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Student Survival Guide: Eat this!

Where to enjoy the real taste of Rhode Island
By PHILIP EIL  |  September 27, 2014

Matunuck Oyster Bar

There is life beyond Taco Night at the dorm dining hall.

In fact, there are so many tasty, iconic, and otherwise noteworthy culinary destinations in this teensy state, that the challenge in preparing this Rhody Food 101 crash course wasn’t coming up with ideas, it was whittling the list down to a manageable size.

We’ll get to that list in a second. But, before we begin, let’s make one thing clear: Federal Hill, in Providence, is still indisputably the place to start any culinary tour of the Ocean State. Sure, recent news of beatings, brawls, and shootings on Atwells Ave. — the Hill’s main drag — haven’t been the best marketing scheme. But all it takes is a few minutes of listening to how aggressively Providence mayoral candidates talk about protecting the Hill to know how sacred this place is.

Our advice? If it’s your first time, try the “Apostrophe Strategy”: dropping into establishments with names that end in “–’s” like Andino’s, Bob & Timmy’s, Angelo’s, and Joe Marzilli’s Old Canteen. Once you’ve plowed through enough pasta, sausage, marinara sauce (called “gravy” on Atwells), garlic, veal, parmesan, and other Mediterranean delights, and you’ve made it to the Western downslope of the hill — a stretch with two more notable apostrophe eateries, Don José Tequila’s and the dimly-lit burger saloon, Lili Marlene’s — then you’re ready to conquer the rest of the state.

Here are a few humble suggestions.

WHAT: Matunuck Oyster Bar

WHERE: South Kingstown

WHY: It doesn’t matter what your GPA is — if you leave a college in Rhode Island without trying local oysters, you have failed. Solution: hop in the car and head to the Matunuck Oyster Bar, the absurdly successful “farm-to-table, pond-to-plate” eatery perched on a lush, sun-dappled cove a shell’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean.

Oysters served at MOB are the Platonic ideal of the shellfish experience. They’re served on a bracingly cold metal plate, along with lemons, and little bowls of vinegar-based mignonette sauce and cocktail sauce. If it’s your first time staring down a mollusk, you might be squeamish. But pop one of these squiggly, salty, tender, sweet, luscious gifts from the sea into your pie-hole and prepare to have your life changed.

Pretty amazing, huh? Slurping down a Potter’s Pond oyster that has been harvested a few hundred yards from your table is the perfect way to tell your taste buds, “Welcome to Rhode Island.”

Now, it’s time to start looking for that extra job to support your oyster habit.

WHAT: Allie’s Donuts

WHERE: North Kingstown

WHY: Dunkin’ Donuts dominates the local D-nut game (see: Providence’s sports/concert arena, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center), but that doesn’t mean Mom and Pop have been totally out-frosted and out-sprinkled. Family owned since 1968, Allie’s is a no-frills sugar shack worthy of a field trip. Munching on a sugar-covered Allie’s raspberry jelly doughnut, one of more than thirty varieties sold there, is as rapturous an experience as you’ll find on this food tour.

But the real draw to Allie’s are the cakes. Doughnut cakes, specifically.

No Rhode Island bachelor party, graduation, or, heck, even funeral, is official until there has been a representational Allie’s cake commissioned for the occasion. A table at Allie’s is stacked with time-worn binders of photos of these masterpieces crafted from doughnut batter, sprinkles, and frosting. Anchors. Rollerblades. Rubber duckies. Wedding rings. Genie lamps. Eiffel towers. Shih Tzus.

Order one and watch the people at your party freak out.

Olneyville New York System

WHAT: Olneyville New York System

WHERE: Providence

WHY: You can take our word for this recommendation, or you could listen to the folks at the James Beard Foundation, who, in giving ONYS the food equivalent of an Oscar — a 2014 “America’s Classic” award — wrote, “Olneyville New York System, despite its name, serves food that is distinctive to Rhode Island. Slathered with mustard, topped with meat sauce, sprinkled with celery salt and onions, and served in a steamed bun, the hot wiener is signature as are the salt and vinegar French fries. The preferred drink is coffee milk, made in Rhode Island by flavoring milk with a sweetened coffee concentrate called coffee syrup.” Sounds about right, to us.

As for those rumors that former RISD student and Talking Heads front man David Byrne’s arm-chopping dance from the “Once In a Lifetime” music video was inspired by his experience slinging wieners in RI? Well, they’re just rumors.

“I did work in a wiener joint,” he told the Phoenix in 2008, “but if you look at the video, the source of the movement. . . it’s from Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. They had all these street dancers — they still have street dancers — in the park, and I videotaped some of them.”

Pro-tip: bring Tums for your first New York System experience.

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