The Bridge Neck neighborhood in Salem where Keenan Langlois opened at the end of September is just a few miles from the Salem where witches reign this time of year. But it feels like another city entirely. His little ChezCasa shop is on a strip of land between the North River and Collins Cove, in premises where Stacia’s Pizza was located for several decades.
Langlois named his place ChezCasa because he wanted to suggest a mix of cuisines. The menu offers sandwiches, salads, sides (including Monsieur Empanada, a kind of Croque Monsieur in a fried duck-fat pastry with aioli), and pasta with sauces. The sauces are to take home; the shop is a 10-minute walk from the Commuter Rail station.
A description of ChickyCasa sandwich sounds like chicken salad, but there’s much more going on here. Toasted ciabatta is brushed with butter (“I’m French-trained,” says Langlois. “I use butter”), stacked with very tender, remarkably flavorful chicken, avocado, tomato, onion, lettuce, and mayo.
He cooks the chicken the way a woman from Hong Kong taught him recently. He was working as a private chef for a family in Nahant; the woman’s mother scrutinized everything he was doing. “I was really nervous,” he says. One day she offered to make a chicken and he watched as she did something he’d never seen before. She rubbed the bird all over with salt, let it sit out, then steamed it and let it cool in the steamer pot. Finally she pulled the meat apart and sprinkled it with fresh ginger and scallions. Now he uses her technique.
There’s a Captain Meatballs sandwich made with juicy pork and beef meatballs, cherry peppers, and provolone on a sub roll. That name comes from a friend who owns a yacht who contributed to Langlois’s Mainvest restaurant fund before opening. Anyone who gave him $1,000 got to name a sandwich.
All come with potato chips that are made right here and, as the Michelin Guide says, vaut le voyage (worth a special journey).
Local workers are standing around or slipping into one of the 12 seats, looking at their phones while they wait for their sandwiches. Everything is made to order and you can taste the freshness.
Those meatballs also come in a fine marinara, which you can buy by the quart, then pick out your pasta shape in the refrigerator case. At the moment, Langlois cannot cook the pasta for you -- he’s on his own with a prep cook for the mornings and lunch rush -- but he likes teaching customers how to boil the pasta, how to reheat the sauce, and perhaps learn a little about cooking in the process.
Salads are very large and you can top any of them with the chicky salad, seared tuna, or grilled mushrooms. A big bowl of chickpeas with green beans is tossed with a cider vinaigrette, queso fresco, radishes, and toasted almonds. One that’s billed as “chopped greens” is really a kind of Caesar with a delicious Parmesan vinaigrette, grilled ciabatta croutons, and tomatoes.
The chef comes to his new endeavor with a resume that can make your head spin. He was born on Martha’s Vineyard and moved to Hingham when he was a boy, where he began working in a local pizza shop at age 13. He trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and then worked in some elite kitchens, including Hamersley’s Bistro (owner Gordon Hamersley arranged an apprenticeship for Langlois in Montpelier, France), Lumiere in West Newton with Michael Leviton, Atlantic Fish Co., Sorellina, The Nightingale and Union Bar & Grille (both closed now), Publico in South Boston, Dragon Pizza in Somerville, and more.
When he decided to fly solo, he went onto Craigslist to find a storefront and when he walked into the old Stacia’s, he says, “I knew this was it.” Even with wood paneling on all the walls, crooked angles, and what he calls “a wavy floor” in the century-old building, it was what he wanted. Nothing had been updated to code for many, many years.
The place is still a little bare, with some sweet touches: A shelf of cookbooks that includes volumes by Julia Child and Thomas Keller, plastic cutlery in Italian tomato cans, sandwiches served on paper-lined pie plates, two small replicas of Priscilla and John Alden in their Pilgrim finery acting as a doorstop in the restroom. The small space took $100,000 to build out, even with Langlois doing most of the work himself. “I got to be able to build the place exactly like I wanted it, with all the equipment running. I know every square inch.”
It is becoming increasingly harder for chef-entrepreneurs to set up on their own, one reason Langlois is in Salem. He says it’s an affordable city. He has the skill and the energy and the optimism to succeed. On his crowd-funding page he wrote, “Simple food cooked perfectly never goes out of style.” Can’t say it better.
97 Bridge St., Salem, 978-744-2143, www.chezcasaboston.com. Sandwiches and salads $8.50-$12. Pasta sauces to take home $5.50-$10.