Simple, high-quality food is the specialty of Riff’s North on Avenue A in Turners Falls. “North” is specified, because the owners also run a larger restaurant and bar at the Eastworks Building in Easthampton, known as Riff’s Joint and the Hideaway Lounge.
Mike McCarthy, Jeff Cahill and Rich Lyman acquired the space in Turners Falls, most recently home to Kali B’s Wings & Things, late last fall. After extensive renovations the restaurant opened in January.
The name Riff’s is a contraction of Jeff and Rich. Lyman and Cahill were the original owners, joined a few years later by McCarthy, who lives in Greenfield and is also the director of dining services at Deerfield Academy.
The three wanted to expand their operations and had taken note of the recent business renaissance in Turners Falls.
Photographer Paul Franz and I recently sat down over tacos with McCarthy and Cahill in the stunning earth-toned space the group has created at Riff’s North.
“The Board of Selectmen here is very business-friendly,” McCarthy said of Turners Falls. “We really feel like Turners is on the cusp.”
I wondered aloud how the trio divided up their work. “We’re all basically cooks,” McCarthy informed me. “We love to eat and try different things.” He added that Cahill is the main “flavor guy” of the three.
Cahill said simply, “We started this because we like to eat.”
Asked to characterize the restaurant’s cuisine, Cahill thought for a moment. “I call it American comfort food with an international twist. It’s my favorite food. I like Tex Mex. I like Asian. I like burgers and stuff.”
The menu is deceptively simple — hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, tacos, sandwiches. What separates Riff’s from a run-of-the-mill burger joint is the trio’s emphasis on fresh ingredients and homemade crusts and sauces.
One can order salads, burgers and pizzas with diverse flavor profiles, from southwestern to Thai. McCarthy’s favorite dish is the Avocado Goat Cheese Quesadilla, while Cahill prefers the Thai Dyed Burrito.
Cahill himself is responsible for many of the clever names assigned to menu items. “Jeff has a way with words … at least for the menu,” remarked McCarthy with a laugh.
In addition to ordering pre-set menu items, customers may design their own burgers, pizzas or chicken sandwiches by choosing from a variety of cheeses, sauces and toppings.
“Some of the creations that our customers come up with are as interesting as ours,” Cahill observed.
McCarthy and Cahill noted that they are excited to be in Turners Falls.
“We want to be part of the fabric of the community,” McCarthy told me.
They established their bona fides by keeping on as much of the staff of Kali B’s as they could, shuttling employees to their Easthampton branch for training, while the Turners restaurant was undergoing a facelift.
This coming fall, they hope to partner with the Shea Theater on events, and they are considering delivering lunch to nearby offices to make their fare more accessible and convenient.
Meanwhile, the partners and their employees are enjoying summer in Franklin County, where they offer their customers not just a variety of foods, but a seasonal cocktail menu. The most popular beverages right now are the Blueberry-Bourbon Smash and the Hideaway Margarita.
The Cajun-flavored tacos Paul Franz and I ate at Riff’s were perfect summer fare — fresh and light, yet just a little spicy.
Riff’s North Shrimp Tacos with
Guacamole and Chipotle Slaw
for the guacamole (you will have extra):
lime juice to taste (1 to 2 ounces)
¼ cup chopped red onion
1½ teaspoons salt (more to taste if you like)
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 small jalapeño, diced
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
for the chipotle dressing (again, you will have extra):
1 cup mayonnaise
1 ounce cider vinegar
1 ounce sugar (a little over 2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons pureed chipotle in adobe
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1½ teaspoons minced garlic
½ teaspoon chipotle hot sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
salt and pepper to taste
for the tacos:
Cajun seasoning to taste
2 small tortillas (the folks at Riff’s like a mixture of corn and wheat for maximum pliability, but they also serve corn tortillas to gluten-free diners)
a small amount of the guacamole
a few tablespoons undressed coleslaw mixture (shredded cabbage with carrots)
a couple of squirts of the chipotle dressing
a tablespoon or two of pickled red onion
To make the guacamole, mash the avocados with a potato masher. Add the remaining ingredients one at a time, stirring with a spoon after each addition to obtain a smooth, creamy texture. Set the guacamole aside.
Whisk together the dressing ingredients in a bowl until all are incorporated and set the dressing aside, as well.
Sprinkle Cajun seasoning on the shrimp, and place them on a grill or sauté pan. Place the tortillas on a grill or sauté pan to warm them while the shrimp cook. Cook the shrimp just until they are done, turning once.
Place the tortillas on a plate. Spread a small amount of guacamole on each. Top with a handful of the slaw mixture and a squirt or two of the chipotle dressing. Add a small amount of pickled onion, and top with the cooked shrimp.
Fold the tacos over. Serve with chips and salsa, lime wedges, and a garnish of fresh cilantro. Serves 1.
Tinky Weisblat of Hawley is the author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook” and “Pulling Taffy.” If you have a suggestion for a future Blue Plate Special, please email Tinky at Tinky@TinkyCooks.com. For more information about Tinky, visit her website, www.TinkyCooks.com