I had never been to Punky's. Despite glowing reviews from food fanatics, there never seemed to be a reason to break from my norm or shake up my old fast-food standbys. Now, after two visits in as many days, I have are dozens of reasons to go again, and soon.
Recently, my appetite and I went by to put our money down on an early lunch. Usually a quick sandwich means sitting alone in your car in the parking lot, but Punky's has room for you and your friends. The pizzeria-style benches and tables augur well. The surroundings are humble; the seats, an aisle of chips, and a wall of drink coolers are pretty much it. The star of the show here is their menu, and it sprawls across the wall behind the counter.
How much can you really expect from your sandwich shop? Years of conditioning have led me to lower the bar. If a shop is known for their italians, then don't order from the fried menu. If it's a burrito joint, then that's all it ever will be, right? Punky's blows this conventional wisdom out of the water. On the menu, cold and hot subs and rollups sit next to burritos, breakfast, and pizza. A steam table of hot specials, such as lasagna, mac and cheese, and ziti with chicken, is squarely in front of customers as they wait to order.
The Punky's specialty is the Thanksgiving sub. Also known as a "turkey terrific," this sub is exactly what it sounds like: fresh roasted turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce on a roll. (It's so popular, the people at Punky's boast that they roast at least 300 pounds of turkey a week.)
But I consider myself somewhat of an eggplant parmesan connoisseur, at least among the local places, so Punky's version is the first sandwich I try. The eggplant is crispy and amply salted, avoiding two frequent mistakes that leave the regal eggplant tasting more like bitter shoe rubber. Two thoughtful additions, sautûed green peppers and a controlled hand with the sauce, move Punky's parm to the top of the heap.
Other options abound. For as many versions of the Italian as Portland offers, this was the first time I had seen a prosciutto variety. It was divine, with the pickles and olives providing enough oil-and-brine dressing to marry all the flavors together. The BLT, with its minimalist ingredient list, is a key make-or-break dish. Punky's presents a version that holds its own. The bacon is crisp, without being overcooked, and the lettuce is romaine, not iceberg. For good measure, I ordered an egg and cheese sandwich on a bagel. The egg was fried so the edges were just browned, and the cheese held the whole thing together. The bagel itself was nothing special, but at $3, I didn't mind. As far as the subs, the half-sandwiches were shockingly generous. These were serious portions, for really low dough.
Given this stellar experience, I'm mostly embarrassed for not coming here sooner. Upon settling up, I noticed my face taking on a slightly sheepish pink hue, much like that of the Andrew Jackson that paid for my order. As a fitting coda, my change from this feast could have paid for another sandwich.
Todd Richard can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
PUNKY'S | 186 Brighton Ave, Portland | 207.773.8885