If you live in Portland, Maine, you've seen the line snaking out of Duckfat, the small sandwich shop in East Bayside that's been a staple for almost 10 years. The destination-worthy spot is helmed by Chef Rob Evans, a James Beard award winner and Food Network's Chopped champion who believes that simple food is best.
After a failed search for a simple sandwich shop with a local and homemade focus, Evans and wife Nancy decided to open Duckfat, partially inspired by a trip to Europe where they feasted on panini and incredible frites. Their commitment to local ingredients and sustainable food grows each year—they currently source 85-90% of their ingredients from Maine and the surrounding region.
"I think [Duckfat] represents a trend of high-end chefs leaning toward simpler foods. Fine cuisine is still present, but there is this great movement of casual eateries opening up all over the country. They are simple foods on the surface in terms of price point and delivery, but behind the scenes everything is very creative," says Evans.
Headed to Portland, Maine? Let Evans be your guide. Here are his picks for the best bites in the area.
Superior Seafood: Eventide [Oyster Co.] are the guys who bought Hugo's from me. They opened up an oyster bar next door and I know their level of quality. When I eat fish out I'm super picky, but they're sourcing well and they're one of the best in town for fresh fish. They also do a lot of old-style mains like a boiled lobster dinner as well as composed raw seafood dishes which is really trendy right now. They do a nice variation of the lobster roll with a steamed bun, almost like a Momofuku-style pork bun. They also do an oyster roll in the same bun.
Fresh Fried Clams: The Lobster Shack at Two Lights. It's on Cape Elizabeth, which is on the edge of Portland. It's two lighthouses overlooking the ocean by this little fried seafood shack. They're only open seasonally and anytime I want fried seafood I go there because I feel like I need to be staring at the ocean. The clams are belly-on and lightly breaded with a cornmeal based batter for a classic Maine fish fry.
Killer Traditional Lobster Roll: Portland Lobster Company. It's a classic Maine lobster roll on a toasted hot dog roll with lobster meat and then clarified butter and mayo on the side. That's the division with lots of people—what's the traditional Maine lobster roll? Is it butter or mayo? I think a lot of places are doing that now.
Ice Cream: Definitely Gorgeous Gelato. It's right downtown in the center of the old port. The owner came from Florence, Italy and speaks Italian and it tastes like gelato we've had in Italy. It's mostly all-milk gelatos with super clean flavors. They're rich, but bright with much less fat than ice cream and even American gelato. It's a whole other level of gelato-making.
Plain ol' Pizza: I love Otto because it's convenient. They do slices and they're great because they're reheated. I love that leftover, reheated pizza aspect. You can pop into Otto at any time of day when you're hungry and get in and out of there in about 10 minutes. They serve a real thin crust with a thin swipe of sauce and they've got a good vibe in there.
Caffeine kick: Tandem Coffee Roasters. We serve it at Duckfat and they are at an amazing, craft level. They're roasting small batches and sourcing really good beans. Their coffee is very bright, kind of under roasting a little bit to preserve integrity.
Grocery store: Hands down, Rosemont Market. They're a small local market that's mostly organic. The owners have this great bridge to different Maine products from chickens all the way to stone fruit. They've given these farmers an outlet to get their food to the public and it's one of the only places in town to get local chickens, local lamb chops, fish, and more. It has a European feel, meaning they're small stores but some have a focus—one has a butchery, one is strong on wine, etc.
Latin American Cooking: Tu Casa is Salvadoran and they have great pupusas and the best taquitos in town. The corn taquitos are never overfilled. Some places try to get too fancy with them and everything at Tu Casa has the simplicity of the old style. They also do lengua (tongue) tacos that are my favorite. They seem like they braise it with a nice crisp and use just the basics as toppings—tomatoes, lettuce and onion. They're not on the actual menu, but they're almost always on the specials menu.
Japanese food: At Pai Men Miyake you can get a bowl of hand-crafted, pork-based ramen for just $10, and it's the meal of all meals. For people who don't even know what ramen is or are afraid of Japanese food, I say, there's no way you can't like that. They're locally driven, they have their own farm, they just do a really good job.
Vietnamese: We head to Thanh Thanh. It's a little bit off the peninsula and if you don't feel like dealing with the city it's great. We go for the pho. They have a raw beef salad which you don't typically see. It's raw, shaved eye of round, almost like they took carpaccio and turned it into a salad and it's tossed with lots of spices and lettuces and peppers and crunchy fried onions. Any chef I know who eats there brings that salad up. We also go for pho. They have a great variety of different kinds you can't find everywhere.
Late night eats: Boda. It's Thai, and they've got like 12 different things grilled on a stick. Who can hate food grilled on a stick? Their food has some good heat, but they don't overdo it and everything is fresh. They do a pad thai enveloped in this paper thin omelette, it's really cool. Their specials flow with local ingredients and seasonality too. They have an amazing fried chicken that's included often and I recently had these awesome puffed lobster crackers.
Vegetarian option: Green Elephant. They're Boda's sister operation so they're Asian-inspired. They do a great take on ribs. It's done with soy protein, I believe seitan, and it blows me away. I'm not a vegetarian, but it delivers with texture and flavor.
Best brewery: Oxbow. They brew in Newcastle, Maine, but they just opened a tasting room and a place to age their cask ale beer right in Portland. Tim the brewer just has the best beer palate. All his beers are drinkable and they aren't too fussy. Some guys get too creative with their beer and all his beer is just absolutely delicious.
Creative cocktails: I don't drink liquor as much, but Hunt and Alpine Club opened last year and I'm just blown away by what they do there.
Dessert: Piccolo, absolutely. Piccolo is my favorite restaurant in town. Damien is the chef there, and he has brought this really mature style to cooking. We can get so concerned with creativity and changing things and keeping it new. He's a young guy, but he's cooking like there's a 50-year-old Italian stuck in there. Everything they do is simple, beautifully executed, balanced, and shows restraint. His wife Ilma works as the pastry chef and her desserts almost float off the plate. They are so light and elegant and almost a little under-sweet. She does a lot of layering in glasses and playing with textures. The desserts change all the time so you may never have the same thing twice.