Why serving local food helps one Maine restaurant owner ‘sleep at night’

Posted April 26, 2016, at 2:34 p.m.
Last modified April 27, 2016, at 8:43 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Sous chef Duston Thomas begins crafting the dish with a base of soft corn tortillas. They’re filled with marinated grilled chicken breast, guacamole made fresh that day, mango salsa, cilantro and pickled onions.

He serves up the Tacos Al Pastor on a bright green plate, the fresh ingredients a rainbow of color attractive to the eye and the palate.

Miguel’s Mexican Restaurant at 697 Hogan Road in Bangor isn’t new to the Queen City’s food scene. In fact, it isn’t new at all. It got its start in Bar Harbor in the ’80s under different ownership and passed hands until it ended up under the direction of Chris Jones, a native Mainer and resident of Dedham.

The restaurant opened its Bangor location in 2007 with a rocky start.

“We kind of got a bad name for ourselves in the first few months. We were up, like, 200 percent what we thought sales were going to be, and we just weren’t prepared for that,” Jones said.

Two of the proprietors ended up bowing out, but Jones refused to let go of Miguel’s, believing it had potential. He took over as sole owner in 2009.

“I felt like, if one of us were up here full time, it would make it,” Jones said. He braced himself for the next few years, integrating his extensive travel in Mexico into the menu to create an authentic Mexican experience.

“I lived in Arizona for three years. I go to Mexico every year. I lived right on the border, so I would hop over to Mexico all the time. I have a background in that area and loved the cuisine to begin with,” Jones said. Each time he visits, he’s in restaurants, coming up with new ideas to implement at Miguel’s.

“In Mexico there aren’t a lot of chain restaurants. They’re all ‘ma and pa’ places,” Jones said. That authenticity was what he hoped to bring back to Maine, adding in a twist with all natural meats and locally sourced products when they’re available.

“It’s karma, essentially,” Jones said. “I want to be able to sleep at night, so what I’m feeding people is important to me.”

He integrates locally sourced foods when he’s able, including tomatoes from Backyard Farms in Madison. He also has been getting his corn tortillas from a Maine source, Tortilleria Pachanga, since July 2014.

“Our tortillas are used with [Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association] MOFGA-certified corn. Not that many restaurants use them because of the price, so it’s nice that Miguel’s does,” Lynn Rowe, owner of Tortilleria Pachanga in Portland, said.

Eggs and honey are sourced locally, as well, and he buys seasonally from local farmers to integrate ingredients into special menus that change each week.

“Our special menu each week has one or two food items and a couple of drink items that are sourced locally and seasonally,” Jones said. “It allows us to get smaller farms that are at the farmers market. They can’t do a whole restaurant, but they have a couple hundred dollars of stuff they need to get rid of every week. It doesn’t matter to us what they have, as long as we can incorporate it into a dish.”

Because of costs, some things aren’t possible, though, he said.

“There’s some stuff, like pork and chicken, that’s all natural, but we haven’t been able to lock something in that’s local yet because the price is too much,” he explained.

Miguel’s location in Bangor’s shopping district, where there’s much competition from chain restaurants has made pricing a bit more difficult, but the sheer number of people who pass through the area makes it worth it.

“We can’t get what people are charging downtown, and we’re still serving the quality stuff. It hurts a little bit because we can’t charge what we should be charging because people will go across the street to Applebee’s. But at the same time, there’s more foot traffic,” Jones said.

Over the years, Jones has watched as Bangor’s food scene has evolved and he has made it his mission to change with it.

“I just feel like Bangor is becoming a little bit more cultured. People are willing to try more things. There was stuff that we had on the menu in 2008 that we got rid of and brought back last year and now are selling,” he said. He still offers Tex-Mex options, such as taco-seasoned ground beef for those who enjoy that particular version of Mexican cuisine, but offers a range of authentic Mexican fillings and dishes as well, including traditional Mexican restaurant favorites such as flautas and quesadillas.

“It throws me sometimes when people say this isn’t authentic or that it’s nothing like in Texas, but I’m not trying to do Texas Mexican, I’m trying to do Mexican Mexican. Some of our dishes are Tex-Mex, but if you want something different we have that, too,” he said. From dishes with machaca style shredded beef and Oaxaca-style mole sauce, Jones anchors his dishes in Mexico as much as possible.

The influx of new restaurants opening has expanded local palates, but the competition has kept him on his toes. Sharing Greater Bangor with restaurants such as Las Palapas, Pepino’s and Verve in Bangor along with Margarita’s in Orono has required him to adapt to the changing food scene.

“Competition hurts when restaurants first open, but I think it keeps everybody on their game. You don’t get comfortable. You’re trying to be innovative and work on the small stuff, like customer service,” Jones said.

Miguel’s has done their job in that respect. Jones said about 80 percent of the customers who come in are regulars. And for those ready to try something new, he’s bringing something else back from Mexico he’s excited for.

Starting this weekend, Miguel’s will offer brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with dishes such as huevos rancheros (two eggs sunny-side up over corn tortillas with black beans, salsa and cilantro) and huevos a la Mexicana (scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onion and peppers served with corn tortillas, avocado and black beans).

“This past trip I went down there, and when I got back I missed the Sunday Mexican brunch, so we’re starting it this weekend. It’s really great food, and there are a lot of dishes that are authentic and unique,” Jones said.

Miguel’s Mexican Restaurant is located at 697 Hogan Road in Bangor and is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays for brunch.

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