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Food Truck-O-Rama

Just over a year ago, Portland Foodies (yea, I dropped the “F” word) were all in a tizzy as The Food Network was rolling into town for one of their last stops in ‘The Great American Food Truck Race.” The timing couldn’t have been better as the city council was scratching their heads over what to do about our simmering desire for a fleet of own. The opposition was needlessly crying that it would hurt the brick and mortar establishments, while the rest of us were calling “SHENANIGANS” over their empty argument. The fact was, and remains, if you’re putting out good food–whether at a set table within four walls or dishing it out from a slot window with wheels–people will show up.  That didn’t stop the council, however, from burdening food truck owners with a list of silly rules and fees once they did finally gave them the green light. Because of the hurdles of money and space, the rush of food trucks to Portland’s streets has been more of a trickle than a tidal wave as little more than a handful have finally pulled up curbside.

But, in celebration of Summer, and the rolling out of the food trucks, Professor A. has gathered us once again (like we’re some weird version of a food based X-Men) for a round robin review of their offerings. 

The latest to open is Small Axe Truck, run by Karl Deuben and Bill Levy–both well known from their work at Hugo’s and Miyake. In the morning the stunning orange truck is set up in the back of Anderson Street, along side Bunker Brewing and Tandem Coffee, serving up the usual fare of breakfast sandwiches, bagels, yogurt and breakfast bowls.  What isn’t homemade (like eggs and veggies) on the menu , is locally procured–like the bagels from 158 Picket Street Cafe in South Portland–and everything is under $7. The morning I went, the weather was perfect and there was already a hearty line of more than half a dozen people, with more streaming in as I waited.

While my usual inclination is to go for anything with a sausage gravy (theirs is made with green chiles), I opted for their breakfast bowl with veggies and goats milk ricotta…because, well, I f’ing love goats milk ricotta.

Because of the line, the wait was around fifteen minutes from ordering to delivery and, if I hadn’t already had too much coffee, I would have taken advantage of their location and popped into Tandem for a malted ice coffee. But, the wait was more manageable, especially on such a gorgeous morning.
When my name was called, I grabbed my box and quickly scurried back to my car, ready to devour its contents.

The veggies consisted of sauteed arugula, and the eggs were fried over easy.  The hash browns were done more like lincoln log sized tater tots and the goats milk ricotta was sprinkled atop the eggs. It was also the first thing I went after.  I want to say that it was delicate, tangy and light, but the cheese had an off bitterness and unpleasant musty ‘goatiness’ that I usually associate with a much older goats cheese. Now, the bitterness may have been from the arugula or an issue with the making of the ricotta itself, but it lacked the cream and tanginess (and salt) of ricottas I’ve had from Tourmaline Hill Farm and, most recently, Blue Rooster. The eggs, however, were nicely cooked with their beautifully runny, bright orange yolks and the arugula added a bit of subdued pepper to the mix. The hash browns, though, were a bit over fried and greasy, leaving a not so pleasant coating on my tongue by the time I finished my meal. Overall, I felt generally “Meh..” about the whole dish, but don’t necessarily hold it against them as they’d only been open just over a week when I made my visit.  I’ve also heard absolute raves about their lunch offerings, which honestly appeal to me more than what their early morning menu offers. So, because of those reasons–and because I know Karl can make some amazing food–I’ll definitely be paying them a visit soon at their location on 385 Congress Street for lunch.

But, now to move on from the newest truck in the fleet, to one that has been established for the past few years, Bite Into Maine, which touts itself as a ‘Mainecentric Mobile Eatery.”

For the past two years, the husband and wife team of Sarah and Karl Sutton have set up shop across the bridge at Fort Williams Park, in Cape Elizabeth, and have gotten rave reviews in both  local and national press for their centerpiece offering: Maine Lobster Rolls.


But, thankfully, their location–and the wonky rules for trucks in Portland (is there such thing as a food truck guest pass?) hasn’t stopped them from gracing us with some of the tastiest rolls in all of Maine. They’ve made cameos at Picnic Music and Arts Festival (where I tasted my first BIM roll last summer) and the ingenious “Flea Bites,” a gathering of mobile food vendors, hosted in the warmer months at the Portland Flea-for-All.

When we came across them in town, they were hitched up at Rising Tide Brewing Company on Fox Street, where they seem to be hosting a food truck every week.  The crowd was light, but it allowed The Missus and I to talk a bit with Sarah and Karl, who were just gearing up for the Lobster Roll Rumble in NYC. They may not have won later on during the Rumble, but they apparently had one hell of a time if their Facebook photos are any indication.

I asked Sarah to choose which style we should have and, without hestitation, she said “The Picnic. It’s my favorite.” Well, when the owner of the establishment tells you it’s their personal choice, you don’t question it–and I’m glad we didn’t.  Like all of their rolls, which include traditional, wasabi and Connecticut style, this one was piled thick and tall with at least a 1/2 pound of fresh lobster meat. The meat, which is also drizzled with butter, is somehow balanced upon a good heap of homemade coleslaw and topped with a dash of celery salt. And, to round it out, it’s served on a toasted bun, made exclusively for them Sorella’s Bakehouse on Anderson Street (which also makes some fantastic breads that you can buy at Miccuci’s Market on India).

On first bite, it was easy to see why it was Sarah’s favorite, and their choice for entry into The Rumble.  The coleslaw is lightly dressed, leaving a lot of crunch in the red and green cabbage. Add that to a perfect crisp on the bun and you have the perfect balance to the buttery lobster. The roll itself weighed a pound–if not a bit more–and was near impossible to eat with simple bites without plucking out some of the lobster with the fork they provided (this is by no means a criticism of the roll). Full claws, ample chunks of tail meat–Maine bliss on a bun, my friends and well worth the $13.95 price per roll. We didn’t need to bother with any sides like chips or a meal ending whoopie pie, as the roll was more than enough to satiate the hunger we arrived with.

Bite Into Maine Food Truck on Urbanspoon


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Food Network Food Trucks Hit Portland

Jersey Girls and LA Boys turned the Old Port into a Carnival of shouting and fried foods.  The Food Network must be back in town. Professor A., who NEVER texts, blew up my phone last night about the food trucks. “Meh..” I thought. I had just grilled up a Branzino and wasn’t so hungry and, I haven’t watched a microsecond of any of the past episodes of The Great Food Truck Race.  But, really… I would have been stupid to know about this and not go down and show some semblance of support for food trucks, even if they weren’t our own. 
As you may have already read, Nonna’s Kitchenette all girl team, slinging homemade Italian food, arrived first–having won the advantage of a 3 hour lead. Apparently, not only does the team travel in their trusty trucks, but they also get a customized car. Clearly Seoul Sausage Company, the all male Korean BBQ team, wins in the better ride category. I’m definitely more drawn to the “Make Sausage, Not War” motto on the side of their truck than I am to the cartoon grandmother of Nonna’s (that makes me think of the Fairy Godmother from Shrek).

The Girls from Nonna’s definitely made this to be an “East Coast/West Coast” thing while playing to the crowd early on. Thankfully they learned a lesson from the 90’s rap wars and kept it non-violent.  They played up their Jersey connection and, I swear to you, after an hour of standing there the crowd got a bit more tanned, the nails a bit longer and the accents a bit thicker.  I may have seen Teresa from ‘Real Housewives of New Jersey.’ I shit you not.

Groups of people crammed by on the sidewalk, confused as to why this pint sized girl with a thick accent was yelling at them and why a man with a camera was in their face. Three Bachelorette parties strolled by. Even a wedding party stopped and ordered some food.  The couple had been married a full hour. They had met at Fore Play. It all seemed so fitting.

Sure, The Missus, who received random texts from me calling her to the Old Port, and I ordered some food but nothing more than the Fried Ravioli, which were pretty good, really appealed. I’m sure the other offerings were lovely but their menu just didn’t do it for us. We were honestly down there to see what Seoul Sausage Company had to offer.

Two hours of chatting with friends and watching the spectacle that was, Seoul Sausage pulled into town with GFTR host, Tyler Florence, in tow.

By 8:11, after the Health Inspection once over, they were good to go. Only now, they had an hour to make up in sales what the ladies had three hours to do. Poor Bastards. But, they hustled it and definitely had that appeal to the inebriated people floating from one bar to another. People didn’t just order one burger, they ordered three.

You know that magical thing that Chef Miyake does with Kewpie Mayo that turns a fine Tuna Roll into a ‘Holy shit, I want to kiss him,” dish?  They have Kewpie (at least I think it is) topped over damn near everything.

We ordered ‘Tata’s’ which were Tater Tots, covered in cheese with kimchi infused browned pork.  First bite and The Missus and I just looked at each other and said it was, “The ultimate stoner food.”

Now, the burger didn’t look like much, but I’d put it up there with Harmon’s as far as pure and utter enjoyment.. Nice and spicy and cooked perfectly.  We were kind of sad that we only bought one.  So, well… we went back and ordered another burger and a Kimichi fried rice ball.  Then, sadly, the beauty of it all was over as they had to shut down because of time–or lack of food, I wasn’t quite sure.

I’m sure both teams have hustled and cooked their hearts out to get to this part of the competition. While the ladies of Jersey were sweet, it’s the LA boys that definitely won over our hearts and wallets.

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Food (Trucks) for Thought

Photo courtesy of the very talented Greta Rybus, who recently featured an interview with Bite Into Maine foodtruck owner, Sarah Sutton on her blog ‘Who I Met.’

In 20 years, when someone decides to write about the food history and culture in Portland, Bite Into Maine will be mentioned. In fact, I believe the article on the Maine focused food truck, which appeared in The Portland Phoenix this past July, is the sole reason headway is finally being made to bring larger scale mobile food vending into the city. Because of Sarah’s honest telling of the red tape and issues they endured dealing with the city, the conversation as to why they are absent from our food landscape finally started to be had. Now, because of the combined efforts of Creative Portland Corporation, along with the input from those in the community who support or wish to operate a food truck in the city, we are no longer asking if food trucks will finally come to Portland but, rather, when.

Across the board, the recommendations from CPC are more than agreeable and address everything from location to sanitation. Some of the specific recommendations are:

• Must stay at least 65 feet from brick-and-mortar restaurants.

• Can be no wider than 10 feet and no longer than 40 feet.

• May not operate where restaurants are prohibited by zoning, except they would be allowed in city parks and school-parking areas.

• Can park in public parking lots, but not garages. They cannot be parked overnight on city streets or in city parking lots.

• Must have receptacles for trash and recyclables and follow National Park noise guidelines of 74 decibels at 10 feet and 60 decibels at 50 feet.

My one issue with the above is the first one mentioned, the 65 foot rule. In a town saturated with restaurants, I feel this one rule is a bit prohibitive. To my knowledge, there is no such restriction on brick and mortar establishments and their proximity to another, nor does there seem to be one on food carts. You can find vendors in Monument Square just feet from the entrances of other food establishments without issue. So, why restrict food trucks, which will already struggle to find room to park their vehicles, any more than necessary?

There has been some grumbling that it would create unfair competition for restaurants but how? There’s rumored to be a gelato shop opening right across the street from another in town without issue. I may find that a little uncouth, but it would normally be called ‘healthy competition.’ Again, I’m forced to ask, “Where’s the difference?’ More so, where is the perceived threat to established, sit down restaurants? Are you going to cancel your reservations at Grace because you spot a waffle truck up the street? Unless you’re stoned, and the prospect of walking into a converted church may spark some regressed religious guilt, chances are that you’re not. People, long before food trucks became ‘a thing,’ had no problem deciding on what restaurants to spend their money at based on a myriad of factors. Throwing food trucks into the mix changes absolutely nothing, except to increase choices. People will go where their wallets and stomachs lead them. It seems like an issue is being made where there truly is none.

So finally, it seems, that ‘America’s Foodiest Small Town,’ has decided to wake from its slumber and not sleep through one of the trendiest of trends to sweep through American food culture. We may be a little late to the party, but at least we’re getting there and, fittingly enough, we have a lobster roll vendor to thank for it.