My car is now so neglected, it needs to be defibrillated back to life every time I want to leave my neighborhood. Pre-pandemic, I drove that forlorn hunk of metal nearly every day. Now? Once…maybe twice a week.

Looking back over my receipts, I see that I have filled its tank one time since March. To be clear: It is not an electric vehicle. It’s not even a Prius.

Honestly, I’ve enjoyed not driving. But as November approaches, I am starting to worry about losing touch with my city, especially the areas I rarely visit on foot. This sunny weekday morning feels like the perfect time to reconnect with Portland.

Before I dig out the portable jump-starter, I do something that might surprise you. I open up a browser window and visit the website of my first destination, Fork Food Lab.

A new online market gives customers one-stop, curbside-pickup and access to 15 of the food incubator’s vendors. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The organization’s recently installed, Square-powered online market gives visitors one-stop, curbside-pickup access to 15 of its on-site vendors. Quickly, I assemble all the components for that night’s dinner: Mama Mo’s chicken and matzoh ball soup ($6), bacon-wrapped meatloaf from Lake & Co. ($24), a bag of Mill Cove Baking Co. crackers ($6.40) that I can dunk in extra-fiery “Sinfully” Plucked salsa ($7), a three-pack of peanut butter cookies from Cookies Direct ($5) and (why not?) a bottle of fizzy Borgoluce Prosecco Lampo ($18). If I were feeling lazy, I could also opt for the $10 doorstep delivery service, but today is all about the drive.

Pulling out of Fork’s parking lot, I head down to Kennebec Street, past Wilson County Barbecue, a restaurant whose crisp cornmeal hush puppies ($7) and vinegary North Carolina-style pulled pork ($18) always bring to mind languorous summertime block parties, no matter the weather.

Which reminds me: If this unseasonable sunshine holds up, it’ll be a perfect week to stop by Coals Pizza for its regular Tuesday evening, socially distanced trivia contest and a few slices of homemade-ricotta-topped Must Have pizza ($15).

The seating area of the new Two Fat Cats Bakery on Lancaster Street has a comfy, vintage vibe. But if you don’t want to hang out given the pandemic, you can always order ahead for pickup. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

For now though, I turn onto Lancaster Street, passing the newly relocated Two Fat Cats Bakery. Like Fork Food Lab, they’ve put their menu online, including their signature pies, as well as an expanded selection of classic American layer cakes. I didn’t plan my tour 48 hours in advance, so it’s no Fat Cat Lemon cake ($28-$52) for me today.

Instead, I aim for Cumberland Avenue, where I face the day’s first conundrum. Do I stop by Coffee ME Up for an egg-and-cheddar English muffin spread with a vibrant orange, Albanian-style schmear of liptao — mashed potato, roasted red peppers, feta, chives, garlic and olive oil ($3.99) — or do I carry on to Banh Appetit for an aromatic Bo Tom Xao (lemongrass beef and shrimp) banh mi ($9)?

I dither too long (a sentence that will probably be carved into my headstone) and find myself at the corner of Washington Avenue. On my left, I’m pleasantly surprised to see newcomer New York Fried Chicken (NFC) already doing a brisk business, with diners seated on the patio snacking on gyros ($6.99) and hot wings ($5.99).

Turning left, I’m once again confronted with too many choices. Grab a takeout box of tum’tumo (berbere-spiced stewed yellow lentils) and an extra serving of tangy, sponge-like injera (about $14 total) from frequently overlooked Red Sea Restaurant? Maybe stop for chive-strewn, duck-gravy poutine with a sunny-side-up egg ($13) at Duckfat Friteshack? Then again, I can’t ignore the allure of gindara kasuzuke (black cod marinated in the lees from sake-making) that makes up the centerpiece of Izakaya Minato’s Sakana bento box ($14).

Before I can decide, I’m caught up in a wave of 2019-era nostalgia brought on when I catch a glimpse of the “new” Vintage Silly’s, fully decked out in Naugahyde and super-saturated paint colors. A very small comfort, its resurrection blunts the pain of having lost Drifters Wife permanently and Cong Tu Bot for the foreseeable future.

Ramona’s classic Italian. There are so many sandwich options on Washington Avenue these days, the street could be dubbed The Sandwich Strip. Photo by Meredith Goad

Seeing Ramona’s on the next corner also helps buoy my spirits. Chad Conley’s retro, Italian-American sandwich shop opened mid-pandemic and despite the odds, has already gained a loyal following for its overstuffed submarine sandwiches like the caponata-and-mozzarella-packed Market St. ($12).

This stretch of Washington Avenue might need to be redubbed “The Sandwich Strip,” considering that, in the two blocks after Ramona’s, you’ll also find The Cheese Shop of Portland, with its Standard Baking baguette layered with Parisian ham, Comté and arugula ($12); Forage Market and its exceedingly tasty whitefish salad sandwich served on a house-baked bagel (opt for poppy, $8.25); and (if you’re very lucky), the sauerkraut and homemade pastrami at A&C Grocery ($10.95), a sandwich that sells out before you can say “kosher rye.”

On this particular day, I’ve missed my pastrami window, so I continue down until the road curves to the right, taking me up to the Eastern Promenade. I park across the street and watch an intrepid couple battle the noontime bluster on the tennis courts. They don’t stay long, and neither do I.

No Mr. Tuna today for columnist Andrew Ross, as he is having too much trouble making up his mind among food truck offerings. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

About 100 yards down, I spot the Falafel Mafia and Mr. Tuna food trucks, both of which boast well-behaved queues that trail down the hill behind. While I am tempted to join the lines, I know I would end up having to wait in both, unable as I am to choose between a hummus-slathered Mobster Pita Pocket ($9) and a tuna tataki hand roll ($6).

Instead, I hang a right onto Congress Street, past a string of dormant businesses: The Front Room (shuttered until further notice), Blue Spoon (too early for dinner service), and Belleville (only baking Friday-Sunday).

Great. Now I’m fixated on the BLVL cardamom bun ($5) I can’t have. After nearly an hour of driving around and thinking about food, my car’s battery is fully charged but I am not. I do the only thing I can: make a legally questionable U-turn and backtrack to the Atlantic Street takeout window of Hilltop Coffee.

A tiny crowd of mask-wearing teens is already here waiting on Tuscan ham panini ($9.25) and bopping around to the (courteously quiet) sounds of a Bluetooth speaker playing “OCD.” Every time Logic says “with the team,” they gesture at one another. Then, unexpectedly during the second chorus, they point at me.

We all burst out into laughter that feels like it lasts five minutes, or at least until the song ends and I collect my savory scallion-and-cheddar scone ($2.75). More than the snack, more than the automotive recharge, I needed the laugh. I resolve to get out just a bit more often.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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