The next time someone starts up with the ludicrous nonsense that “nobody wants to work anymore,” send them for a meal at Café Louis. Their first encounter is likely to be with one of the two servers I met last week. Between them, they covered every table in the place with efficient calm all night long.

As one of them seated us at one of the South Portland restaurant’s spacious patio tables, I remarked on how well they seemed to be managing with only one primary server and an expediter/bartender. I got an even bigger surprise in response:

“I’m a little worn out because I have another job at a different place. I came right from working there before I got here,” my server told me. “I’m going home after my shift tonight to sleep for four hours, and then I’m going back to the other job in the morning. I want to take a few days off, so I’m doing what I need to do, you know?”

Molly Schen of South Portland sits at a table with a friend at Café Louis while outdoor diners are reflected in the window. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

She disappeared, leaving my dinner guest and me to devour the squid-ink blackened gallitos (a taco-esque Costa Rican dish) filled with tart cabbage slaw and enormous rings of deep-fried Maine squid ($10). When she returned with our drinks: one aromatic gin-and-tonic concocted with a subtly sweet watermelon agua fresca base ($12) and one exceptionally slushy rum, pineapple, orange, and lime-juice Pura Vida frozen punch ($10), she revealed details about the Costa Rican-and-Caribbean-inspired restaurant’s back-of-house team.

“Tonight, it’s just Chef (owner Evan Richardson) and one other cook on the line,” she said. I stared in disbelief as I did a little mental, back-of-the-napkin math. Approximately 50 seats, at least two services, with three or four dishes? That equates to hundreds of plates to prepare. “Oh yeah. It’s a lot. Plus we have to make sure we collect the dishes and glassware when people finish because we’re also the dishwashers,” she added with a wink, then walked back inside to return the glasses from our table.

“We’ve gotten good at working with not very many people,” Richardson told me over the phone a few days later. “That night we were down a person, so it’s not the normal situation, but it still works because we have some really good professionals on the team. Usually it’s two line cooks, two front-of-house and a hybrid support person who can do both. I call it the “slide defense” position,” he said.

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If you’re reading this figuring that employees might dislike working hard at Café Louis, think again. After he closed Eaux, Richardson’s Exchange Street New Orleans bistro, he rounded up the same staff in the summer of 2021 – nearly to a person – and brought them en masse to Café Louis. A year of hard work later, he still has one three-year veteran server and a brunch cook who just celebrated her own three-year anniversary.

Richardson’s reliable, expertly trained team allow him to make good on some of the ideas that, at Eaux, he was never able to achieve, or at least not completely. Chief among these, his commitment to preparing nearly everything “except ketchup” in-house. “We do it all…every single thing pretty much, and it’s all being done in a 770-square foot room with no walk-in, no basement,” he said.

Nowhere is his grace under constraints more impressive than in the spectacular Louis Burger ($16), which starts with a brisket patty smashed and fried in its own tallow until the edges crisp and the underside turns Maillard-reaction mahogany. Add cool shreds of iceberg lettuce, house-cured Maine Family Farms bacon, anise-scented tarragon mustard, chopped Vidalia onions for retro, fast-food harmony, and slide it all into two halves of a tender potato bun (made by Richardson), and you’ve got a world-class burger.

That bun isn’t the only homemade bread served at Café Louis. Richardson’s airy, 5% rye country loaf also shows up on the “Ron Don” as two grill-marked slices teetering atop an overflowing bowl of Bangs Island mussels coaxed open in coconut broth with soft cubes of yuca, discs of sweet corn still on its cob and an optional (but highly recommended) addition of local crab meat slipped into each of the mussel shells ($16, plus $10 for extra crab).

The Ron Don mussels at Cafe Louis. Davis/Staff Photographer

The stew is precise in its spicy-adjacent seasoning but is presented in a casual, almost rustic fashion to go along with its homophonic name. “It’s called ‘Ron Don’ because it’s the ‘run down’ of the stuff you have in your fridge,” Richardson said. “Generally, it’s the drunk food you make at midnight and you’d just eat the corn and the crab with your hands.”

On my recent visit, I wasn’t quite tipsy enough to use my fingers. Instead, I spooned out crabmeat – which works much better in the Ron Don than it does in the undersalted, but vibrant cebiche ($12) – and green curry broth onto those housemade toasts and got to taste just how skilled a baker Richardson has become.

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If sourdough didn’t prove the point, his rosewater and rhubarb flan ($10) did. More like a robust cheesecake, this dessert derives richness from a buttery Maria-biscuit crumble base as well as a healthy dose of cream cheese swirled into the wobbly custard. Pulverized macadamias add fat and crunch, while a shallow moat of thickened rhubarb wine from 1820 Wines in East Bayside counterbalances the cream. In my notes, I wrote, “Get the name of the baker.” Little did I know.

Indeed, part of Richardson’s original concept for Café Louis was to build a sister business for Eaux where meats and seafood (“the boucherie”) would be prepped at Eaux and pastries and baked goods (“the boulangerie”) would come out of the Costa Rican kitchen. For now at least, it works out well that both have been combined into the South Portland restaurant’s beachy, tropical, single-room space.

Café Louis’ accidental intersectionality also reflects an important part of its chef/owner’s perspective on his own part Hispanic, part New Orleans Creole heritage, and it fits well with the hybrid nature of its namesake: Richardson’s dog.

“Louis is my mutt,” Richardson said with a laugh. “He’s kind of like what I am. We’re both mutts. And it’s like what we’re trying to do here in South Portland. This area needed a hang. We’re not chasing the avant-garde crowd. We’re trying to create a fun and electric experience for Old South Portland and New South Portland. And I think we’ve done that through the hard work that we’ve put in to hammer it home.”

I think so, too.

The Rhubarb and Rose Flan combines a buttery biscuit base, custard, cream cheese and macadamias with local rhubarb wine. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

RATING:  ****1/2

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WHERE:  173 Ocean St., South Portland. (207) 747-5940.  cafelouis.me

SERVING:  Thursday to Monday, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. and 5 – 10 p.m.

PRICE RANGE: Small plates: $5-16. Larger plates: $16-26

NOISE LEVEL: Midnight at the frog pond

VEGETARIAN: Some dishes

GLUTEN-FREE: Some dishes

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RESERVATIONS: Walk-ins only

BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: The vibe: Costa Rica and the Caribbean, with a wood-topped bar, patio tables covered in leaf-patterned oilcloths and a mural of a toucan bearing the expression of someone you’ve just told an especially dirty joke to. The food: Exceptional. Chef/owner Evan Richardson, whose restaurant Eaux closed during the pandemic, moved across the bridge to South Portland, gutting the former RJ’s Pub and transforming it into a restaurant that deserves national attention. Nearly everything I ate on a recent visit was memorable, from mussels in coconut green curry and stewed yuca, to cheesecake-like rhubarb-rosewater flan, to an insanely inexpensive and insanely tasty cabbage salad topped with puffed wild rice and pineapple vinaigrette ($5). What’s more, practically everything served here is made from scratch. No small feat for a space that’s 770 square feet, with 150 taken up by the bathroom. Sit inside or out, sip a boozy watermelon agua fresca gin & tonic or slushy Pura Vida rum punch and admire a streamlined culinary team at the top of their game.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such): Poor ** Fair *** Good **** Excellent ***** Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously.


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 five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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