Through the Pass: Mom & Pops
If Tom Deegan had any fears about entering the restaurant industry despite a lack of experience, they didn’t deter him. Tom had faith that he could funnel his talents for party hosting and backyard grilling with his business acumen into a successful career as restaurateur. After more than a year of preparation, he plunged into opening Mom & Pops, a restaurant offering a taste of both east and west coast-style favorites. The focus is on simple fare, predominantly burgers, hot dogs and fries, along with a few less traditional options (at least to us Cape Codders). With an emphasis on high quality, fresh ingredients and a concept he felt would appeal to the masses, Tom, along with wife Pelinda, has created a restaurant that is casual, cool and different from the “typical” Cape Cod dining experience. As a result, Chatham is now a prime destination for seafood, sand and shark sightings, and a darn good burger as well!
The road to opening Mom & Pops certainly did not follow a conventional route. Neither Tom nor Pelinda profess to have a culinary resume. Tom was working for the consulting firm Deloitte, in San Francisco, when he met Pelinda, an employee in the same building. Marriage, followed by the birth of son Charlie, gave the new parents a desire to get away from the city and introduce their infant son to Tom’s east coast family. After assuring Pelinda this sabbatical would last for only six months, they put their belongings in storage and moved across the country. Tom’s family-owned cottage in Chatham offered an idyllic place to bond as a family.
“We didn’t know a soul, not one single person here, but we sort of just fell in love with the whole community,” says Pelinda. “We love being near the beach, the pace of life, and just felt this was a really great place to raise a boy.” The half-year deadline to return to California came and went, and the trio remained on the Cape. After twenty years in the corporate world, Tom wanted to channel his talents into something he was passionate about. The notion of opening a restaurant began to formulate and eventually the idea became a reality. Pelinda, a vocational counselor at Cape Abilities, would come home from work and find Tom working feverishly in the kitchen. “He would have all these dishes with differing ratios of meats and dishes of sauces with blends for me to sample.” He spent a good year and a half refining recipes until he knew he had some winning combinations. Admittedly, Tom picked the brains of some very successful west coast industry friends for lots of advice. He shares, “The reality of not really knowing what we were doing, but knowing the right people to give us valuable guidance, combined with some really lucky breaks, has worked in our favor.”
One of the couple’s biggest breaks was a prime location. They had initially considered a few other spots, including one in Mashpee, but the idea of commuting there from Chatham every day, especially in seasonal traffic, was not ideal. Thankfully, none of the other locales panned out, and eventually their current spot became available. Tom states simply, “We couldn’t be happier with where we have ended up.” In addition to great visibility on Route 28, the building offers a great space from which to launch their concept. They bandied about many names for their new venture until they settled on Mom & Pops. As Tom explains, “We were talking about what we were going to be, basically a little mom and pop type of business. We thought the name ‘Mom & Pops’ just tied everything together...the east-coast-west-coast theme, the fact that we are a couple, and that our emphasis is on being a family-owned business with a friendly atmosphere that would appeal to everyone.”
One interior wall invokes the spirit of an old Cape postcard, with a giant mural that spells out “Greetings from Mom & Pops.” In the spirit of their bicoastal roots, however, the bridge on the left side is not the Bourne or the Sagamore, but the Golden Gate, while the iconic Chatham Lighthouse anchors the opposite side of the wall art. Black tables and white chairs lend a clean, modern feel to the dining space. Seating is also available at bold red counter stools where diners can gaze out onto an enclosed biergarten. In warmer months, a game of cornhole provides a welcome distraction while meals are being prepared.
We know good decor lends to a great atmosphere, but here the food is absolutely the star. The menu features a variety of burgers prepared with Creekstone Farms Beef. Sourced from small family farms, the meat is antibiotic- and hormone-free. Sides of these premium meats are butchered on site at Mom & Pops by their kitchen team, headed by culinary director, Nate Dress. A gleaming new Hobart industrial grinder handles the daily secret in-house meat blend (trust me, it’s not just chuck) which then goes into an automatic patty maker. The result is consistently-sized burgers. Fries are made from hand-cut potatoes that are blanched and twice fried. As Tom explains, “Anywhere where we have been able to streamline our operation, we have done it. The nature of what we do here everyday is so labor intensive, the daily butchering and grinding, any step where we can make the process easier, we have tried to implement it.”
Prior to the opening of Mom & Pops in November 2016, Pelinda, who was born in the Pampanga province of the Philippines, suspected that she and her son Charlie comprised the “Filipino party of 1.5 living on Cape Cod,” as she puts it. What she had not anticipated was the interest generated when Tom hung the Filipino flag from the corner of their building. She has since been overwhelmed by how many guests (some Filipino, some not) the flag has brought through the door. While Pelinda was initially hesitant to include a traditional Filipino favorite on the menu, Tom insisted that the Cape crowd would love her lumpia as much as he does. Lumpies, as the locals have affectionately dubbed them, have quickly become a bestseller. Pelinda explains that Filipino cuisine is tough to define, as it borrows from many cultures, including those of Spain, China and a host of Asian countries. Lumpia is similar to a Chinese-style egg roll, but it is stuffed with pork adobo seasoned with soy sauce, vinegar, garlic and ginger.
At a spotless prep station, Pelinda dons a pair of kitchen gloves and begins the process of making lumpia. In one seamless motion, she grabs a pastry skin wrapper and adds a scoop of the pork mixture, which she lightly kneads to spread across the skin. She brushes the wrapper quickly with an egg wash, and then expertly rolls it into a tight cylindrical shape. The lumpia will be fried to order (four per) and served with a Filipino sweet chili sauce that packs a little heat. As the demand for the lumpia has increased, Pelinda has shared her recipe and rolling technique with Dress, who jokes, “She’s faster than me at this, but she can’t be the only one here to know how to make these.”
As an early dinner crowd begins to file in, the tickets start to spit out of the printer. Chefs Dress and Mike Riordan handle orders, and there is a symphony of metal clanging as burgers are pressed onto the sizzling flattop. There is a shout out when a “steamed” burger is requested. Signs ask customers to allow 15 minutes of cook time for this style of patty.
In Tom Deegan’s hometown of Meriden, Connecticut, the steamed burger is a regional specialty. Burgers are placed inside a stainless steel steamer cabinet in individual trays, which allows all of the fats to render away, resulting in an extremely lean, juicy patty. Traditionally, the burgers are then covered in a cheese sauce also cooked in the steamer. The sharp-aged cheddar cheese used in the preparation of the sauce is delivered to Mom & Pops in gargantuan forty-pound blocks. Tom’s goal was to create a version of the cheese sauce that was reminiscent of the burger palaces of his youth. He believes he has achieved that at Mom & Pops. As Tom explains, “Texturally, the steamed burger is similar to meatloaf, whereas the pressed burger has a crust, and the meat flavor is more pronounced.”
My party of four came to judge for ourselves. First, however, we order a round of craft beers. Mom & Pops has revolving selections of craft beers on draft, and a beer flight is available for the indecisive. During our visit, we indulge in a few: Transmitter Saison (Brooklyn, NY); Troeg’s Nugget Nectar (Hershey, PA); and Maine Beer Company Peeper (Freeport, ME). Traditionalists can opt for Narragansett or Schlitz. There is even a nod to Pelinda’s homeland: San Miguel Pale Pilsen (the largest-selling beer in the Philippines). Wine, frappes and a variety of other liquid refreshments are also available.
Beers in hand, we settle at one of the communal tables to await a smorgasbord of house specialties. FYI: all items are made to order. Nothing is staged, or left to roast under a heat lamp. This is not fast food, but if you’re in a rush, call-ahead orders are available for takeout.
First up: an order of Mom’s lumpia. One bite in, and we unanimously decide Mom & Pops needs to add an “I Lumpies” tshirt to their line-up. Craving more of that spicy pork blend, we devour the Filipino Burger, a ridiculously delicious pork patty topped with sweet, crunchy, papaya coleslaw that offers a hint of star anise, and a chili garlic aioli. No wonder the locals and tourists alike are clamoring for more Filipino favorites to be added to the menu.
We are equally impressed with the menu’s American fare. We try the Pop’s Dog: a meaty all-beef hotdog wrapped in bacon, then deep fried, covered with grilled onions, shishito peppers and Mom’s sauce, and nestled in a buttery grilled bun. The Mission Dog (bacon, grilled onions, jalapenos) is an ode to the San Francisco neighborhood where Tom and Pelinda would often grab hot dogs from a street cart after a late night date. We have trouble deciding which of the tempting varieties of burgers to try, but settle on the California Burger (pepper jack, bacon, avocado and Mom’s sauce) and the El Dyablo Burger (hot habanero cheddar cheese, bacon, avocado, shishito peppers and Mom’s sauce). We are too wimpy to order the Naughty Dyablo Burger, which is made even hotter by the addition of ghost peppers. For those who want to dial back the heat, there are both plain burgers and traditional American cheeseburgers in single and double patty portions. All of the pressed burgers are served on a grilled sesame brioche bun, unless a gluten-free roll is requested.
We also order a steamed burger in order to do a side-by-side taste comparison. We all agree that the steamed cheeseburger is moist and delicious, with its decadent cheddar cheese sauce, but personally, I’m a sucker for the seared, crusty pressed version. Both grilled and steamed styles earn points for taste and execution.
A trip to Mom & Pops is not complete without an order of their hand-cut fries. The Naked fries are first rate, but the Loaded fries elevate the spud. They arrive bathed in a rich house cheese sauce topped with grilled onions and Pop’s sauce.
We will certainly come back to work our way through the rest of the menu. The family sharing our dining space raved over the veggie burger, a blend of plantains and black beans, ranking it high for its fresh and unique flavor profile. I also spy a hearty-looking fried chicken sandwich at a nearby table that looks tempting.
From my viewpoint, during this off-season early evening, locals have discovered the joys of Mom & Pops. And word is spreading. Of course, having WCVB’s Chronicle come calling just five months after opening certainly hasn’t hurt. Tom and Pelinda acknowledge other factors in their success. A strong culinary team has been key, as has the network of local students that staffs the front of the house. Pelinda has also been able to use the site as a place to do vocational assessments for Cape Abilities participants who have an interest in working in a culinary environment.
Though opening in November on Cape Cod would not be considered an optimal time to launch a restaurant, the Deegans believe it actually worked in their favor. It allowed time for one-on-one customer interactions that enabled them to cultivate a local following. Thus, they became more ingrained in their own community before dealing with the onslaught of their first summer season, which Tom reckoned to a “second opening.” Memorial Day weekend brought a completely new round of challenges along with the crowds.
During their first year, the Deegans chose to allow word-of-mouth reviews to build their audience. Having worked out the kinks of last summer and recently boosted interior seating, they now feel ready to embrace the next round of seasonal crowds and seven-days-a-week work hours. Meanwhile, Tom muses that, “Maybe someday we may be ready to open another on-Cape Mom & Pops location, but this time they will know we are coming, and who we are in advance.” Somehow, I believe this duo can do whatever they put their minds to.
Mom & Pops
1603 Main Street, Chatham
774-840-4144 / momandpopschatham.com