simple Roman pasta in 15 minutes and that’s a good trick to have up your sleeve.
M&M: What are your go-to restaurants in Portland?
CC: The Phoenix did a thing about my go-to restaurant a couple months ago and I think many of the other people that they interviewed for this series chose more high-end places and I chose Pizza Villa which is by far my favorite restaurant. I go there at least once a week, hang out and get beers, catch up with friends, or hang out with Rachel. I love it there.
GM: My current favorite is Saigon, a super simple family-run Vietnamese restaurant. They have really great pho. After being in a restaurant, you don’t always want to have a restaurant experience. I don’t always want to be presented with a very thoughtful service. I just want to get a bowl of noodle soup and talk to my fiance or friends. We went to Huong’s the other evening on St. John’s and it’s the same thing, the service is simple and the food is tasty, and back to Asian food, it lends itself to sharing. It’s a fun cuisine to go out and share with friends.
CC: Greg & I go to meetings at Becky’s, too. We like it there.
GM: If I want a nicer meal, I tend to end up at Eventide. I like what those guys do a lot.
At this point, the conversation meandered for a little bit while we discussed favorite restaurants, keeping up with the growing Portland food scene, and and the community of regulars they’re building in Biddeford.
GM: When you get to build a sense of community in a restaurant or cafe, it’s pretty awesome. When Tandem first opened in Portland, it was a spot where we’d both grab a coffee and end up spending an hour there because all your friends were there or because you’d meet new people and make friends there. When we opened this place, we thought how cool it would be if that happened here, and to not only see that happen here but happen in Biddeford makes us really happy.
M&M: It’s even more special because people are having to drive a bit further to get here.
GM: It’s a huge compliment to be 20 miles south of a thriving food city and people are leaving it to come eat here. It shows promise.
M&M: Do you have any holdovers from the old Palace?
CC: There’s a handful of people, that it wouldn’t matter who owned it, they’d come in.
GM: There are the real holdovers, the guy who comes in and says he hasn’t been here since 1950. We had a guy who came in last weekend, pretty surly and he looked miserable, wasn’t being very friendly, and he hadn’t been in for years. We get these old timers occasionally where they see a review and they don’t get it. they don’t understand what’s happening with all the tattoos, and the young people and the music. I think, for me, the most satisfying customers are those ones that we then serve our flapjacks and they’re like “oh, this is a delicious stack of flapjacks, I don’t give a shit about anything else. I’ll be back.” That’s really satisfying. Our prices are a little higher, the quality of our ingredients is a little higher, so when an old timer can recognize that we make some damn good food and that they’ll be back even though it’s more money than the place around the corner, it’s awesome. There are a lot of people who get what we’re doing and think it’s great – that’s what keeps us going, but it’s a lot of fun when someone doesn’t get what you’re doing but they still can see that you’re doing a good job making food and making people happy.
M&M: What is your favorite Palace dish to cook or eat?
GM: I think my favorite thing to eat is the Deluxe and my favorite thing to cook is flapjacks. I get a lot of satisfaction out of making perfectly round, perfectly golden flapjacks, and they smell delicious – that smell never gets old.
CC: The Deluxe is probably my favorite to eat. Our food is so simple to cook. I just enjoy that process, cooking as a whole. There’s not just one item that I look forward to cooking. I do like assembling the fried chicken sandwich, actually. That’s a fun one. Every time we put it in the window, I love looking at people’s faces when they see it. People laugh and smile. I love that we are able to create that moment for people.