BRATTLEBORO—On a recent afternoon behind the counter at Graffiti Sandwich, the new breakfast and lunch spot on Elliot Street, Travis Mason was simmering some pork shoulder for the next day’s meals.
While that isn’t an unusual occurrence in a restaurant, the method was slightly atypical.
Mason, Graffiti’s co-owner and chef, was dunking the big chunks of pork, sealed in plastic bags, into an immersion cooker. Using the sous-vide method (“under-vacuum”) — which thoroughly and evenly cooks the meat at a lower temperature in a water bath, all while retaining the moisture in the meat — Mason was making pulled pork.
“I do this almost every night,” Mason said, explaining that with no smoker in his shop, “this is the best way to get pulled pork.”
‘Low and slow’
“Legally, you could not put a smoker in here,” Mason said. Graffiti Sandwich is on the first floor of an apartment building.
Mason noted the trick to getting the perfect texture for pulled pork is cooking it “low and slow."
“I sous-vide it for 14 hours, then put a [spice] rub on it, then put it in the convection oven for about 30 minutes to caramelize it a bit,” Mason explained. “Sous-vide holds all the natural flavors in. I want all that flavor in it. I want it to cook in its own fat,” he said.
When the pork is finished, it goes into the shop’s barbecue sandwich, which also contains barbecue sauce, pickles, and smoked mayonnaise — all house-made. Mason noted the pork comes from heritage breeds raised and butchered in Vermont.
The sous-vide method “is a great way to do protein,” Mason said, noting he prepares the eggs for the shop’s egg salad sandwich in the immersion cooker, too.
Although Graffiti Sandwich’s menu is somewhat small compared with other local eateries, the variety of offerings will likely please adventurous eaters as well as those seeking a simple ham-and-cheese sandwich.
But even the ham and cheese isn’t so simple. The ham is a higher quality than the “chopped up and molded back together” meat one often finds, Mason said.
House-made, with southern roots
It’s called “pit ham,” for “partially internally trimmed,” which comes from slicing one muscle to remove the bone, then putting the meat back together, Mason explained. “Pit ham isn’t anything crazy,” he said, “it’s just what I prefer.”
Like every sauce and pickle the shop uses in its cuisine, the sandwich’s cheese — in this case, pimiento cheese — is house-made.
The southern specialty honors the owners’ upbringing below the Mason-Dixon Line. Mason and his wife, Maureen Kennedy, who co-owns the shop and serves as its front-of-the-house person, grew up in Virginia.
The only component not made in-house is the bread. “I would do it, but there’s no room,” Mason said, noting, “I love fresh bread, but it’s a lot of work.” And he already has his hands full.
The chicken in the Ono Chicken sandwich gets marinated in a garlic-soy sauce for three or four days before getting subjected to the sous-vide treatment.
The shop’s best-seller, the Da Nang Pork sandwich, features homemade meatballs, Vietnamese slaw, cilantro, Sriracha sauce, and hoisin peanut butter sauce.
Mason said vegetarians have been very happy with the miso-glazed eggplant sandwich. “We sell a ton!” he said.
A popular lunch special is the Oaxacan pork or tofu sandwiches with a molé sauce containing 27 ingredients, including Mexican chocolate, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and sesame seeds.
“I worked on that recipe for about 10 or 15 years,” Mason said, noting the recipe started out on “an old piece of yellow paper with stuff crossed out” as he experimented and perfected the flavor.
The rice-bowl option
Patrons looking for a gluten-free or breadless option can choose their lunch sandwiches atop a bowl of brown rice.
“We chose not to have gluten-free bread,” Mason said, because “every component of our sandwiches is planned, including the bread. Finding one gluten-free bread that works with all sandwiches? I had no luck. So, when we design the sandwich, we also visualize it on the bowl.”
Plus, Mason said, “we noticed no place [in the area] that has rice bowls” as a meal option.
A familiar sandwich shop staple, potato salad, is made with the expected ingredients — green onions, eggs, pickles, and mayonnaise — but the starring role is played by sweet potatoes.
The menu and the variety of house-made ingredients come from Mason’s 20 years’ experience working in kitchens in Montana, Oregon, and Idaho. He said he followed the usual kitchen trajectory: sous-chef, chef, then owner, this time of a fine-dining restaurant in Coeur d’Alene.
Graffiti Sandwich is a way for Mason to dial it back a little. “The older I get, the more I just want to roast vegetables and braise meats,” Mason said. “I don’t care if the food doesn’t have a foam or a gelée."
“I got bored with cooking fancy food,” he said. “Plus, you don’t eat fancy food a few times every week,” noting many of his and Kennedy’s customers come in multiple times every week.
“I like simple foods,” Mason said, “but I like the flavors to be complex."
When asked why their menu uses local meats and eggs and house-made sauces, Mason said that’s what he and his family — Kennedy, and their two children — like to eat at home. “That’s what I like to cook,” he said.
A culinary romance
Mason and Kennedy were friends in high school, “but then we went off on our separate lives,” he said, including marrying other people.
Many years later they reconnected in New York City, where Kennedy was living and Mason was visiting in his role as a representative for Stumptown Coffee. Both were no longer married to their first spouses and they met up only as old friends.
A romance formed and Mason said he soon convinced Kennedy to move to Portland where he lived with his son.
There, the duo opened a food truck, which did well in a city noted for its thriving food — and food truck — scene. Mason said the Da Nang Pork and Ono Chicken were “signature sandwiches” in Portland, just as they are in Brattleboro.
So, why give up a successful business and move across the country?
“Portland is so saturated with food trucks and food in general,” Mason said. “Plus, Portland is so expensive to live, and we needed a bigger house."
The bigger house was necessary for the new addition to the family: Kennedy and Mason’s baby, which Kennedy had while they were still living in Portland.
“All our family is on the East Coast... so let’s move somewhere cool,” Mason said the couple decided.
Vermont was a fairly easy choice because, politically and culturally, it reminded Mason and Kennedy of Oregon.
And, Kennedy’s sister, Kathleen Kennedy, who lives in Brattleboro, “was doing the hard sell” for them to move here, Mason said. So, the family moved here last June, settled in Dummerston — “because of the good school,” Mason said — and about a year later, opened Graffiti Sandwich.
Farewell to the food truck
Leaving the world of food trucks was also an easy choice, Mason said, noting, “working in a food truck was not fun.” In the Portland summers, temperatures reached 130-degrees in the truck, and in the winter the water lines froze.
“Plus, you have to cook in a coat,” Mason said, adding that while a brick-and-mortar restaurant demands more risk and more money, “we wanted a restaurant.” Having one allows the pair to “do more food” and be open more hours.
After working hard on the renovations, Mason and Kennedy opened Graffiti Sandwich on June 20.
So, what’s with the name?
According to the shop’s website, “We both like graffiti. We like the way it sounds. We like its double f’s and every other i and just one t. We like to take pictures of graffiti anywhere from Bushwick to downtown LA. And, well, Brattleboro doesn’t really have graffiti. Until now. Come on by and say hi!”
“We’ve been very happy so far,” Mason said. “People have been very accepting, including local business owners. Other restaurant owners were some of our first customers,” he said, noting he hopes to collaborate with other local food professionals on pop-up events.
“It’s a cool town. I’ve been lucky to find some amazing friends here. People come in two, three, four, or five times a week,” Mason said. “It’s a good feeling to have that."