Punky's is exactly the kind of small, independently run Maine sandwich shop that we really love, with a loyal, local following. They make a mean fast food-style, cooked-to-order breakfast sandwich using a soft potato roll grilled in butter. It’s topped with a thin, hard-cooked fried egg, a slice of white American cheese, and a few strips of crispy bacon. After cooking, it’s immediately wrapped tightly in foil, where the steam warms the bun through, turning the sandwich into a light, fluffy whisper of crunchy bacon, egg, and melty cheese. All of the ingredients are in balance, with no single element overpowering the others. It’s inexpensive, profoundly filling, and eating one makes your internal organs feel like they are getting a great big hug.
Punky's: 186 Brighton Ave, Portland, ME 04102 (map); 207-773-8885
Located in Portland's West End, the OhNo Cafe is a fantastic neighborhood market that serves breakfast sandwiches all day. Don't miss the “Number One,” a $4.50 breakfast sandwich made up of fried egg, “maple glazed prosciutto,” cheddar cheese and Tabasco on a plain bagel. The inventors of the Number One knew what they were doing: the salty prosciutto is tempered by the sweet syrup, and, when it gets TOO sweet, the Tabasco sauce kicks in to provide a little spice. It perfectly nails the sweet-savory breakfast balance.
158 Pickett Street
On a Saturday morning in South Portland, the bagel shop and bakery at 158 Pickett Street is filled to overflowing with young Mainers using smartphones and carb-loading after a strenuous jog. The atmosphere inside and among the staff is somewhat edgier, with layers of stickers and flyers covering every surface and giving the bakery a decidedly punk-rock feel. Huge air pockets lend a lightness to the chewy, crisp boiled crust of the bagels from 158 Pickett Street, and they make for a hearty alternative to wimpy English muffins or croissants served elsewhere. Try the "Hogzilla" on a toasted garlic bagel, a $7.50 sandwich that combines thick-cut bacon, ham, AND sausage that's cooked until it turns a sweet dark brown atop a mountain of scrambled egg and cheddar cheese. It's a sandwich that hits all of the marks of a great breakfast, delivering absurd amounts of salty pork, melty cheese, and crunchy, chewy bagel, all in one portable package.
158 Pickett Street: 158 Benjamin W Pickett Street, South Portland, ME 04106 (map); 207-799-8998
Mellen Street Market
Located in a nondescript neighborhood convenience store, the glass warming case filled with tinfoil-wrapped breakfast sandwiches pulls double-duty. Later in the day, it will hold a few cheese pizzas, for sale by the slice. Get there early enough, though, and you'll find one of the best fast food-style breakfast sandwiches in the whole city. There's nothing fancy or overly creative about this sandwich, and some mornings, that's exactly what you're looking for. A budget-friendly $2.69 buys a tall stack of sausage, egg, and American cheese, the English muffin ever-so-slightly, pleasantly steamed through from the heat of the warmer. The thin layer of fried egg here is barely a factor; the lightly spicy sausage patty and the warm melty American cheese do all of the heavy lifting on this sandwich. There's a $5 minimum on credit card transactions, so bring cash (or be prepared to eat two breakfast sandwiches, which is hardly an inconvenience).
Mellen Street Market: 79 Mellen Street, Portland, ME 04101 (map); 207-772-2206
The Holy Donut
One thing to love about Portland is there is no shortage of bright, friendly, tattooed twentiesomethings working hard to realize their particular culinary vision, and The Holy Donut is no exception. Located diagonally across from Deering Oaks Park, the newly-christened shop is quickly building a reputation for excellent, exotic donuts, including Dark Chocolate Sea Salt, Red Velvet, and Cheddar Bacon varieties. This same creativity is also present in their breakfast sandwich, which combines pesto, bacon, egg, and cheddar cheese on a whole wheat English muffin. The pesto is flavorful, but the real star here is the egg, which is neither fried nor scrambled, but seems almost more like a slice of airy, light quiche. At $4, it's an inexpensive start to the day, and the whole wheat English muffin may even allow you to convince yourself that it's health food.
The Front Room
When you wake up on a bleary Sunday morning craving a breakfast sandwich, the idea of a full sit-down meal may not sound like something you have the strength to manage. Stay in bed, though, and you'll miss the "Fried Egg Sandwich" at The Grill Room in Portland's East End. For $7, the restaurant's spin on a classic breakfast sandwich sounds overpoweringly intense: Fried eggs, blue cheese, bacon, and mayonnaise on grilled French bread may sound like too much, but the sandwich somehow manages to be surprisingly light and crispy. The eggs are perfectly cooked, and the blue cheese never overpowers the rest of the sandwich. Pair The Front Room's fried egg sandwich with one of the restaurant's intensely spicy Bloody Marys, and you may yet live to fight another day.
The Porthole Restaurant
Cut through one of the Old Port's back alleys, down the wharf and across from a seafood merchant, and you'll find The Porthole Restaurant. The restaurant is consistently busy during breakfast (though tables turn quickly), but there always seems to be room to sit at the end of the long, copper-topped bar to wait for a to-go order. The breakfast sandwich at The Porthole is one of the more expensive breakfast sandwiches we've tried, but it's also one of the most creative, featuring a flavor whallop of scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese, crispy pork belly, kimchee, and scallions. The actual sandwich, served on plain white toast with a side of home fries fold different layers of these high-powered ingredients into more of a kimchee-pork-scallion omelet. This unexpected preparation keeps any one ingredient from overpowering the others, and manages to be gentle enough for even your roughest mornings.
Scratch Baking Co.
The breakfast sandwich at the Scratch Baking Company can sometimes be tough to come by. The South Portland bakery only sells their breakfast sandwich on weekdays (on weekends, they're swapped out for Scratch's popular "breakfast strata,") and they sell out fast. Wait until 9 a.m. and you're likely to miss our favorite local twist on the traditional greasy, heavy breakfast sandwich: a chewy Scratch bagel dusted with cornmeal, stacked high with slices of boiled egg, prosciutto, and mixed greens, spread with mustard and served cold. At $4.75, it's a light, fresh alternative to the soggy breakfast sandwich.
Though the restaurant may be more famous for its from-scratch corned beef hash, the same care and attention is given to Hot Suppa's version of the humble breakfast sandwich. $5.29 here buys two strips of crispy bacon, a perfectly-cooked over-medium fried egg, and a shellacking of white American cheese, but the real hero of this sandwich is the oversized English muffin. It's crispy and charred on the outside, soft and chewy inside, with plenty of airy nooks and crannies to absorb the sandwich's liberal buttering.
Mike's Rock Deli
The first thing we noticed about the breakfast sandwiches, served all day at Mike's Rock Deli, was that an awful lot of cooking seemed to be happening for just $3.50 . We tried an egg and cheese sandwich with corned beef hash, prepared in a flurry of pans in the back corner of the sandwich prep area over a few portable burners. The egg had a soft center, but didn't run all over the place; the heavy application of cheese kept even the generous portion of corned beef, potatoes, and peppers contained. Mike's also serves an overstuffed potato, egg, and cheese burrito which, at $2.00, may be one of the best breakfast values in the whole city. Closed weekends.