ABOUT THE WRITER:
Andrew Ross has written about food, wine and dining in Portland, the United Kingdom and New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website that published from 2005-2009. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He has written our weekly Dine Out restaurant review since April 2016, and is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.


When my list of the best 75 places to eat and drink in Greater Portland was published last summer, I was 6,600 miles away. That didn’t stop the emails and social media alerts, though. As my niece and I watched the sun set over the rooftops in Akasaka, Tokyo, my fellow Mainers were just waking up and powering on their laptops to tell me what they thought of my selections.

The comments I received over the next several hours were overwhelmingly positive, with the exception of a few (generally typed out in all-caps and no punctuation) that insisted I had “missed the best restaurant in town.” I did my best to thank everyone and to remind the crankiest commenters that the list represented one person’s perspective.

But by and large, readers were excited to use the list as a guide to help them block out their next several months of eating. One Instagram user even embarked on an autumn project of documenting a visit to every one of the cafés, restaurants and bars on the list. He made it through about half a dozen before tapping out. I get it.

As exhausting as the Best 75 was to research and write, my plan had always been to update the list annually. I began revisiting favorite spots in February of this year – coming to the tough conclusion that a few (owing to changes in ownership, chef or venue) had lost some of their former luster. Equally, a few new contenders seemed destined to jostle and elbow their way onto the list. I even created a spreadsheet to track the upcoming summer’s inevitable reshuffle.

We all know what came next.

Nearly five months after Maine’s initial stay-at-home guidance, most restaurants on my 2019 list are not back to normal. Many serve only takeout, some offer outdoor dining exclusively, and a very tiny minority have opened their dining rooms to a state-mandated trickle of customers. Those that have made efforts to return have altered their menus, sometimes radically, often tilting toward comfort food, away from elaborate, technique-heavy dishes.

In a world where Copenhagen’s Noma – named the world’s best restaurant in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 – now serves takeout cheeseburgers, how can we contemplate what a Best 75 even means?

I’m putting the 2020 update on hold.

I remain (cautiously) optimistic about the resilience of the businesses on last year’s list, however. Only four of the 75 have closed permanently. Bob’s Clam Hut and Lolita both shuttered for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. Piccolo and Drifters Wife were both brutalized by the past few months, but in closing, they leave behind owners who continue to participate in Portland’s food and wine scene. Things may not be great, but they could be much worse.

And there are a few silver linings in 2020. Among them is this: Your options for terrific to-go meals in greater Portland may be better than ever.

In lieu of a full Best 75, then, I offer you a Best 15 focused exclusively on takeout. Some of the restaurants (and one food cart) here made last year’s full round-up, while others are newcomers. In each case though, they serve top-notch dishes with a heaping side of resurgent, Resurgam spirit.

(Businesses are listed in alphabetical order.)

Banh Appetit
For me, the most comforting thing to eat during uncertain times is banh mi, a crunchy Vietnamese sandwich slathered with butter and funky pâté, loaded with vegetables and sliced meats. Banh Appetit’s are among the best in the state, especially the nem nuong variety, stuffed with patties of garlicky, char-grilled Vietnamese sausage ($6.50). Plan ahead and order on a Saturday, when special banh mi French fries ($6) appear on the menu. This dish reminds me of a Southeast Asian riff on poutine, where in place of gravy and squeaky curds, you’ll discover spicy Sriracha mayonnaise and mounds of pickled carrot and daikon, jalapeno and chopped cilantro (and any meat you choose or a fried egg for an extra $2).

171 Cumberland Ave, Portland
(207) 613-9399
facebook.com/banhappetit207

Photo by Tuyet Le/courtesy of Banh Appetit

Belleville
You already know this Munjoy Hill café for its superb, darkly browned laminated pastries. But Belleville has begun offering blistered Roman-style pizzas every weekend (Friday to Sunday), including delightfully messy cherry tomato ($18/half) and cream-sauced, zucchini-mozzarella pies ($16/half). No dinner at Belleville would be complete without a slice of one of the bakery’s layer cakes. Personally, I can’t decide which I like better: the classic, fudgy chocolate or pistachio sponge with raspberry jam and salted honey buttercream (each $7.50/slice).

1 North St., Portland
(207) 536-7463
blvl.me

Photo: Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Buxton Common
It might be quite a while before The Buxton Common’s rambling 18th century farmhouse is ready to host small parties of indoor diners. Figuring out the geometries of social distancing in the warren-like space feels like an LSAT logic puzzle. Rather than tackle it, The Buxton Common has shifted to a two-menu schedule where on Tuesday and Wednesday, the kitchen prepares its fat beef burgers ($11-14) as well as adult milkshakes ($12). Thursdays and Fridays feature a slight departure from the typical Buxton Common menu, where the back-of-house prepares bistro-style dishes like crispy risotto cakes ($18) and carrot-ginger soup ($6) alongside old favorites like bacony hushpuppies ($6) and buttery blueberry buckle ($6). The restaurant is open Saturday evenings too, with a menu that changes weekly.

1420 Long Plains Road, Buxton
(207) 298-9621
thebuxtoncommon.com

Photo:The Buxton Common

Chaval
Piccolo might be gone, but Chaval – chefs Ilma Lopez and Damian Sansonetti’s sensational Spanish/French mashup – lives on. Portlanders are lucky that it does. Where else can you order Catalan “pan con tomate,” garlic-rubbed toasts smothered roughly in pulp from the summer’s freshest tomatoes ($8), and a side of squid ink fideos (short, toasted vermicelli, $23) that, thanks to its green crab aioli, also represents a clever and tasty way to battle an invasive species? Desserts are mandatory at Chaval, and they don’t get much better than the smoke-kissed Spanish sundae with caramel, Serrano chile ice cream and chocolate cake ($12).

58 Pine St., Portland
(207) 772-1110
chavalmaine.com

Photo: Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Enio’s
While it is possible to dine inside this bijou South Portland restaurant’s dining room, your best bet for scoring a meal at Enio’s is still to order takeout. In some ways, this mom-and-pop (literally) Italian-inspired enoteca is well-positioned to weather the pandemic. Few staff, a loyal clientele, and rock-solid menu featuring dishes like grilled rabbit sausage over pasta ($29) and Italian “love cake” with chocolate cannoli cream and Sicilian cherries ($10) make Enio’s feel very much like it did last summer at this time. A welcome, Fellini-esque flashback.

347 Cottage Road, South Portland
(207) 799-0207
facebook.com/eniossouthportland

Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Isa
The Latin-inspired, French-American bistro-style dishes at Isa do not technically qualify as comfort food, but they certainly are soothing and restorative. While you still can, start with summery watermelon salad with mint, honey-lime vinaigrette and ricotta salata ($13), then aim right for a chubby grilled pork chop with Dijon butter and black beans ($24). And don’t forget wine: A bottle of puckery Spanish Armas de Guerra Mencia rosé is a steal at $18.

79 Portland St., Portland
(207) 808-8533
isaportlandme.com

Photo: Suzie Perez

Luis’s Arepera
Venezuelan arepas are my favorite version of the stuffed cornmeal flatbreads long a staple of Central and South American cuisine. Split down the center and absolutely heaving with fillings like pabellon criollo (pulled braised flank steak, black beans and rice) or turkey and cheese, the arepas at Luis’s ($5.99-$7.99) are as good as any I have eaten in the United States. But don’t stop at arepas; fried green plantains with avocado sauce ($7.99) are required eating here, along with a slice of custardy, house-made quesillo flan ($4.99).

948 Forest Ave., Portland
(207) 286-8646
luissareperallc.com

Photo: Leslie Bridgers

Monte’s Fine Foods
When a neighbor insisted to me one afternoon that there was no decent pizza in Portland, I tried not to laugh in his face. Instead, I invited him to a party where I ordered several oblong Roman pinsa-style pizzas from Monte’s. Stretched to the length of a pair of trousers, these are light and generously blistered, with creative, often adventurous toppings. Among the standouts: fiery, super-savory puttanesca ($18) and cacio e peppe ($13), a pie that borrows flavors from a simple, traditional Italian pasta dish and jolts them to life by replacing cracked black pepper with buzzy, numbing Szechuan peppercorns. Every time I tell my neighbor I’ve been to Monte’s for groceries and pizza now, he shakes his head, apologizes, and asks if I’ll leave a slice on his porch.

788 Washington Ave., Portland
(207) 613-9873
montesportland.com

Photo: Monte’s Fine Foods

Mr. Tuna
With its Monument Square location inside the Public Market temporarily operating as a commissary kitchen, Mr. Tuna has reverted to its original business model and become a food cart once again. Well, actually a collection of two or three carts that serve temaki (conical hand-rolled sushi) at Portland-area breweries, the Eastern Promenade, and even the Yarmouth Farmers’ Market. These $7 temaki feature some of the punchiest flavors and freshest seafood you’ll find anywhere in Maine. Varieties change frequently, but order anything you see with tangy, tropical mango sauce and spicy yuzu kosho. And if you spot tuna belly (chotoro) on the menu, don’t hesitate!

Monument Square, Portland
(207) 805-1240
mrtunamaine.com

Photo: Courtesy photo

Nura
The last restaurant I visited before the lockdown deserves a slot on this list. In March, as I prepared for a review of this casual, Levantine hummusiya and falafel joint, I ate nearly everything on the short menu and was won over by it all – from garlicky, tahini-forward hummus ($6/pint) to pitas baked with aromatic za’atar ($2), to shockingly meat-like mushroom shawarma pocket sandwiches ($11.75) best devoured with an extra squirt of Aleppo pepper crisp.

1 Monument Sq., Portland
(207) 536-0065
nuraportland.com

Photo: Meredith Goad

Other Side Diner
Five days a week, from Thursday-Monday, East Deering’s Other Side Diner serves breakfast and lunch (including brunch on weekends). I’ve made no secret that this is the place that serves one of the best omelettes I’ve ever tasted ($13). A cheesy version of that dish remains part of the diner’s truncated takeout menu, alongside creative takes on eggs Benedict, including a gorgeous Maine lobster version served with avocado hummus and one of the diner’s signature, scooped hash browns ($20, Sunday only). The biggest surprise I encountered at Other Side is how well their Bananas Foster French toast ($12) travels. Ask for syrup on the side, and the brown-sugar glazed top and custardy interior will make it back to your home in nearly perfect shape.
—-
500 Washington Ave., Portland
(207) 772-0002
othersidediner.com

Photo: Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Slab
Forget the cornucopia. In less miserable times, a groaning 8-lb. full-slab Sicilian pizza from this Preble St. pizzeria exemplified the contemporary American (or at least, Italian-American) notion of plenty. Lucky for us, Slab continues to bake its colossal, puffy-crusted pies for takeout customers. You’ll get a glutamic rush from the caponata-strewn mushroom hand slab ($13), and weighing in at a solid pound, it’s enough to feed two people. If pizza isn’t your thing, try the ham sandwich ($10), where thin slices of prosciutto cotto and aged provelone coax sweetness from toasted slices of the restaurant’s signature Luna bread ($10).

25 Preble St., Portland
(207) 245-3088
slabportland.com

Photo: Slab

Thai Esaan
Let’s be honest: You probably weren’t going to eat indoors at Thai Esaan anyway. During non-pandemic times, the tiny Forest Avenue restaurant boasted only four seats. Today, it’s hard to imagine how the Northeastern Thai specialists would subdivide their dining room to allow for proper distancing. No matter. Takeout and delivery have always been king at Thai Esaan, and the restaurant has been going from strength to lemongrass-and-galangal-scented strength since it opened in 2016. Call in an order of astoundingly good and deceptively simple khao mun gai ($14), steamed chicken with rice and a vibrant chile sauce, and tack on a few sides, like herby ground chicken laab gai ($12) and intensely savory moo ping (pork skewers, $8).

849 Forest Ave., Portland
(207) 536-0752
thaiesaan.com

Photo: Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Thoroughfare (formerly The Garrison)
I recently featured Thoroughfare as part of a Dinner Plus One column about restaurants with co-located grocery stores. But even without the added bonus of Dandelion Market’s prepared foods, Thoroughfare shines. It also seems to be evolving by the week, displaying flashes of the sophisticated, globally inspired cooking that distinguished its upscale predecessor, The Garrison. By all means, add chutney- or lacto-fermented-coleslaw-topped hot dogs ($5) to your order along with a double-stacked Smash burger ($15). But don’t skip over burrata with roasted grapes and pancetta ($16) or chicken marinated in preserved lemon and brushed with mint yogurt ($12 for three). You really can’t go wrong.

81 Bridge St., Yarmouth
(207) 536-0752
thoroughfare.me

Photo: The Garrison

Woodford Boat Club
When Woodford Food & Beverage committed to a summertime makeover, it didn’t skimp. Its nautical-themed outdoor dining area, complete with a beached skiff and tables garlanded with rope and redubbed “slips,” is enormously appealing, as are the dishes on its tweaked, seafood-driven menu, most of which is available to-go. Start with a Quarantiki, a sweet, fruity rum cocktail that will immediately get you humming Christopher Cross ($10), then an irresistible Little Gem Caesar with crisp, deep-fried oysters slipped in for good measure ($18). Ahoy!

660 Forest Ave., Portland
(207) 200-8503
woodfordfb.com

Photo: Mat Trogner/Searching Shadows


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