October 3, 2014

Cheap eats in Maine's culinary capital

Originally published in the Portland Phoenix on September 19, 2014

Welcome to college in the big city! Aside from the chilling cold seven months out of the year, Portland is a great place to spend a few years pretending to study. The Forest City’s culinary options stretch before you like so many oyster varieties at the hippest new raw bar. There’s duck liver crostini! Truffled mac and cheese! Three-pound porterhouse steak! Wood-oven roasted mussels! But after a trip to the campus bookstore, the annual pilgrimage to Target, and let’s not even mention that first tuition installment, your bank account balance is starting to look mighty paltry in the face of anything truffled or sous vide. So here’s 13 options that will satisfy your inner foodie without causing you to decide between the omakase and your Econ text book.

Small Axe food truck's Smokestack Lightning burger

El Rayo’s rice and bean bowls
This festive Mexican restaurant, set in a refurbished gas station, offers many affordable dishes packed with the tangy, salty, spicy flavors of the cuisine. You could snack on the Mexico City-style street corn on the cob, coated with chipotle mayonnaise and dusted with cotija cheese ($4.95). The fried plantains ($5.95), fundido (chorizo cheese dip with corn chips, $5.95), and nachos ($4.25) all call to the budget diner. But go for an oft-overlooked option: the rice and bean bowls with grilled fish, steak, vegetables, or mushrooms ($8.95-$9.75). Piled high with fresh toppings like shredded lettuce, sliced radishes, and cilantro, these rice bowls leave you feeling virtuously full in a way nachos never could.

El Rayo Taqueria, 101 York St. | elrayotaqueria.com

Blue Rooster Food Co.
Chef/owner Damian Sansonetti sports an impressive culinary resume from the kitchen of his high-end Italian restaurant Piccolo. Sample the talented chefs’ cheaper offerings at his casual sandwich shop Blue Rooster Food Co. Blue Rooster offers “lowbrow” foods like bacon-wrapped hot dogs and tater tots, made with creative twists and high-quality ingredients. Tot standouts include Buffalo Hot Tots ($6.50), smothered in hot sauce and blue cheese, topped with fried celery root and carrot, and the Early Bird ($6.50), where a bed of fried potatoes supports bacon, a drizzle of maple mayo, hot sauce, and a fried egg. Note: Blue Rooster is one of few late night dining options in the city (open until 2 am Thursday through Saturday).

Blue Rooster Food Co., 5 Dana St. | blueroosterfoodcompany.com

All of the vendors in Monument Square’s Portland Public Market offer quick and affordable meal options. But Kamasouptra’s soups are hearty, creatively flavored, and surprisingly filling. A $5 cup of soup comes with a fist-sized whole wheat roll to complete the meal. Try the rich grilled cheese and tomato soup, refreshing gazpacho, or kicky jalapeño beer and cheddar. A variety of gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan soups are always available. Should you find yourself needing fuel for back-to-school shopping while you’re at the Maine Mall, Kamasouptra’s second location in the food court is your best option.

Kamasouptra, 28 Monument Way | kamasouptra.com

$1 oysters at Hot Suppa
Between Eventide Oyster Co., Boone’s Oyster House and Fish Room, and J’s Oyster Bar, there’s no shortage of fine places to enjoy a wide variety of bivalves from Maine and away. But the pleasure of slurping down a dozen or two often comes with a hefty price tag. Not so at Hot Suppa, the Cajun-themed West End restaurant, best known for its stellar brunch (and corresponding long waits). Their happy hour (Tuesday through Saturday, 4-6 pm) offers $1 oysters and $4-6 bar snacks, like wings, poutine, and fried calamari. If you’re old enough to enjoy the $1-off beers and house cocktails, even better.

Hot Suppa, 703 Congress St | hotsuppa.com

Small Axe food truck
Options for cheap eats abound within Portland’s burgeoning food truck scene, but Small Axe offers the foodiest bang for your buck. Chef/owners Bill Leavy and Karl Deuben worked in some of the city’s finest restaurants before launching their own truck last year. Small Axe’s menu uses upscale ingredients like braised pork belly, locally caught hake, cold smoked beef burgers, and local produce, in items that are the $8-$10 range. Try the aforementioned Lightning Smokestack burger with spicy Shishito peppers ($10) or a curried vegetable and rice bowl with or without fish ($9). Small Axe truck’s chefs serve lunch starting at 11:30 am on weekdays.

Small Axe food truck, Congress Square Park

Slab’s slab
If you’re new to Portland, you may have missed the big to-do over the Sicilian Slab served at Micucci’s Italian Grocery. The market’s longtime baker Stephen Lanzalotta served this huge slab of pizza in the back of the store to rave reviews. When he was abruptly fired from his position at Micucci’s, slab fans everywhere worried about the future of the thick Sicilian-style pizza. Fortunately, Lanzalotta partnered with supersized-food lover and owner of Nosh Kitchen Bar, Jason Loring, to open Slab Sicilian Street Food. Here, just as at Micucci’s, the slab is large, the sauce is sweet, and the sparse cheese salty and browned from the heat of the oven. “Splurge” on the slaw ($5), a crunchy mix of thinly-sliced cabbage, fennel, beets, carrots, and red onion, which is a nice foil to the heavier carb options. If you can wait that long, excess slabs go for $2 each late night—watch their Facebook page for the announcement.

Slab Sicilian Street Food, 25 Preble St. | slabportland.com

Ten Ten Pié bento box
The true gastronaut enjoys seeking out the newest hole-in-the-wall offering delicious fare. For that, turn to Ten Ten Pié, the new multicultural market and bakery in the former home of a beloved Italian deli in the Bayside neighborhood. Their bento box lunch specials change daily, but always include a delicious and filling mix of veggies, meat, and rice. Recent options include five-spice pork and rice with daikon radish, green beans, and a hard-boiled egg ($8.50) and Thai green curry with multigrain rice and a carrot-cranberry salad ($7.25). If you can spare an extra $2-3, you’ll be rewarded with sweet treats such as double chocolate sake cake, brown butter chocolate chip cookies, and chèvre fig cheesecake.

Ten Ten Pié, 171 Cumberland Ave.

Hella Good Tacos’ $2 Taco Tuesday
This understated Washington Avenue taqueria will certainly set off your foodie radar. In the former home of Steve and Renee’s Diner, Hella Good Tacos’ proprietors Josh and Melissa Bankhead turn out Northern California-style tacos, burritos, and tamales. The tacos are priced at a reasonable $2.29 each ($3.29 for fish), served on a double layer of corn tortillas, and topped with cilantro and diced white onions. Order two tacos with rice and beans for $5.99 or just bide your time until Taco Tuesday, when all tacos are $2. Be sure to take advantage of the salsa bar, offering spicy pico de gallo and salsa verde for your freshly fried corn chips.

Dim Sum at Empire Chinese Kitchen 
With the arrival of Empire a year ago, finally people have stopped complaining that there’s no good Chinese food in Portland. But put any ideas of decor featuring red booths, fish tanks, and gold filigree out of your head; the recent renovation brings a relaxed, modern feel to the space. For those unfamiliar, dim sum is a style of cuisine featuring small portions of steamed buns and dumplings typically served in bamboo baskets. At a reasonable $5 for 3-4 pieces, you can share several types of dim sum with friends or order a basket for yourself. The Empire egg roll, stuffed with pastrami, asparagus, and cabbage ($6) is an unusual twist on a classic, while the wonton soup ($5) is savory and filling with hearty stuffed dumplings. Whatever you get, you’ll be surprised by the diminutive bill when you’re finished with your tea.

Empire Chinese Kitchen, 575 Congress St. | portlandempire.com

Timber Steakhouse’s Happy Hour
Portland’s posh new steakhouse may boast prime cuts of meat at prices that rival a week’s worth of groceries. But really, whenever anyone sums up a steakhouse, it always comes down to the sides. The New York Strip may have been divine, but how was the creamed spinach? Get right to the things that matter by scoring said sides at a discount during Timber’s happy hour. Try a number of $5 appetizers, including jalapeño cornbread, Buffalo chicken croquettes, and batter-fried bacon with maple syrup. Soak up the swanky atmosphere while savoring comfort food on the cheap, weekdays from 4-6 pm.

Timber Steakhouse & Rotisserie, 106 Exchange St. | timberportland.com

Bayou Kitchen
If you live in the Oakdale neighborhood by USM, you’ll quickly discover there’s not too many quality food options on the busy thoroughfare of Forest Ave. That said, there are a few gems worth your time, and Bayou Kitchen tops the list. This casual eatery is packed on weekends for brunch, but also serves lunch 7 days a week until 2 pm. Specializing in Cajun classics like jambalaya, beans and rice, and gumbo, the Bayou can turn up the heat when you want it. With prices reflecting their off-peninsula location, the portions are massive. The Huevos Rancheros amounts to an entire burrito stuffed with black bean or beef chili, topped with two eggs, salsa, and sour cream, or go light with their à la carte sides, all under $5.

Bayou Kitchen, 543 Deering Ave. | bayoukitchenmaine.com

Pai Men Miyake lunch special
While the sushi dinners at Miyake remain solidly out of reach until the ‘rents come to visit, the more causal sister restaurant, Pai Men Miyake, offers Japanese classics like ramen, gyoza, and sushi rolls, using farm-raised pork and locally-grown produce. A bowl of ramen is satisfying enough on its own, but Pai Men’s tei-shoku lunch goes the extra mile to fill you up. Available weekdays from 12-2:30 pm, the menu offers a selection of dumplings, vegetable salads, ramen, and sushi rolls. Chose a combination from two categories for $8.50-$12.50 and sample a little bit of everything from this cozy noodle bar.

Pai Men Miyake, 188 State St. | miyakerestaurants.com/pai-men-miyake

Otto Pizza slices
We don’t need to tell you that pizza is cheap and filling. But a lot of Portland pizza is, well, mediocre. Enter Otto Pizza. Back-to-school bonus: Otto is offering a “frequent eater” card for students, wherein after you buy 10 pizza slices, the eleventh is free.

Otto Pizza, 225 Congress St., 576 Congress St. | ottoportland.com