By Jesse Ellison
Photos by Nicole Wolf
From our May 2023 issue
Jasper Ludwig grew up in Newcastle, just seven minutes down the road from the Alna Store, which was originally owned by friends of her parents. Her dad used to take her there to buy strawberry milk on their way to the transfer station. She moved to the West Coast for college, bounced around the country for a few years, and, in 2014, opened a hybrid restaurant, café, and market in Tucson with her partner, Brian Haskins. She knew that, one day, she’d want to come back to Maine and replicate the model. “We wondered where we might find a home here,” she says. “I always secretly hoped it would be the Alna Store.”
In the “dark days of 2020,” her Tucson restaurant was only doing takeout and wildfires were running up nearby mountains, so she and Haskins drove east. As it turned out, the owners of the Alna Store, who had built a following around tacos and other Mexican dishes, were looking to sell. “Serendipity,” Ludwig calls it. Among the many renovations she and Haskins undertook, they replaced the bar, much of the kitchen, the electric, and the plumbing. They added windows to the south-facing wall, to drench the space in sunshine. During construction, longtime customers would occasionally stop by to see what was happening. “If you still tag deer and sell beer, I’ll be here,” one told them.
The Alna Store reopened late last year, still looking very much like a classic country store from the outside, perfectly at home in a rural town of only 700 people. “A gas station with no gas,” Ludwig calls it. At noon on a recent weekday, the parking lot was completely full. At the bar, two women raved about their sandwiches — an Italian and a cheeseburger — while Ludwig, pulling double duty as bartender and barista, served up a Bloody Mary garnished with a green olive and a boiled and salted fingerling potato, then made a cappuccino with a leaf artfully patterned in the foam.
One evening a few weeks later, the place was buzzing again. The dinner menu, from chef Devin Deirden, changes often, always drawing on locally sourced meats, cheeses, grains, and produce. That night, a wedge salad comprised a delicate green-and-purple head of radicchio from Chase’s Daily farm, in Belfast, plus capers, sliced radishes, and fried shallots. The buttermilk dressing with bonito flakes made it difficult to refrain from licking the plate. Another appetizer — grilled cauliflower on a puree of yellow-eye beans and sunflower seeds, with spicy walnut dressing and shavings of cured egg yolk — should have been tough to top, but then there was the coconut cod entrée, with a complexity that took me right back to an until-now incomparable fish curry I had on a trip in southern India two decades ago.
Chef Devin Deirden; Jasper Ludwig tending bar.
The cocktails — a Negroni that subbed out gin for prosecco, a mezcal margarita, and a Manhattan — were bracing and not too sweet, a masterful exercise in balance. And for dessert, a grapefruit tart on cardamom shortbread, with a brown-sugar meringue, melted in the mouth. Then, there was also the option of combining cocktail and dessert into one via the coquito slush — a Puerto Rican relative of eggnog, made with rum, cream of coconut, and condensed milk, poured from a slushy machine that came with the place when Ludwig and Haskins took over. My group shared one. Followed by another.
Elsewhere around the dining room, a couple with a young teenager nibbled on french fries and chit-chatted with nearby friends. A bearded guy in a knit cap, Carhartts, and boots sat at the bar and nursed a drink. During the week, a group of old-timers gathers regularly for coffee. “They call themselves the Old Farts Club or the Rusty Zippers,” Ludwig says. “They said they’ll do me a favor this summer by providing the local color.”
People also come and go to grab snacks and groceries from the market, which occupies a back corner. The shelves are stocked with natural wines, chips, cheeses, and vegetables from nearby farms. There’s beer in the reach-in fridge. And yep, the store still has its license to tag deer too.