Secret Restaurant in Salem
If you know the password, Back Alley Bacon serves up tasty takeout.
Clandestine service and all-things-pork are Chef John Hamm's specialty.
photo by brian demello
First rule of Back Alley Bacon: You do not talk about Back Alley Bacon. So it was with some concern for my own safety that I lurked by an unmarked door, reporter’s notebook in hand, awaiting a chance to speak with “Chef John Hamm”—no relation to the actor, and possibly not the maestro’s real name—to learn more about the porky pop-up eatery that has been dishing out delicious takeout to insiders in Salem since late last summer.
I was rewarded with a few unnerving minutes with the mastermind. “Hamm” spoke to me through a crack in the door, sporting a disturbing rubber pig mask that made it difficult to focus on my list of questions. Like: Why all the subterfuge?
“Mysticism and culinary adventure are a good fit for Salem,” says Hamm, whose alley distribution point is just around the corner from the ever-creepy Salem Wax Museum. “There is a certain charm to a speakeasy food pop-up.”
Devoted patrons agree. On this night, a multigenerational crowd, from students and hipsters to boomers and families with small children, shivered outside a door on Liberty Street marked only with a red lantern, which Hamm hangs when service starts. Supplicants buzz the intercom and state the secret password revealed each week via Facebook and Twitter—perhaps “Piggy Stardust lives forever” or “Loose lips sink ships”—and how many meals they want. Then, they move to the other side of the door, exact change in hand, to await their feasts, which are handed through the cracked-open door by a masked cook.
Chef Hamm is very strict. Mix up the password and you may not get an entrée—although the friendly customers in line are willing to correct the tongue-tied or guide first-timers through the routine.
The pork-based entrées run the gamut from massive BLT sandwiches to racks of ribs. Most meals are between $10 and $12, cash only. “Pork lends itself to a lot of street food options,” Hamm says, adding, of course, “We love pork.”
Since a security breach earlier this year, when a large daily newspaper to the south published a story, Salem residents with valid ID get $1 off their total purchase. But Back Alley Bacon doesn’t just give preferential treatment to local residents—in season, chef Hamm hoofs it to the Salem Farmers’ Market, seeking local ingredients in support of area vendors. Even the pork is sourced nearby when possible.
“Our preference is always for local,” Hamm says, adding, “For one meal we were able to use pigs that were raised locally on apples that [Salem hard cider producer] Far From The Tree had pressed to make their cider.” The pork products are often cured in-house, and when pickles are called for, they typically come from either Maitland Mountain Farm or K’s Kitch’n, both of Salem.
Photographic evidence shows that even Salem mayor Kimberly Driscoll is a fan. Though she herself will neither confirm nor deny frequenting the establishment, word is that patrons may spot her on pulled-pork night.
“Salem has folks in masks giving tours, performing plays, busking, doing card readings, and everything else you can imagine,” the mayor says. “So someone serving food in a mask isn’t too much of a stretch…. Seriously, though, the Back Alley Bacon concept really speaks to Salem’s growing reputation as a unique dining destination.”
As I wrapped my fingers, chilled from the late-winter wind and a half hour taking notes in the cold, around a quart of pork belly ramen, I knew it had all been worth it. It was spicy and deeply flavored—clearly the work of a talented chef—and I can only hope that sharing this tale with loyal Northshore readers will not get me permanently barred from scoring more of Hamm’s amazing pork-centric dishes.