CAMBRIDGE - When you walk into a place that has a couple of pinball machines, a beat up Playboy barstool, and a whole bunch of taxidermy on the walls, you're probably not expecting to find great food. But if that place you're walking into is State Park in Cambridge, boy oh boy, would you be wrong.
Located in an underground spot in Kendall Square, State Park is one part restaurant, one part bar, and zero parts pretense. It's the kind of place Chef-Owner Barry Maiden likes to call a 'high-dive'.
"It's like divey, but it's like a little bit higher end than a dive bar," he explained. "So, you get the dive bar feel, but you get also really good service, really good food, really good drink. I mean it's just a hell of a place to hang out."
As soon as you enter State Park, you're greeted by a wood shingled foyer and a swinging screen door. There's pool, tabletop shuffleboard, a giant homemade diorama, and plenty of old school beer signs. It's the kind of place that feels like it's always been here, and makes even first time visitors feel like they've been here before.
"It reminds you of somewhere else," Barry said. "Like it reminds you of a bar that you've been to in Wisconsin, or it reminds you of a bar that you've been to in Ohio, or Oregon, or wherever it is that you're from. Everybody that comes in has a memory of a bar that they've been to that this reminds them of."
Back in the kitchen, Barry is all business. He grew up in rural Virginia, and has earned praise for the Southern cooking at his other restaurant, Hungry Mother, right around the corner. At State Park, the menu is filled with incredibly delicious bar food, also served with a Southern slant: like a heaping pile of Tobacco Onions; a Chopped BBQ Pork Sandwich with slaw; and the Grilled Pimento Cheese with bacon and tomato.
"It's just a grilled cheese on crack," described Barry. "It's like grilled cheese, with all this flavor. You get this crunchiness of the bread, and when you bite into it the cheese is just like kind of just set enough. You don't want it to all fall out. And you eat it and you get the nice spicy flavors and the ooziness of the cheese. When you eat it all together, it just works."
For a truly serious stack of flavor, nothing tops the tasty tower known as Snappy's Famous Pork Chop Sandwich. The recipe comes from a legendary restaurant in North Carolina named Snappy Lunch and features a pork chop encased in pancake batter and overloaded with toppings.
"We take a boneless pork loin, season on both sides, dip it in the batter, and then it gets put right on the griddle. So the pancake batter sort of encases the pork, cooking it at the same time, keeps it nice and moist and gives it a nice texture on the outside," explained Barry.
Then it's stacked on a griddled buttered bun with mustard, all beef chili, creamy slaw and juicy tomatoes.
"It's a beast, that sandwich, it really is. We stab it with a knife right in the middle before it goes out because it's really one of those sandwiches you want to cut before you start eating it. You can't really pick it up. Once you commit to picking it up with two hands, you're committed. You know there's no putting it down. When you start eating it, if the chili is not running down your arm, and you don't have mustard on you somewhere, we haven't done our job."
Iconic Southern dishes are all over the menu at State Park, including a curious concoction known as Memphis BBQ Spaghetti, featuring pasta tossed in a blend of marinara and barbecue sauce, studded with crispy, smoky burnt ends.
"It's kind of a wow factor just because they don't expect all the flavor that's in there. Very bold, a little bit spicy, piping hot. It hits all those high notes. It's like a dish that you eat and you remember it because of all the bold flavors," Barry said.
Of course no dish speaks of the South more than Fried Chicken and Barry's version does not disappoint. It's brined in buttermilk and encased in a thin and crispy coating. Most people order it topped with sweet and spicy tabasco honey, but true heat seekers know that the best way to go is to ask for it 'Nashville Hot'.
"I love spicy food," Barry said. "So for me, I wanted to offer a regular chicken that everybody could enjoy, and then for those who are a little bit more brave and daring to try something really spicy."
This fiery version tosses the fried chicken in a devilish sauce of ghost chilies, smoked paprika and cayenne, with a little sugar and garlic to round out the flavor.
"It has that sweet-hot flavor that's really addicting. So as you're eating the chicken, it's not just so hot that you can't taste anything. It actually has flavor to it, but then it just kind of lights you up and takes your breath away a little bit, and then you start to sweat and you can feel the sweat coming down. That's what I wanted. And the people that get it and eat it and they're like, 'that was just absurd, too hot, I can't believe you serve that.' Well, get the regular chicken next time."
And that's why Barry loves State Park, because it allows him to serve up a taste of home, in place that feels like home.
"This all ties into my history; who I am and where I come from. And to walk in here and have it feel like I'm walking into a place back in Virginia where I grew up, and I can cook the food that I want to cook, it's just a fun place to be."
You can find State Park at 1 Kendall Square in Cambridge, and online at statepark.is.
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