Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Further Food Truck Fleet Updates

I wrote an update about the Portland food truck fleet for this week's Portland Phoenix. Fortunately, this year we have a lot of food trucks either about to launch or beginning their second year of service. I wasn't able to include all of the updates I received from trucks owners in the article, and of course, a few things have changed since press time. 

Most notably (at least to me), my favorite Portland food truck, Small Axe has started serving again. They're located in Congress Square Park (at High and Congress Streets), where, as you can see below, Friends of Congress Square Park (FoCSP) have worked to add seating. Small Axe is parked on city property here, with FoCSP having worked to get the necessary permitting to allow food trucks in the park. 

Small Axe will serve lunch Monday through Friday. I enjoyed a tempura-battered haddock sandwich with salsa verde, Ceasar salad dressing, and shredded lettuce ($8) yesterday. We're eagerly awaiting the return of Green Spark Farm's Shishito peppers, since that means the burger will return then as well.

You may have seen Café Crêpe at the Winter Farmers' Market on Anderson Street or at Tandem Coffee sometime this winter. The crêpe truck is headed to Greenville for the third summer. Owner Lauren Dallam recently revealed plans to open a brick-and-mortar location within a shared, year round space at 20 Bow Street in Freeport. The new location will feature an expanded menu and service 7 days a week. I enjoyed a breakfast crêpe stuffed with eggs, chives, tomatoes, spinach, red onion, and cheese on her last day of service in Portland. 

Bite Into Maine (OK, technically neither a truck nor in Portland), is now open for lunch 7 days a week in Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth. Owners Sarah and Karl Sutton will be coordinating Flea Bites, the food truck clustering event that happens every First Friday at Portland Flea-for-All, starting in June. The Suttons are working on restoring a second BIM truck, which will be available for catering next year. 

The Good Shepherd food truck operated last year, but will in earnest this year. Chef Matthew Brown, formerly of Browne Trading Company, is now heading up the truck's efforts. He plans to participate in several special events like Wolfe’s Neck Farm's spring festival, Art in the Park, a new seaweed festival in South Portland by SMCC, Kennebunkport Fest Brews & Tunes, and Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation. Brown plans to change the menu based on the event and the season. 

I found the truck at Rising Tide Brewing on a Saturday a few weeks ago and enjoyed perogies over sauerkraut, mushrooms, topped with bacon and chives ($7). All proceeds from the truck's sales go to the food bank. 

The Street Eats & Beats festival is happening this Saturday, May 3rd from 12-5pm in the Ocean Gateway parking lot. A lot of Portland food trucks and carts will be there, including Good Shepherd food truck, Gusto’s Italian, Wicked Good, El Corazon, Small Axe, PB&ME, Love Cupcakes, Pizza Pie on the Fly, as well as Pinky D’s (Lisbon Falls) and Sweet Tomatoes (Boston). The tickets are $10 which includes admission and one beer voucher. There will be live music and (one can only hope) nice weather. 

The Maine Ultimate Frisbee High School NorthEasterns Championship is happening next weekend in South Portland and is another opportunity to check out a bunch of food trucks all at once, as well as watch some kids toss the 'bee, brah. Featured trucks include: Brothers Burritos, Gusto's Italian, PB&Me, Wicked Good, El Corazon, Pizza by Fire, Love Cupcake and Franks Hot Dogs. The trucks will be serving lunch at the Wainwright Sports Complex from 11am-3pm on May 10th and 11th. This event is free. 

Note: These are only the updates I wasn't able to include in the article, so if you're thinking I missed something really obvious, go read "Food truck fleet updates" on the Portland Phoenix

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Back Bay Grill Burger

At the beginning of the month, Back Bay Grill quietly announced on its facebook page that the kitchen would be serving their famous burger. It's only available as a special, and you have to call ahead to reserve yours. Maybe the promotion is an attempt to draw in an audience that otherwise wouldn't frequent the Back Bay Grill, and if so, it totally worked. 

For the first time, I ventured down to Back Bay Grill with a group of 5 friends, all 30-somethings. We were greeted warmly by the host, who took our coats from us. A nice round table was set for us in the corner of the restaurants, allowing us to talk as a group. 

Having reserved six burgers for our group, the only decisions we were left with were what to drink and the temperature of our burgers. I ordered a pinot noir ($12) and we also decided to share two orders of steamed mussels ($12) before our meat-fest. Several servers attended to us, setting warm bread and a ramekin of butter with 'BB' traced into the top. We noticed our server was even wearing 'BB' earrings. 

While the group raved about the mussels, I thought they were a little big - bordering on two inches, rather than the smaller local mussels. But the broth they were in was delicious. As we enjoyed our first course, another group of 30-somethings was seated at a large table in the dining room. They were also pilgrimaging for a tableful of burgers. 

Finally, the burger ($15): 

Because the burger was a special menu item, I don't know the specifics about the pedigree of the meat or the bun... just that it was all fantastic. The burger was topped with shredded lettuce and a Stilton blue cheese sauce? dressing? mayonnaise? Something that added a nice salty element in contrast to the richness of the meat. I'll admit my burger was a little overcooked (ordered medium-rare, came more like medium), but nothing worth getting upset about. 

After much ecstatic eye-rolling and "mmm"ing, we untucked our napkins from our shirts and pushed back from the table. We declined dessert, but they sent us one anyway—some coffee ice cream and a crunchy tuile cookie. I felt like we received the high-roller treatment, even though we "only" ordered burgers. 

As we left the dining room and waited by the host stand for our coats, members of my party found friends at the bar and chatted for a bit, giving me a minute to scope out the crowded bar area. The entire front room of the restaurant is filled with the bar and host stand, creating a cozy environment. I thought I'd be very much at home sitting at the bar and enjoying drinks and appetizers. 

I wonder why Back Bay Grill is not on more people's radars? The restaurant has been run by Chef Larry Matthews, who has a serious culinary background, since '97. It's menu and wine list have racked up considerable awards and is considered one of Portland's best restaurants. 

You might suggest the price point keeps younger people out of the Back Bay Grill. I agree that it's not necessarily an everyday place, but it is possible to eat there and not blow your budget (by enjoying soup/salad/appetizers mostly - the mains are expensive). I would also argue that I view Hugo's as a restaurant with a younger crowd than BBG. And Hugo's is by no means cheaper than BBG. Maybe Hugo's recent rebranding has made them more popular with a younger crowd?

So what makes a high-end restaurant fill with a mix of young and old diners, while one remains frequented by the fur-and-pearls pre-theater set? (Not that that's actually a thing in Maine, but you know what I mean...) 

Regardless of your age, check out Back Bay Grill in Bayside for a drink and an appetizer, or go whole hog and order the filet mignon ($36). 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Preorder Portland Food: the Culinary Capital of Maine

Photos by Phil Jellen, Greta Rybus, and Zack Bowen

I've finished writing and editing my book about Portland's food scene! It will be coming your way on May 13th, 2014 in all its local, hand-made, chef-owned, small city, big taste, lobster-y glory. 

The book is available for preorder through The History Press. There will be a launch party, and I'll be sure to invite you. In the meantime, here's the back cover copy as a teaser: 

Portland, Maine’s culinary cache belies its size. The vibrant food scene boasts more than three hundred restaurants, as well as specialty food businesses, farmers’ markets, pop-up dinners and food trucks. Since back-to-the-landers began to arrive in the 1970s, Maine’s abundant natural resources have been feeding local dreams of sustainability and resilience. Portland is uniquely primed for chefs and restaurateurs to draw on local agricultural and marine resources. Gulf of Maine fisheries and the working waterfront bring the freshest seafood to Portland’s palate, while Maine’s rural landscape is fertile ground for local farming. Local food writer Kate McCarty taps into the evolution of this little foodie city. Dig into Portland’s bounty, from classic lobster and blueberry pie to the avant-garde of the culinary cutting edge.  Explore the unique restaurants, farmers, producers, community activists and food enthusiasts that create and drive Portland’s food scene.

I'm also thrilled to be nominated as one of Portland's best food blogs by the Portland Phoenix. Cast your votes until April 30th.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A taste of Mexico in Maine

Originally published in the Portland Phoenix on March 28, 2014

El Rayo Taqueria in Portland prides itself on serving authentic Mexican fare using fresh and local ingredients. But until recently, the workhorse of many El Rayo dishes — the tortilla — was bought from an out-of-state purveyor. Enter Lynne Rowe with her new tortilla business, Tortilleria Pachanga.

El Rayo’s kitchen manager Elena McMahan reports Rowe’s yellow corn tortillas, which she just started serving in the past week, are a hit with the restaurant’s customers: “[T]he difference is definitely that Lynne makes them from total scratch — the process of soaking the corn with lime overnight, grinding it into masa, and making the tortillas almost daily makes all the difference in the world!”

Rowe had the idea to make her own tortillas from locally-grown corn after traveling to Oaxaca, Mexico. A lifelong Spanish teacher, Rowe was inspired by the open-air markets where women knead fresh cheese and press tortillas made from masa, a corn dough. Rowe had plenty of experience making tortillas from dried masa at home and with school groups. But she struggled to find fresh masa to recreate the authentic flavor she enjoyed in Mexico. So Rowe decided to make her own, ordering a 50-pound bag of organic, Maine-grown yellow dent corn (from Sandy River Farms in Farmington) through the Crown O’ Maine Cooperative. Armed with a hand grinder, she began the laborious process of making fresh masa.

First Rowe soaks the corn kernels in food-grade lime, an ancient process called nixtamalization that breaks down the kernels’ coating and makes its nutrients readily available. The kernels are then soft enough to grind, which Rowe does with a stone grinder. The resulting paste is masa, which is then portioned into balls and pressed into tortillas. The finished product is gluten-free, low-sodium, organic, and high in fiber and vitamins, in particular B3. But above all, it’s tasty.

Rowe’s locally-made tortillas are part of a growing sector of food manufacturing businesses in Maine: entrepreneurs making value-added products. Value-added products are foods that have been processed to increase their value to the consumer, like turning strawberries into jam or grains into flour. The term encompasses specialty foods like gourmet sauces and spice rubs, but also pantry staples, like oils, dried fruit, and nut butters.

University of Maine Cooperative Extension Business and Economics specialist Jim McConnon says that as of 2011, there were 370 self-employed food manufacturers in Maine. This sector has grown by 50 percent in the last 10 years, whereas the number of large food manufacturing businesses has stayed relatively stable in that time.

“I’m excited about opportunities and possibilities for Maine people to follow their passion and create things and at the same time... bring more money in to their families and their communities than they expend,” McConnon says. “As long as they’re business-savvy, they have half a chance, particularly with value-added [products].”

Rowe has expanded her tortilla operation into a production space on Industrial Way in Portland next to established brewers Allagash Brewing and up-and-comers Foundation and Bissell Brothers Brewing Companies. A new machine, purchased with funding from a successful Indiegogo campaign, is capable of pressing and cooking 12,000 tortillas per hour. Rowe has learned to talk about “fixed overhead costs” and “profit margins,” while ensuring she stays true to her mission of using Maine-grown corn to produce fresh tortillas. Rowe hopes her business will help the Maine corn industry — in particular increasing the availability of heirloom varieties like the Abenaki Flint corn grown at Songbird Farm in Sparks. But above all, any tortilla connoisseur will appreciate Rowe’s products for their authentic flavor and texture.

Tortilleria Pachanga tortillas can be found at Rosemont Market, Aurora Provisions, El Rayo, El Corazon food truck, and area farmers’ markets.

TORTILLERIA PACHANGA | facebook.com/tortilleriapachanga | 207.797.9700 | tortilleriapachanga@gmail.com

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Zeppoli at Piccolo

Brunch at Piccolo was quiet on a rainy Sunday morning last week. We were a big party and tried most everything on the menu. The zeppoli were my favorite, by far, served with a different sauce each Sunday. Here, a salted caramel sauce. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Happy Hour at the Black Birch, Kittery

Some friends of mine invited me down for happy hour in Kittery at the Black Birch. An hour south of Portland, Kittery is the first town over the border into Maine and is better known for its outlet malls. But the Kittery Foreside is a quaint little strip of waterfront with a burgeoning food scene. As I drove in, I spotted Tulsi, raved about by Maine magazine's food editor Joe Ricchio. He also loves the Black Birch, so I've long since wanted to try the place. 

The friends I met are involved in the food community themselves, so maybe it was a biased view, but everyone seems to know everyone else in this place. Black Birch is a small restaurant, maybe 50 seats, and we sat at a communal high table in the middle of the restaurant. The draught beer list is extensive and rotates frequently. I enjoyed Mo Carra, the new red ale made from Maine potatoes by Banded Horn Brewing Company in Biddeford. 

I was lured to Kittery by the promise of poutine, and the Black Birch delivers. Their version is topped with duck confit as well as the traditional gravy and melted cheese curds ($8). It was amazing. I ate it politely, but I really wanted it all to myself.

While we ate, we learned of the plans for some neighboring spaces to the Black Birch on Government Street. Gary Kim, a Black Birch employee, is starting Anju, a noodle bar next door, where they'll serve his line of fermented hot sauces and kimchi. Friend Deb sent me home with some of each. The kimchi crunchy, salty, funky, and a little spicy. I've just been snacking on it, but I'm going to make some kimchi fried rice soon to let it take center stage. 

As we were leaving, we ran into Jarrod Spangler, formerly the Rosemont Market butcher, who is now working on launching his own local meat butcher shop on the other side of the noodle bar. He's launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the construction of the shop. 

Lauren brought me Beach Pea Baking Co. bread, a crusty sourdough that is very flavorful. It was so nice to see a glimpse of the food community in Kittery. There truly are people all over this great state that care about the way food is being produced and served. It's amazing to see! One visit to Kittery just created the desire for another - especially after that noodle bar is open.