I have this co-worker at the paper who disparages me for my tendency to mistake corner markets as fine-dining establishments.

She’s right. I have rarely met a steam table or grill station that I did not love. Meatball subs, cheese steaks, grilled burgers, pasta with meat sauce, traditional Italians — I savor them all. I could live on that stuff.

I don’t, mind you. But I could — and would if I were not so vigilant about maintaining a (reasonably) healthy diet. I (generally) only go to markets that dish out that stuff when the need is urgent. My reputation is worse than reality.

Lucky for me (or not), Joe’s Smoke Shop on Congress Street in Portland is on my path. I walk by generally four times each weekday, to and from work at morning and night, and most days at lunch. If I lack provisions or simply am pinched for time, I stop at Joe’s, grab what I need and go on my way.

Lately, with the work piling up and the hours diminishing, I’ve been hitting Joe’s a lot. I like Joe’s, despite the fact that Joe did not sell me a winning Powerball ticket a week ago. I like the people who work there. They are invariably friendly and cheerful.

I also like the atmosphere, which is casual. And I like the selection of grocery items. Joe’s stocks good beer, decent wine and any food item I might need, like bacon.


But I especially appreciate the sandwich counter.

The selection is about what you would expect from a neighborhood market. Hot and cold sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, pizza by the slice. They serve some decent pasta too.

Twice in the past two weeks, I have stopped for lunch. Two weeks ago, I ordered a large meatball sub with cheese for $6.99. I got it with the intention of eating it in my apartment just down the street. There is no seating at Joe’s, although my neighbors are known to chow down on the sidewalk out front.

The grill chef had a few other orders to take care of ahead of me, but I still got my sandwich within seven or eight minutes.

My sub was hot and steamy, and I hastened my pace to get home in time to enjoy it while it was still hot. I set the table with a napkin and silverware, poured a glass of water, and placed the wrapped sandwich on an oversized dinner plate.

Given my anticipation, you can imagine my disappointment when I removed the foil-wrapped sandwich from the paper bag, unwrapped it and found that all the cheese had melted into the foil. As I pulled away the foil, the cheese lifted off the sub.


I paid an extra 50 cents for the cheese, so it irritated me that I had to peel it off the foil and place it back on the sub. But mostly it bothered me because it made my dining experience less elegant. As I scraped the foil to remove the cheese, I removed small slivers of foil at the same time, which I had to pick out with my fingers. It made a great mess, and I ended up eating the sub with a knife and fork, with about half the cheese intended.

Two things. I believe the problem would be avoided if the sub had been allowed to cool a few minutes before being wrapped, or if it had been wrapped in wax paper instead of tin foil. A little more effort or thought might have solved the problem.

But in the end, the case of the missing cheese was an irritant and not a deal-breaker. The sub was still excellent. I enjoyed the doughy roll and semi-spicy meatballs, which absolutely tasted homemade. The sauce was tangy. I ate the whole thing, and would not hesitate ordering another. I just might ask them to hold the cheese.

I returned a week later for ziti and meatballs ($5.30). Again, I faced a wait of just a few minutes, and my dinner was delivered steaming hot and with a smile. There was plenty of it, and it was very good. The pasta was a little overcooked, but I didn’t mind.

What I loved, again, were the meatballs. I expected one, maybe two meatballs. I got five. Five. I counted them as the server spooned them out. I kept expecting her to stop. But she kept spooning.

Oh my, were they good. I savored that meal and ate every bite. I was very pleased with the quantity, quality, service and price.

And this time, my Parmesan cheese came on the side, in a nice little container. 

The staff of GO anonymously samples meals for about $10.

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