Saturday, October 25, 2014

Raise a glass to Prohibition's influence

Originally published in the Portland Phoenix on October 11, 2014

Watching the weekend revelry unfold on Wharf Street in the Old Port, it’s hard to envision the time when drinking in Portland was illegal and covert. But that was indeed the reality for 82 years in Maine, under the “noble experiment” that was the prohibition of the sale and manufacture of alcohol. Rather, defiant tipplers drank in private clubs, at times below street level, in back-room speakeasies. Today, Prohibition-era cocktails are making a comeback, especially in Portland, where bartenders shake up potent concoctions using local and house-made ingredients.

The phrase “Prohibition-era cocktails” may sound like an oxymoron, but much of what we see in today’s craft cocktail revival is actually borne of drinking during Prohibition. It might be easy to explain the recent elevation of bartending to an art form as an extension of the farm-to-table, from-scratch ethos that has gripped our national dining consciousness. No self-respecting cocktail bar would be complete today without fresh fruit, juice, and herbs; handmade syrups, and bitters; delicate glassware; and precisely-cut ice. Similarly, these ingredients were the hallmark of early twentieth-century cocktail culture before Prohibition attempted to stamp out the lively drinking scene.

On the quiet end of Wharf Street, the first-floor bar of Central Provisions is ground zero to explore these historic cocktails. In the recently renovated historic East India Trading Company warehouse (one that undoubtedly held shipments of alcohol during its heyday), Central Provisions’ creative bar menu offers twists on classic cocktails. Here, bar manager Patrick McDonald draws from “The Bartenders Guide,” the first American cocktail book, published in 1862 and written by Jerry Thomas, considered to be the father of American mixology.

Cocktails at Central Provisions, like the Real Georgia Mint Julep, Pisco Sidecar, Silver Fizz, and Cobbler, are modern spins on Thomas’s recipes that saw great popularity during Prohibition. To channel your inner flapper, order the Corpse Reviver #3.5, tweaked with bourbon replacing the classic brandy, and shaken up with puckering Campari, dry curaçao (a liqueur similar to triple sec), and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. The result is a crisp, light-pink wake-up call, served “up” in a delicate coup glass.

Sonny’s well-rounded cocktail list offers several nods to ingredients and techniques popular before and during Prohibition. In No. 1 with a Bulleit, clouds of meringue-like foam top the bourbon cocktail, its tart lemon and lime juices tempered by simple syrup and fresh strawberries. Drink recipes began to call for the addition of egg whites in the late 1800s, where some vigorous shaking lends a rich texture to the final cocktail. Sipping on this delicate drink at Sonny’s bar, with its bank-vault-turned-wine-storage, one can imagine the lively scene in a Portland speakeasy.

At Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, where the menu provides historical tidbits about the featured cocktails, bartenders might coat your glass with an absinthe rinse or top your cocktail with float of Champagne before presenting it to you. These flourishes illustrate the lasting influence of Prohibition, during which absinthe was the darling of the young bohemian set, much to the consternation of prohibitionists. The backlash was so severe, that the ban on the sale of absinthe in the US was only recently lifted in 2007. French Champagne, like Canadian whiskey, appeared in many speakeasy drinks as it flowed into the country after American distilleries were shuttered.

Think these high-falutin’ cocktails are too much? Prefer to keep it simple with a gin and tonic or a Jack and ginger? You have Prohibition to thank for the popularity of tonic water and ginger beer as mixers as well. Because most illegally-distilled spirits were rough and cheap, so-called “bathtub gin,” flavorful tonic replaced soda water and ginger ale got stronger to mask the cheap liquor. Whatever your drink, celebrate your legal right to drink it freely and openly in one of Portland’s specialty cocktail bars reviving the lost art of bartending.

Central Provisions | 414 Fore St | 207.805.1085 | centralprovisions.com

Sonny’s | 83 Exchange St | 207.772.7774 | sonnysportland.com

Portland Hunt & Alpine Club | 75 Market St | 207.747.4754 | huntandalpineclub.com

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

First Look at Bao Bao Dumpling House

Yet another much-anticipated restaurant opened last night: Bao Bao Dumpling House at 133 Spring Street in Portland's West End. The small dumpling shop is the Portland outpost of Brunswick chef Cara Stadler of Tao Yuan

I went over early in the evening to check out the renovation of the former home of the West End Deli and to nosh on some dumplings - the perfect comfort food for the perma-storm we're having this week. The restaurant space looks much larger than when it was filled with dry goods, wine racks, and a deli counter. The decor is modern with black tables and chairs, industrial lights, and banquettes covered in fabric printed with flying dragons. One wall is dominated by a back-lit metal sculpture of a flying dragon. Pretty cool. 


After we were seated, our server left us with an extensive hot tea menu, and a food and drink menu. I dilly-dallied in picking my drink, so when the server returned, I ordered the first one my eyes landed on - a beet yuzu martini ($11). The other 10 speciality cocktails are Asian-twists on classics and tiki drinks, like a Sake-tini, a 5-Spice Pina Colada, Vic's Mai Tai, and a Scorpion Bowl for 2. 

My beautiful beet yuzu martini arrived quickly, and my first sip elicited such a reaction - puckered mouth, eyes shut, nose wrinkled up - that I completely forgot my sentence. My friend laughed hysterically at me, but then ended up making the exact same face after her sip. We both had a good laugh at each other. Turns out what I thought was simply a sugar rim, was a sugar SOUR rim, like what coats the Sour Patch Kids candies. I cleared a section of the glass and found an earthy, tart, surprisingly light cocktail. 


The menu is short and inexpensive - just a few starters and hot dishes, but mostly a selection of dumplings either boiled or pan-fried, at $6-8 for 6. To start, I ordered the black vinegar peanuts ($4) and the Asian slaw ($5). 

A large bowl of warm peanuts, softened by the black vinegar sauce, arrived soon for us, followed by the Asian slaw. We dug in with chopsticks, but I quickly switched to scooping peanuts up with my spoon. The peanuts were a nice starter, topped with cilantro and green onions, and threaded through with crunchy sticks of daikon radish. 


The salad was our favorite though - all the cabbage, peanuts, cilantro, and fried scallions, mixing together for a delightfully crunchy and fresh appetizer. 

We ordered two types of dumplings; while tempted by the lamb, black bean chili, peanut filling, as recommended by Rob at Eating Portland Alive, we went with the kung pau chicken and the pork and cabbage - fried, natch. 


We thought the chicken dumplings were a little plain; with a kung pau flavor, I expected some heat, but even the xo sauce on the table didn't get the spice level up there. The pork and cabbage, however, was delightfully savory and full of ginger. 


By the time we left Bao Bao, the 40-ish seat restaurant was full, with a few people waiting outside. Several people came into ask about take-out options (none yet). The restaurant never felt too loud or crowded, although we did clearly overhear our neighbors' conversation, so it's not the place for secret transactions. 

Rather, Bao Bao offers comforting Chinese delights, for which West Enders seem eager. Check out Bao Bao Dumpling House (open for lunch at 11:30am and until 1am); I'll be back for those fun cocktails and to sample the many more flavors of dumplings. 

Bao Bao Dumpling House on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Portland Birthday Eats & Party Spots

I enjoyed such a fantastic birthday last Friday, thanks to my Portland family. They must know I like a good party (it's that obvious!?) and so they pulled out all the stops. Just for regular ole 32 too - not much of a milestone or anything. But hey, maybe that's what you need on a random early-30s birthday. 

Of course, much of my birthday centered around eating. To prepare for our weekend canoe trip, I had to get up early Friday and schlep across town to help load up our canoe. My boyfriend enticed me out of bed with the promise of buying me breakfast at Hot Suppa. They open at 7am, so we enjoyed a nice early breakfast there. 

As I was deliberating between their breakfast burrito and the green tomato eggs benedict, A. pointed out the specials. I immediately decided on the grits and black bean chili topped with 2 poached eggs, cheddar, and green onions, and served with crispy tortillas. It was yet another stellar dish that illustrated the appeal of Hot Suppa. While on the surface, something like a breakfast burrito or this dish might not sound very extraordinary, they are always executed perfectly. The grits were the perfect consistency and temperature, not too gummy or cold. The chili was savory and well-salted. The eggs were poached perfectly, with solid whites and runny centers. While I haven't had much I didn't really enjoy at Hot Suppa, I've never had anything at breakfast that missed the mark


A few hours later, after some Old Port shopping with Original Roomie A., we decided an Eventide Oyster Co. lunch was in order. We sat at the bar and ordered some bourbon cocktails to start - the Kentucky Cyclist, made with bourbon, Bonal, Chartreuse, and a twist. After we asked about it, our bartender explained that Bonal is a French aperitif, that used to be enjoyed by cyclists during the Tour de France. The herbal wine softened the boozy edges of the bourbon; the lemon and Chartreuse brightened it all a bit. 

We sipped on our drinks and settled on two old standbys: the fried oyster bun and the chickpea fries. The soft buns, topped with crunchy pickled onions and radishes, sliced jalapenos and tomatoes, are reminiscent of eating fast food, if fast food didn't fill you with shame and give you a stomachache. The chickpea fries are crunchy and salty, cut by the accompanying tangy-sweet raisin mostarda. If you frequent Eventide and have always passed over the chickpea fries, be sure to order them next time. 


Another safe bet is anything from the specials board. We ordered the red snapper, with radish and seaweed, over a shmear of miso paste. Such a great mix of umami flavors from the miso, with fresh, crunchy radishes and sesame seeds, earthy seaweed, and fresh fish. I could close my eyes and order a special at Eventide, and it would always be a winner. 

Later in the evening, my friends threw me a fantastic birthday party at Salvage BBQ, one of our go-to places for great food in a relaxed atmosphere. Our party took over a corner of the huge restaurant, hung banners, blew noise-makers, and covered tables with trays of spent barbecue detritus. Everyone was able to mingle; order drinks and food at their own pace; and pay separately. No "table for 20," separate checks (nightmare), waiting for overwhelmed servers to return with a tray of 10 drinks, or fear that we were the loudest group in the restaurant. I've hosted several after-parties, birthdays, and meet-up groups at Salvage BBQ, and I consistently find it one of the best places in town to accommodate a large, informal group. 


The best part, if I could possibly pick one, was my birthday cake. My friends have really stepped it up for me in the birthday cake department in recent years (remember the cake that had my face stenciled on it in cocoa powder?!?). My friend A. who owns East End Cupcakes, made me this incredible cake cat. And then, to boot, of my favorite flavor of hers: chocolate cake with salted caramel buttercream frosting. Hello. Or should I say, meow. 


If you find yourself in charge of throwing a party to celebrate a loved one, I can't recommend Salvage BBQ enough. The large, loud space with counter service lends itself well to hosting parties where guests come and go. Similarly, Bayside Bowl is another great place to host large parties. Obviously, there's the bowling, and lanes can be reserved for parties. But the bar area offers plenty of seating at large picnic tables and couches, and the staff is also very gracious and accommodating. 

As proper restaurant patron etiquette would dictate, my friends called ahead and arranged with the restaurants staff to have a party, as well as to bring in an outside cake, rather than order dessert from the restaurant. It's a testament to the hospitality of Portland's restaurant industry that they welcomed us, cat cake and all. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

First Look at Brahmall

Rejoice! The Bramhall Pub has opened again! Under new owners/management and with a new name (just 'Bramhall' now), but still with the same subterranean, dare I say, dungeon-esque feel. It's so exciting to see the space again - it's been over 5 years since I've been, and the details had become a little faded in my mind. 


The bar has been moved to a side wall, rather than directly in front of you when you walk in. Shelves stacked with liquor line the walls behind the long bar. Several brick archways and columns create smaller divisions within the bar, with tables and banquettes lining the walls. We sat in a table that fit 6-8 comfortably, and I overheard our sever explaining that the banquette folds up to make way for the band - the Jerks of Grass, who played from 9-12am, just like in the old bar. The pool tables have been removed, making way for more tables in the back room of the bar. 


Because it was the bar's grand opening, it was full, but never felt packed or too loud - I didn't find myself screaming at my tablemates at any point in the few hours we were there. 

We started with two speciality cocktails: the Scofflaw: bourbon, Cocchi Americano, housemade grenadine; and the Nurses' Aide: light rum, grapefruit, honey simple syrup, with a dark rum float. The printed menus are beer and wine, with the speciality cocktail list in the works. The extensive bar selection indicates they'll have a nice variety. Both drinks were very tasty and drinkable, others in our party enjoyed Banded Horn and pinot noir. 


There's a great food menu too - which is very different than my recollection of the old Bramhall! We tried several items - the loaded crips were a standout. Thinly-sliced potato chips were topped with bacon, green onions, and cheese curds ($8). They disappeared fast. We also ordered several dishes for the table to share meat plate, a cheese plate, and the Caribbean jerk wings. The bite I had of a friend's burger was outstanding - it was medium-rare, perfectly tender, with bits of bacon inside the burger. 


I'm so excited to have the Bramhall open again and look forward to my next trip there. The vibe is speakeasy meets dive bar, and so if you like drinking in dimly-lit bars, this is your place. 

Bramhall is at 769 Congress Street and is open from 11am-1am. 


Bramhall Pub on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bonfire Country Bar, Wharf St., Portland

I was excited to have happy hour at the new Bonfire Country Bar on Wharf Street in Portland. My country-lovin' friend LBK wanted to go, and I was intrigued by their self-service beer wall after reading about it on Eater. After a courage-fortifying drink at Central Provisions, I made my way down the cobblestoned Wharf Street, following the sound of a loud countrified version of "Wagon Wheel." Once inside the open entrance, we were greeted by some plaid-clad, jorts-wearin' hostesses. They got us set up with our self-service beer wall cards and we picked out a table. 


Of course, Bonfire takes the country theme and runs with it. There's saddle stools, tire-swing seats, and Solo cups. It's a brand new bar and looks it; but the whole thing feels rather...corporate. And indeed, Bonfire is owned by a hospitality group that also owns Wharf 51 (across the street) and FortiFem Martini Bar (next door). I was shocked to learn from the back of my beer wall card that there was even a place called FortiFem Martini Bar. So that right there let's you know where I'm coming from. 

The staff (mostly ladies, aside from some beefy door guys and bartenders) was very friendly and quickly offered us free bacon after we sat at our table. We obviously accepted, but didn't eat much of the cold, flaccid strips that arrived. Never mind that though, there was a self-service beer wall to be explored. 


After you purchase a beer wall card ($1), you load it up with money (the hostesses recommended $12-13 for about 2 beers) and head over to the wall. The wall is very close to the bar, so you're never very far from a staff member if you need help. There are 10 beers to choose from, each ranging in price from $0.35-0.40 per ounce.

To activate the taps, you slide your card into a slot, then start your pour. The all-craft-beer line up included Rogue Dead Guy, Shipyard's Pumpkinhead, with Allagash White, Sam Adams Rebel IPA and OktoberFest, Gritty's Halloween Ale, 21st Amendment Hell or High Watermelon, and Long Trail Double Bag.

I enjoyed the novelty of the DIY (pour-it-yourself?) beer wall. I only tried two beers, the Sam Adams IPA and the Rogue, but the wall allows you to sample small pours of several beers. LBK was able to try a smidge of the suspicious-sounding watermelon beer without committing to a pint - although yes, most bartenders will offer you a sample of something before you order your drink.

Now that I've thought about it for a while, the beer selection from Bonfire's self-service beer wall is really strange. The wall is stocked with craft beers that aren't cheap. Neither are the walls themselves. According to an IndieGoGo page for a Freeport bar in the works, these self-service beer walls can cost up to $13,000 for a 10-tap wall. The bar, however, is planted squarely in the heart of the drunken, debaucherous shit show that is weekend nights on Wharf Street. If the wall served flavored vodka shots and Coors Light, it'd make more sense to me. I just don't know who their target audience is with this thing. The beer wall would be more at home in a place like Little Tap House, a place known for its wide selection of Maine craft beers.


Anyways, after our stint at the wall, we took our red Solo cups (I'll fill you up!) and saddled back up to catch up. My legs fell asleep a few times in the saddle (and yes, I tried to sit side-saddle too), and the noise level in the bar slowly grew, until it was 8PM and we were shouting. We ordered some food from the surprisingly large menu, but were disappointed with the tepid french fries and off-tasting fried green beans. Bonfire doesn't have a kitchen, so the food is ferried in from next door. But the fried food quickly deteriorated during its trip between the two bars.

Bottom line: If you're interested in going to check out Bonfire, I'd recommend eating elsewhere, and going on the early side if you wish to avoid the crowds and resulting noise. (Unless you're in Bonfire's target demographic, and then have it. I'll be home by then anyways.)

Friday, 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

Kamasouptra
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