Welcome to Portland, Maine: A Newcomer's Eating Tour
Photo By: Zack Bowen, Knack Factory
A Newcomer's Guide to Portland, Maine
Lobster lures visitors to Portland, and the city delivers — enjoy the tender meat straight from the shell, in buttery hot dog buns, in spicy sushi rolls or paired with truffles in mac and cheese. But one crustacean doesn't define a city with food choices as diverse, and seemingly numerous, as the boats crammed into the working harbor downtown. Follow the cobblestone streets uphill from the ocean and you can tuck into a Korean pork belly sandwich from a food truck, authentic chicken souvlaki at a fine Greek restaurant or fresh-from-the-net oysters at a chic bar. To help us sort through the options, we turned to Cheryl Lewis, chef-owner of El Rayo Taqueria; Steve and Michelle Corry, owners of Five-Fifty-Five and Petite Jacqueline restaurants; and Anestes Fotiades, creator of the Portland Food Map.
By Sarah Stebbins
Photo by Shelley Bowen
In summer, patrons armed with buzzers line the sidewalk outside James Beard Award-winning Chef Rob Evans' tiny shop, waiting for a taste of the signature dish: hand-cut Belgian-style fries, fried twice in — that's right — duck fat. Deeply flavored and incredibly crisp, they're worth the wait. The only real debate is which dipping sauce — truffle ketchup or one of five flavors of mayo. Fotiades hails the haddock sandwich, which has pickles and salt-and-vinegar chips where you want them, between the panini slices; non-meat-eaters should try the sauteed mushroom sandwich. If you have the stomach capacity, go for a housemade doughnut hole fried in ... yeah, you know what.
Photo by Knack Factory/Zack Bowen
Bite Into Maine
No trip to Portland is complete without a visit to nearby Fort Williams Park — a dramatic sweep of shore punctuated by the iconic Portland Head Light lighthouse. The proverbial cherry on top is eating a delicious lobster roll while you're there. Stationed on a grassy slope, the silver Bite Into Maine food cart, operated by Sarah and Karl Sutton, offers freshly baked rolls six ways, including "Maine-style" (chilled meat with mayo); a sprinkling of fresh chives is the only anomaly. Fotiades is partial to the Picnic roll, which features a layer of homemade coleslaw, while Lewis prefers (gasp!) the Connecticut-style preparation (warm with drawn butter). If you like spice, try a roll flavored with wasabi, curry or chipotle mayo.
Photo by Shelley Bowen
Blue Rooster Food Co.
For lunch or a late-night bite, pop into this tiny sandwich shop, manned by a quartet of experienced chefs, including one who hails from Bar Boulud in New York City. The menu spans multiple chalkboards, which explains why the kitchen is three times as large as the seating area. Hot dogs — double-smoked beef and pork delicacies with natural casings — are served six ways, including Seoul-style with kimchi, peanuts and garlic mayo. Regulars come weekly in the summer to sample specialty dogs crafted by "guest chefs" from some of the city's best restaurants. Vegetarians, take note: The naan-wrapped veggie sandwich with beet-whipped goat cheese is crunchy-creamy perfection, and the fried Brussels sprouts tossed with chili sauce and queso fresco "will win over even folks who aren't big fans of sprouts," says Fotiades.
Emilitsa is not your typical taverna. Inside the sleek, contemporary space, John, Demos and Niko Regas serve classic and inventive Greek fare with flavors as vibrant as the saffron-yellow walls and tangerine pillows that line the banquettes. Start by letting your server walk you through the exceptional all-Greek wine list. (Don’t worry about finishing a bottle; in Maine you can cork it and bring it home.) Then move on to the Greek salad, an authentic tomato-cucumber-red onion mixture tossed with garlic, unfiltered olive oil and white balsamic vinegar. For an entree, try grilled octopus or the chicken souvlaki infused with lemon juice, olive oil, Greek oregano and garlic — "it's better than you ever thought chicken souvlaki could be," says Fotiades.
Eventide Oyster Co.
The hip, and the hip at heart, gather at this acclaimed oyster bar, owned by the same culinary team that operates Hugo's, the acclaimed fine-dining restaurant next door. Giant windows wrap around three sides of the compact, modern space, flooding it with light. On the concrete bar, a massive chunk of granite, hollowed out and filled with ice, showcases the day's knobby-shelled treasures, culled from East and West Coast waters. In addition to oysters, Lewis recommends the daily specials, "which give you a hint of what they're doing at Hugo's without the formality" — or the price tag. On the standard menu, the fried oyster roll and lobster roll, both served on steamed Japanese-style buns, are standouts.
Photo by Knack Factory/Zack Bowen
In Portland, fine-dining attire typically translates as "nice jeans," which go well with the vibe at this intimate, brick-walled eatery. In the narrow, open kitchen, Steve Corry and his team wear white coats and baseball caps to prepare signature dishes like pepper-crusted scallops in a fragrant vanilla-carrot sauce and a sublime take on mac and cheese: thick torchio pasta blended with five varieties of cheese, white truffle oil, chunks of butter-poached lobster and shaved black truffles. The menu and the award-winning wine list, curated by Michelle Corry and divided into sections such as "bang for your buck" and "worth the splurge," come on a copper clipboard — a fitting symbol of the owners' matter-of-fact approach.
Photo by Russel French
Located in the trendy Munjoy Hill neighborhood, Lolita has the cozy, laid-back feel of an open house, with drop-in hours between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m. The sweet-smoky scent from a massive wood-fired grill greets you when you step inside (and lingers on your clothes later). You can't go wrong with any item — be it game hen, monkfish or garlic-poached shrimp — Chef Guy Hernandez passes over that flame. Also try the delicately cooked pasta, such as bucatini in a rich tomato-herb sauce (ask for extra sourdough to sop up the liquid) or, Fotiades' choice, torchino mixed with spicy 'nduja (pork sausage). Bottles from the restaurant's 80-variety wine list decorate a long, shadow-box-like unit above the dining tables.
Photo by Megan Swan
Pai Men Miyake
Regulars at Chef Masa Miyake's noodle bar fall into two camps: those who like their ramen swimming in a rich, flavorful soup and those who like noodles with less slurp. "The broth is so central to my enjoyment — I've never tried going without," says Fotiades. He's a fan of the miso: a floating melange of squiggly pasta, pork belly slices and half of a soy-marinated egg. Steve Corry's pick is Tokyo abura: chili oil- and garlic-infused ramen and veggies with a raw egg yolk standing in for the sauce. "It seems more like a meal to me," he says. Torn? Try the "low broth" mazeman with fish roe and house-cured bacon. Miyake is also a sushi master, and you can sample some of his inventive rolls here, along with pillowy steamed buns.
Photo by Stephanie Goodrich
Tucked into tiny Congress Square Park, the flame-orange Small Axe food truck is a beacon for hungry passersby and residents, who are happy to see a once downtrodden section of the city come alive. Inside the metallic mobile kitchen, Chefs Karl Deuben and Bill Leavy, who trained at some of Portland's top fine-dining restaurants, assemble sandwiches, such as the Indian-inspired chicken tikka laced with cilantro mayo and fruit chutney, and dish up steaming bowls of fish and vegetable curry. Fotiades' go-to is the pork belly sandwich topped with kimchi and Gochujang barbecue sauce — a riff on the tangy Korean condiment made from fermented red chiles, soybeans, rice and salt.
Photo by Stephanie Broido
The Well at Jordan's Farm
It's worth the 15-minute drive to Cape Elizabeth to dine among the fields at a working farm. The restaurant, centered around a small kitchen building where you order and pay, follows the farm-stand model: Most of what's on the ever-changing chalkboard menu is grown onsite, and you settle your tab by dropping cash into a wooden box on the counter. The hostess sends you off with a brown-bagged loaf of Chef Jason Williams' ciabatta, and a server brings your meal: perhaps housemade pappardelle with wood-grilled summer squash, zucchini, eggplant and onions, or seared cod with new potatoes, snap peas and charred tomatoes. BYO wine — and bug spray.
Photo by Samuel Bergeron