“Where should we eat?”
That’s the question Dennis Yesse, a Portland food tour guide gets all the time. And no wonder: the Maine city is home to more than 300 restaurants, earning it the “Restaurant City of the Year,” by Bon Appetit magazine in 2018.
“These days, I tell them to just walk up and down Washington Ave. and take your pick,” Yesse says. “This working-class part of town, where the dock workers once lived, is really blowing up.”
We were doing just that: strolling Washington Avenue, blocks away from Portland’s popular Old Port district. We were on the Maine Foodie Tours “Bon Appetite Tour,” a three-hour or so walk in the fast-emerging Munjoy Hill neighborhood near the city’s burgeoning east side. We’d started the tour at the top of the hill at Belleville Bakery (BLVL), nibbling on the flakiest, lightest croissants we’ve tasted outside of Paris. And then we bundled up and headed down to Washington Avenue.
“This street is still a work in progress,” Yesse said, as we walked past a couple of older shops and neighborhood dives, heading to our first stop: Bob’s Clam Hut. The venerable clam shack, which has been operating at its original location in Kittery since 1956, opened its second outpost here in 2018. The beach shack vibe is fun and whimsical, with colorful murals on the wall, an open kitchen, and chalkboard menu. We liked that everything here — cups, plates, utensils, etc. — is compostable, and the building is solar-powered. But would the fried clams be as good as the originals sold in Kittery (one of our favorite roadside stops)? Yep. They were ultra-fresh and meaty with just enough crunch. We also sampled bowls of steaming, not-too-thick, not-too-thin, richly-flavored clam chowder. And kudos for this: The Portland location offers fried lobster tail, shrimp and fish tacos, along with beer and wine.
We should have skipped breakfast, we agreed, as we walked into Terlingua, a hip, bustling BBQ joint. Owner Pliny Reynolds named the restaurant after his Texas hometown, where he practiced smoking meats as a hobby. The four of us on the tour couldn’t begin to finish the heaping platter of nachos, topped with tender smoked brisket, beans, house-made crema, salsa roja, fresh tomatoes, and cilantro. Smoked brisket sweet potato hash, green chili with smoked pork, Baja fish tacos, these were also on the menu, and we’d be back to try more (another day).
Yesse pointed out several other restaurants on the block, including the recently opened Anoche, serving Basque-inspired tapas; the James Beard-nominated Drifter’s Wife, a warm, chic wine bar considered one of the city’s in-the-moment, top tables; and Cong Tu Bot, whose chef was named a “Best Chef: Northeast” semi-finalist for the James Beard award in 2019. We popped into Maine Mead Works, a large facility and tasting room, serving South African-style mead. “This is not Viking blood,” our server told us. “Most mead is strong and sweet and yucky. Ours are much dryer and smoother.” Maine Mead is made from wildflower honey (they go through 1,000 pounds of honey a week!), water and a proprietary South African strain of yeast. We tasted the HoneyMaker Dry Mead, aged in American oak and tasting a bit like a chardonnay. We were tasting a HoneyMaker Blueberry Mead, made with 300 pounds of wild blueberries, when Yesse walked in with two boxes of fries from the Duckfat Friteshack! The walk-up food counter is in the nearby beer garden at Oxbow Blending and Bottling, and is a spin-off of the famous, award-winning Duckfat restaurant in Old Port. Oh my . . . these famous carb sticks, fried in duck fat, were worth every calorie-loaded bite.
“Do you want to take a look?” Yesse asked as we passed the Portland Cheese Shop. The bright, contemporary space sells a well-curated selection of cheeses from New England and around the world. We sampled the Down East Tomme, an earthy, semi-hard, raw, organic goat cheese, and the Shelburne Farms Cheddar, made from raw milk from the farm’s herd of Brown Swiss cows. We bought a chunk of each to take home. Next, we checked out The Shop, an industrial, chic warehouse-style space with a raw bar and shellfish market. It’s the northern outpost of well-known, Duxbury, Mass.-based Island Creek Oysters. Groups of people sat at wooden, communal tables slurping $1.50 oysters and sipping local, artisan brews.
We could have (should have) ended our tasting tour right then and there, fully satiated. But we carried on, following Yesse to the A&C Grocer where we picked up freshly made Italian sub sandwiches. Please, we begged, can we split one?!! The small shop has limited grocery products, and a take-out sandwich and burger window in the back. The owner got his start operating a food cart before setting up this Washington Avenue shop three years ago. “A lot of the restaurants get established first with food carts in front of the breweries, before they go on to brick and mortar,” Yesse said.
We took our giant sub loaded with salami, mortadella, capicola, cheese, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and olives to Root Wild Kombucha, sampling four fermented, slightly fizzy, sweet-and-sour teas. It was an odd pairing with the Italian sub, but what the heck? The fermented teas are loaded with probiotics, our server told us, and the owner forages for lots of the ingredients himself.
“Well, it’s all downhill from here,” Yesse told us as we ended the tour. He meant it literally. Down the hill was a cluster of artisan breweries, and likely a handful of food trucks, and another new corridor of beverage and food creators opening up right around the corner. Why not check it out?
“Just remember,” Yesse yelled as we headed downhill. “You’ll have to make the climb back up.”
If you go: Maine Foodie Tours offers a variety of history and food tours throughout Maine. The Portland “Bon Appetite Tour” is offered year-round (207-233-7485, www.mainefoodietours.com, $75.95.)
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org