Keeping the food scene on an even keel

 Eating up 2013
By BRIAN DUFF  |  December 19, 2013

SERIOUS CUE A sampling from Elsmere, one of a pair of great barbecue places to open in 2013. | Photo by Albert Colman 

A year ago Portland was feeling giddy, food-wise — with Eventide on every national best-of list, many interesting new openings rumored, and several prominent food trends, like pop-ups and food trucks, poised to take root in our town. A year on the excitement has subsided, and Portland’s food scene is basically the same. So be it. Psychologists tell us that no transformative experience will make us happier. A new love or a windfall merely gives us a temporary buzz before we return to our baseline mood. What really matters is the slow and steady accumulation of good habits and experiences to keep that baseline from sliding downward. Portland’s normal food-mood is pretty good, and while 2013 wasn’t city-changing, the year’s developments kept things rolling along.

Since last winter the underground and unregulated food-and-drink spots that had popped up have mostly pooped out. Cloak and Dagger, the ephemeral Chinese Laundry, Sonnet, Vinland, the Speakeasy, and Pocket Brunch are all gone, or at least gone lower-profile — a few because of chefs who decided to open more traditional restaurants. Meanwhile we saw an initial wave of food trucks — but the first batch failed to set the city ablaze. The problem is not with the food, since there is plenty to like at El Corazon, Small Ax, Wicked Good, and several others. But the rules push the trucks away from the heart of things, and the trucks thus far are too hard to find or to walk to.

The trucks did contribute to the slow transformation of the East Bayside neighborhood, where one or two are often parked near Tandem Coffee or the brewing operations of Rising Tide and Bunker. Farther west on the bayside Portland and Rochester set up a pleasant bar and restaurant across from the Bayside Bowl. South Portland saw more action, with its own branch of Otto, the appealing Italian of Enio’s, and Elsmere BBQ (along with Salvage, one of a pair of serious barbecue spots to open this year).

For those headed out Forest Avenue, things shuffled rather than leapt: we lost the Iraqi Star East Café, but gained the Dominican El Tipico in the same spot. Two miles farther along the Somali Al Huda was replaced by the Iraq-tinged Middle Eastern Babylon. On the peninsula Korean cuisine slid with two closings, but Chinese food was reinvigorated by the new Empire. The West End seems poised for change with the cute café Omi opening across from the great-looking new restaurant Outliers, and the folks behind Bar Lola poised to open something nearby.

But rather than transform any particular neighborhood, the new restaurants of 2013 reinforced the most old-fashioned of Portland pursuits: drinking in the Old Port. At the North Point you can sip and snack with chummy familiarity, and at Hunt and Alpine with a more austere Scandinavian cool. Down the road Little Tap House takes local beer seriously while keeping the vibe casual; on Commercial Street, Infiniti knows the importance of local drink too — brewing and distilling on-site in an impressive space.

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