In Portland’s ever growing world of restaurant diversity, sometimes all you want is honest, simple fare in a setting that’s casual and fun. One of the most engaging venues for this is the long-running Samuel’s Bar & Grill. That’s where you’ll find a friendly welcome, great chicken wings, burgers, pizza, homemade stew and other hearty pub food.
Samuel Minervino’s namesake establishment has held sway at Morrill’s Corner since 1996, serving its faithful community of regulars who unhesitatingly say that this is the best food in Portland.
That claim may be arguable. But in its class, this is the real deal, where short-order cook Daniele Berube has manned the stove for nine years, earning the reputation for preparing the best chicken wings in town.
Minervino himself or his daughter Meg often tend bar.
No one in our group had been to Samuel’s before, and we weren’t sure what to expect. The room was much smaller than we imagined, holding only about 12 tables and a long bar. And for such a night it was relatively busy, even upon our arrival at 6:30 in the evening.
We seated ourselves at one of the high tops for four and we were served by the friendliest, most helpful waitress around for miles.
At this popular neighborhood watering hole, you won’t find a pretentious list of specialty cocktails. We stayed with the basics and ordered beers, but the bar is fully stocked with all the labels that you’d need for any kind of standard cocktail.
Our first order of business was to try a heaping platter of wings. We chose two types: basic wings coated with Buffalo sauce and served with a blue-cheese dipping sauce ($10.95) and another coated with a Thai chili glaze ($10.95).
My two guests couldn’t wait to try these, though it’s not my favorite part of the chicken.
But these turned out to be great wings – perfectly cooked, very meaty and not greasy. Though the dipping sauce was excellent, they were just fine on their own, too.
We also ordered a plate of fried pickles ($6.95), which turned out to be a colossal serving of batter-dipped fried pickle rounds. These were delicious, but there was no way the three of us could make a dent in this dome of pickles.
The rest of the menu is typical pub fare with fresh, simple food, much of it prepared from scratch. Starters include the usual lineup, like beef chili ($6.95) or a mile-high pile of nachos loaded with cheese, chicken, chili, veggies and jalapenos ($10.95 for a half-order to $14.95 for full order).
Pizzas are a popular item here and come with the usual toppings on Samuel’s house-made dough. One of the most popular is the Samburger ($10.95), a 10-inch pie topped with hamburger, onions, chopped pickles and American and Cheddar cheeses.
Hamburgers are pretty basic. At a lunch visit, the classic burger ($8.95) was a generous half-pound patty. It was decent but not extraordinary and came with fries that were somewhat greasy.
For starters there were the usual choices, like haddock fingers ($9.95), bacon- wrapped scallops ($9.95) and mushroom caps, battered and fried ($8.95).
The dinner menu also includes nightly specials, which are hand-written on lined notebook paper. Offerings that night featured such dishes as beef stroganoff ($11.99), baked stuffed chicken Oscar with crab and asparagus ($9.99) and a fried whole-clam basket with French fries and slaw ($14.99).
My two guests ordered from the regular menu – chicken Parmesan ($11.99) and broiled haddock topped with breadcrumbs ($12.95). My choice was one of the specials, a half-rack of ribs ($10.99).
One of my guests thought the chicken Parm was delicious and I concurred after sampling it myself. The cutlet was nicely breaded, the meat was tender and the cloak of homemade red sauce and a nice melting of mozzarella added up to a decent rendition of this soulful dish. It was served over pasta, which was cooked perfectly al dente.
My other guest enjoyed her haddock, too, calling it a classic preparation. The fish was flaky and moist and was topped with a nice buttery layer of crumbs; it was served with plain sides of rice pilaf and steamed broccoli.
The ribs, however, were standard issue, though meaty and tender, swimming in a dark, very sweet barbecue sauce that was probably commercially made. The accompanying fries, though, were not great – limp and slightly underdone.
With it was a small bowl of freshly made cole slaw of red and green cabbage, which was tasty.
The dessert menu offers plenty of options – pies and cakes, some of which are made in house and others prepared by an outside baker, which that evening included cheesecake and peanut butter pie.
We chose the one house-made dessert – a Heath-bar ice cream cake. It held plenty of crunch in an unremarkable vanilla ice cream base with squiggles of chocolate sauce.
But after a very decent pub-grub meal, the sweet fortification of this dessert prepared us for the not-so-sweet drive back to town on snow-packed roads.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: [email protected]