The ABCs of Portland’s Food Scene
With the holiday season fully in swing, I thought it might be fun to see if I could identify the ABCs of Portland’s food scene. You probably have family and friends who are visiting, and you need some new places to take them, right? Sometimes just having a fresh way of looking at your options can give you some much needed clarity. So sit back, pour yourself a glass of eggnog, and explore Portland’s food scene with me, one letter at a time!
A: Artemesia Cafe
This classic brunch spot is a must if you’re craving delicious food that doesn’t make you feel fat, bloated, or like you are cheating on your diet. I consider this one of the hidden gems of Portland, especially since there’s almost never a line when you stop in for brunch. Special shout out to their Oeufs En Meurette, a traditional French dish featuring poached eggs, crusty bread, and a to die for burgundy sauce with mushrooms.
The previous entry for B, Bolster Snow & Co, closed in the summer of 2019. People were pretty surprised, myself included. But another notable spot in Portland is Boda, which is a must if you happen to love Thai food.
Their Thai food is notable because you’re going beyond standards like glass noodles and pad thai, though they have those as well. Boda has more of a street food menu, meaning you’ll find things like quail eggs on the menu.
What’s more, they have a pretty great late night happy hour if you stay out late! Oh and they have an amazing sticky rice mussel dish. Order it if it’s on the menu because it’s the bomb dot com.
C: Central Provisions
Small plates are kind of my jam, and Central Provisions is really playing the game right. For brunch, for lunch, or just late night cocktails (yes, you are sensing a theme here, I enjoy cocktails), Central Provisions always hits it out of the park.
And if you really want to be in on the action, sit at the bar so you can watch them work their magic. If I had to choose, I’d say brunch here is my favorite brunch in Portland. Why? You’ve got dishes like the Bread and Butter, which is fresh bread, a fresh farm egg, and the most amazing butter you’ll ever taste.
It’s simple, but it packs an incredible amount of flavor, and that’s why I love it. Another noteworthy brunch dish is the french toast, which is incredibly photogenic, but it’s also fluffy, a little sweet, and what french toast was always meant to taste like.
D had to be Duckfat, because it’s one of my oldest restaurant loves in Portland. I’ve been in Maine, technically, since 2009, but I graduated college in 2013, and that’s when I really became acquainted with Portland’s insane food scene.
Duckfat is one of the first places I ever tried in Portland on my own, and there’s a reason I keep coming back for more. I’ll probably write about this place til I die. I love the poutine. I love the milkshakes (even though they really don’t love me). I love all the delectable sandwiches, because they are fried in duck fat. I love the fries, perfectly crispy, even when you don’t get the poutine. One thing is for sure: there’s a reason that I keep coming back for more at Duckfat.
If you’re looking for a beautiful restaurant for a special occasion, do yourself a favor and visit Emilitsa. As far as I can tell, this is the only true Greek restaurant in Portland.
Emilitsa deserves a spot on the ABCs of Portland not just because of that, but because this is a beautiful restaurant, inside and out. Traditional Greek dishes like saganake (flaming cheese) are elevated to the fullest of their potential on a menu that’s elegant, modern, and most of all, delicious!
Because it’s not situated in the Old Port, it can be easy to just walk right past it, but the warm lighting and beautiful interior are inviting, and ask that you sit down and stay awhile for dinner. Their duck breast is lovingly prepared, and it truly just falls to pieces the second you put it in your mouth. This is your special occasion place to try if you haven’t been!
F: Fore Street
Fore Street has been a staple in Portland’s food scene since the beginning, and is part of the reason we are seen as the city to eat your way through. Fore Street is all about the farm to table lifestyle. Everything is fresh, whether it’s their wood fired mussels (divine), duck cooked 2 ways, or their beautiful desserts.
Many people aren’t aware, but Fore Street actually saves a third of their tables for walk in diners, keeping it accessible, even if all you’re doing is stopping by for an appetizer and a drink at the bar. Even after dining all over Portland, Fore Street is one of my favorite restaurants to come back to, hands down. The food is impeccably prepared, and it shows in every bite.
G: Gilbert’s Chowder House
No matter what season it is, I’m thinking about Gilbert’s. The first time I ever came to Maine was in 2008, when I was beginning my college search all the way from Chicago. My dad and I wandered around Portland in April, and there was still snow on the ground.
I remember wondering what exactly I’d gotten myself into, since the weather was as dismal as back home. But during our wandering, we stumbled into Gilbert’s, which is still to this day, my favorite place to get a bowl of clam chowder in Portland, if not the whole state.
Portland’s food scene is often all about what’s hot, and what publications like Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and Conde Nast Traveler are talking about. But sometimes, all you really want is a hearty bread bowl and a massive bowl of clam chowder, and fresh whole belly fried clams. And when that’s what you’re craving, come to Gilbert’s.
There’s no better time of year for pho than winter. It’s cold, it’s snowy (eventually) and it can be downright miserable. If you’re not feeling up to the swarms of people you’ll find in the Old Port, it’s time to go to Huang’s. St. John Street often gets neglected, but there’s something immensely satisfying, at least to me, about ordering a giant bowl of pho that’s bigger than my head. That bowl of pho won’t run you more than $10, and it’s worth every penny. The broth will warm your insides, while the meatballs, tripe, and other meats will fill you right up. Don’t knock it til you try it, because Huang’s is one of those places that you visit once, and you’re hooked.
I: Izakaya Minato
I’ve only made it to Izakaya Minato once, but wow, was it a meal to remember. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’ve been dreaming about their JFC (Japanese Fried Chicken). It seems like Washington Ave is becoming saturated with restaurants: Terlingua, Drifters Wife, Cong Tu Bot, Izakaya Minato, but these are all welcome additions, and Izakaya Minato is my new favorite restaurant.
There’s just something about comfort food that always gets me. Bacon wrapped mochi is like taking a bite out of the most delicate like bacon pillows, or their Japanese fried chicken, which is crunchy, and fried, but also incredibly flavorful and awe inspiring.
I don’t know how else to describe a chicken that’s closer to tempura than fried while still retaining all of the flavor that we love so much in fried chicken. Izakaya Minato is doing Japanese food on their terms, though of course it helps that their chef is phenomenal and incredibly creative in the kitchen.
Here’s what I do know: part of what makes this chicken so good is how it’s marinated. If you want to learn more about why this chicken is so damn good, check out the Next Great American Chef podcast that I was on, and that owner and executive chef Thomas Takashi Cooke won.
I really love the diversity of what you can find in the Old Port. Whatever my mood may be at any time, I can usually find something delicious to try. And sometimes, all I’m looking for is a soft pretzel, dipped in beer cheese.
If this too is what you’re looking for, after a long day of holiday shopping or just day drinking, Jager is the place to stop. If you’re looking for heavier fare, they’ve got you covered too, but I’m personally partial to the soft pretzel and beer cheese. Add a German beer and you could almost be at Octoberfest!
Back when I worked in downtown Portland, my favorite Friday treat was a bowl of soup from Kamsouptra in the Public Market. There’s no such thing as a bad soup here; I can confidently say I’ve tried at least 10 different kinds over the years. The clam chowder is the award winner, and it’s marvelous.
The grilled cheese soup is comfort food at its finest, and is always able to warm me up on a cold day. The chili has a little heat for spice level, but tons of flavor all around, and goes incredibly well with the fresh roll that comes with every soup you get. When it’s not cold outside, I add one of their freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and a glass of their perfectly tart lemonade. Pure perfection!
L: Luke’s Lobster Portland Pier
Another closing that nobody saw coming, in fall 2019, the immensely popular Lolita closed its doors. So that left a new spot for L on this list, and it seems like a good place to put Luke’s Lobster.
Yes, they are new, but they have locations all over the world. And there’s no doubt about it, their location is incredible. With their floor to ceiling windows, they are giving Scales a run for their money. The cocktails are delicious, the lobster rolls are solid, and there’s not a bad view to be found at Luke’s. If you love lobster, it’s worth checking out!
I’m not a millionaire by any means, but I love Miyake. I am obsessed with the bento box available for lunch, which really gives you a little bit of everything, depending on how the chef is feeling that day. This bento box is a surprise just waiting for you to dive right in.
It could include duck, a small soup, a few pieces of sashimi, a light salad, or other tasty things. The only way to find out is to order it, of course. The bento box is just enough food for lunch. You won’t feel overwhelmed and stuffed to the gills, and you might even be able to indulge in dessert after.
Nosh is my go to for days when I want to go all in. My boyfriend is extremely fond of the killer Nosh Mac ‘n Stack, which is just as insane as it sounds: the buns are fried mac ‘n cheese patties. Over the years, I’ve tried some delicious entrees here, though the menu is always changing, so some of the things are long gone.
Right now, I’m loving the Falafel Bouquet, and of course, the Spicy Chicken & Waffles, which is a sandwich featuring two of my favorite things together, with a spicy twist. No matter what I’m ordering, there’s always a side of their famous bacon dusted fries to pull it all together and put me into an instant food coma.
O: OhNo Cafe
One of my favorite parts of living in the West End for so long was discovering the OhNo Cafe. These breakfast sandwiches are what dreams are made of, and after a long night of drinking, they are still something that I’m thinking of. Think breakfast sandwiches but even better, with extremely high quality and unique ingredients.
You want a breakfast sandwich with prosciutto on it? Make sure you order the #1 which has prosciutto, tabasco sauce, and cheddar on a bagel. Looking for a little smoked salmon on your breakfast sandwich to start your day? The #4 features Browne Trading’s House Smoked Salmon, cream cheese, spinach & red onion on bialy.
Talk about a fantastic way to start your morning! Or maybe you’re just looking to create your own, one of a kind breakfast sandwich. You can do that too at OhNo Cafe, but I prefer to just let the experts point me in the right direction with the pre-conceived breakfast sandwiches on their menu.
P: Pai Men Miyake
It may have taken a few visits, but while living in Portland, Pai Men Miyake became my go to for ramen, in all seasons. Even when it’s 95 degrees outside, I find myself craving this ramen. Classics include the Paitan, made with a creamy chicken and pork broth, pork belly, nori and a soy marinated jammy egg, or the Miso ramen, with a little more in the vegetable department and a seriously savory broth.
I also love the Kimchi Beef ramen, which is on the spicier side, and the perfect antidote to one of our freezing Maine evenings in Portland. Before you start slurping down the noodles, I highly recommend starting off with the pork buns and the brussels sprouts. And if you’re feeling really resourceful, come for lunch on a weekday. It’s one of the best lunch deals in the city, and you’ll leave full, guaranteed.
Q: Quail Eggs & Cheap Bites Late Night at Kushiya Benkay
In my opinion, one of the most important parts of Portland’s food scene is the late night bites that are available. Even if you don’t live in Portland (guilty as charged) it still helps to know where you can get late night noms when you’ve been drinking heavily. And one of the first places that I ever found is still my favorite, Kushiya Benkay on Congress Street.
In particular, I love the skewers and small bites like the quail eggs that are available during their Rock n Roll sushi late night hours. Half price sushi is honestly one of my favorite ways to end a great night out, especially if it includes some yakitori meat skewers as well. Some of the best “casual” dining in Portland is the best dining in Portland, too.
When it comes to Italian in Portland, it’s starting to feel like the market is a little bit oversaturated, but that’s just me. When I heard that Roma was reopening, I was curious, because I never got to try it before it shut down. If you’re looking for a very traditional Italian meal, this is the place to go.
Roma serves up a little nostalgia on the side with their excellent pasta and giant portions! The bread practically melts in your mouth, and the eggplant parmesan tastes as if you’re sitting at Sunday dinner with a real Italian family. Though new and reborn at the same time, Roma is serving up the best of both worlds.
S: The Sinful Kitchen
I know I’m late to the party on this one, but better late than never, right? Just a few months ago, I finally decided I had to stop in and try The Sinful Kitchen, once and for all. I’ve literally had friends telling me to go for years, but for whatever reason, I never made it. Well, now I’ve been, and I’m singing their praises too!
The Sinful Kitchen may be tiny, but there’s a lot of punch packed into their cheerful interior. This is a brunch that I can get behind. When I went, there was a Thai peanut eggs benedict on the menu and I won’t lie, when I heard that was available, the rest of the menu just kind of disappeared for me.
I’ve always loved a good benedict, and a unique one will usually intrigue me enough that I just have to order it. So I did, and OMG, the BEST peanut sauce I’ve ever tasted was on it. I’m talking a sauce so good I’d probably cover myself in it and just lick myself for days on end. Sounds weird, but if you see this on the menu, trust me when I say you need to order it. No regrets here!
T: Tomaso’s Canteen
Whether they are serving up fried mozzarella balls in a martini glass or the most stacked breakfast sandwich in town, Tomaso’s Canteen is always a great place to stop in for a bite as part of Portland’s food scene. They also might have some of the creamiest (and tastiest!) mac n cheese in town, I fact that I found out when I went on the Harvest on the Harbor Crawl earlier this year.
Tomaso’s was my saving grace when I took my mom to Eventide this summer, and we were both still hungry. It’s a little divey, but Tomaso’s Canteen is nothing if not inviting. With tons of craft beer on rotation, you’ll always find something new to try, at a price that will never break the bank.
In case you didn’t hear: the owners of Tomaso’s Canteen and Samuel’s opened a new restaurant called Legends Rest in Westbrook. It’s just as good as these two favorites, and is hands down one of my favorite places in Westbrook now.
U: Union Bagel Co.
If you’ve been paying attention to the food news recently, it’s starting to feel like bagels are becoming a big deal here in Maine. There was the infamous Saveur article featuring Forage Market in Lewiston, and people can’t stop talking about The Purple House’s Montreal style bagels.
Every apartment that I lived at in Portland gave me unique opportunities to try the restaurants and food around around me, and when I lived on Cumberland Ave, one of my favorites was Union Bagel Co.
Their bagels are fantastic, with a nice chew that’s not too hard, but flavor that seriously delivers. On a whim one day, I decided to try their Salt bagel, since they didn’t have whatever I had originally wanted to order. The salt bagel is phenomenal and that’s just an understatement! A salt bagel could veer into the territory of being too salty, but at Union Bagel Co. this is not the case. Instead, it is delicious and could be the thing that makes your day great.
V: Vena’s Fizz House
The mocktail and cocktail game here in Portland has been elevated ever since Vena’s Fizz House came into the picture. When Vena’s first opened, it was mocktails and fizzes only, and I remember being so bummed, because the mocktails are really that good.
And then not too long ago, they started making cocktails, and now Vena’s Fizz House has become one of my favorite places to grab a drink and catch up with friends. The atmosphere is cozy, and invites you to sit down and forget your troubles, at least for a little while.
And the drinks? Well, the drinks are the best part, of course! Everything on the cocktail menu is unique, or has a little twist on it to make it a better version of a tried and true favorite like the Pimm’s Cup, or the Vena’s G&T. For the cocktail aficionado, make sure you add Vena’s Fizz House to your list!
W: Wonton Soup & Delectable Dumplings at Empire
Not going to lie, there’s not much you can write towards the end of the alphabet, but I will say that Empire always hits the spot with wonton soup and of course, those dumplings!
Before Empire, it was tough to find a good dumpling, but I’m still a fan. Dim sum could possibly be one of my favorite food groups, especially when it’s filled with pork, or lobster, or even shrimp. On a cold day, the braised beef ramen satisfies all cravings for something hot and tasty. That’s a win in my book!
X: Exciting Small Plates at Sur Lie
Again, really reaching here but the small plates at Sur Lie are exciting and a pivotal part of the Portland food scene, there’s no doubt about it. The distinct Puerto Rican flavor is evident in every bite.
This is the perfect spot for a cocktail at their beautiful bar, or to meet up with a big group of friends to try every dish on the menu. Highlights include the Sweet pea hummus, Broiled Spanish octopus, and the donuts that are only available on Friday and Saturdays that are to die for.
When it comes to Y, the only place that should be on this list is Yosaku for delicious sushi. I’ve been a lover of sushi for years and years, and Yosaku delivers with fresh fish that practically melts on the tongue.
Their brunch on Saturday and Sunday may be unconventional since there are no mimosas, but fresh sashimi that makes you stop in your tracks to chew, slowly. Sushi is always best when you can savor it, right?
Z: Pizza at Portland Pie
Yes, I’m really reaching here as well. But there’s no denying that you’ll always have a great slice of pie at Portland Pie! They make plenty of different pizzas but they can also make classic pizzas with pepperoni, peppers, or extra cheese.
My personal favorite? The Pawtuckaway which is basically a chicken parmesan pizza. But hey, they have plenty of different kinds to choose from, so if chicken parmesan pizzas aren’t your thing, there are more where that came from!