Time For Lunch
Not that ago, finding a decent place for lunch in Portland was a dismal prospect for a city that especially prides itself on being a hot bed of creative dining after sunset. There have always been the sandwich shops or Commercial St. chowder houses, which tend to be tourist havens.
As for Congress St., still a sprawling urban melting pot for one and all, some of its many restaurants, with obvious exceptions, seem to come and go around the first of the month when the rent comes due.
Still there are local favorites like J’s Oysters or the belovedly earthy Porthole, which offers the best nooner on Fridays: Fish n chips for $5.99 as an all you can eat item. I was there recently and ordered the special, which was a foot high tower of fried goodness gone wild. A second portion for even the most ravenous overeater could signal a cardiovascular transplant. Still, the fish, from Harbor Fish, is fresh and flaky, the batter and the fries are perfect and the house-made tartar sauce and coleslaw deserve high marks, too.
As for more rarefied hangouts the choices were few until recently. Portland has witnessed an incredible restaurant explosion in recent years—after all Portland is now deemed a cool foodie town—and it was only a matter of time until the demand for tonier lunch rooms would prevail.
I go out often for lunch to meet a friend or discuss a business matter or just to get myself away from my home office and see the outside world. Periodically I’ll report on some of these lunch spots and how they stack up.
I’m not crazy about the dark and somber looking restaurants without a ray of streaming daylight but look for ones that are bright, open and comfortable serving good food.
One that I go to often is Sonny’s, which opened a few years ago on Exchange St., something of a restaurant row nowadays. It’s run by long-time Portland restaurateur and Chef Jay Villani of Local 188 fame.
The food runs the gamut of Latin flavors from Machu Picchu to Ponce with some Tex-Mex for good measure.
The décor is eclectic but attractive with comfortable booths or tables in the back dining room, all of which are intersected by an attractive bar room.
Often I'lll order a starter of fried sweet plantains to share. They’re better than chips and just as addictive.
A favorite entree is the Arepa, which changes daily. It’s Venezuelan corn bread that’s shaped like a bun and filled simply with ham or cheese or more complex versions with beef or pork with an aromatic vegetable soffrito (tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, onions and garlic).
The other dish I’ve had often is the whitefish tacos--corn tortillas with rice and beans. Everything is highly seasoned (but not habanero hot), but the portions are perfect for lunch and give you the chance to go beyond predictable standard fare.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.