While Munjoy Hill is all of a kind, the west side of Portland has a split personality. In the West End, on the south side of Congress, the streets bend charmingly, the condos have good kitchens, and (people say) the heroin has an almost pharmaceutical purity. Meanwhile the Back Cove side of Congress is a repository for bad carpets, low-end Hyundais, and “neighborhood friendly” police mini-stations. The West End’s food scene largely divides along similar lines. On one side Caiola’s, Local 188, Uffa, and Aurora Provisions succeed with elegance. On the other Honey’s, Youngo’s, and the Portland Diner — all fine places but a little scrappier — slide away into oblivion.
So it is worth attending to those spots that seek to overcome this dichotomy. For several years now Ohno Café has succeeded with the formula of creating a bayside feel on the foreshore side of Congress. In the meantime the newer Hot Suppa offers a more polished lunch experience on the bay side of Congress Street.
Ohno is a study in contradictions. The mix and match tables, the blue vinyl chairs, the various beverage coolers and the checkered linoleum on the floor all say scrappy. But then two walls are lined with an eclectic selection of wine (only to go, most in that nice $8 — $12 range), and the breakfast sandwiches come with ingredients like salmon and maple glazed prosciutto. The guy behind the counter is playing a hybrid of reggae and hip hop, and looks like he might be handy in a fight. But then he asks you politely how you want the hanger steak done on your $4 breakfast sandwich.
The sandwich, like Ohno Café itself, is good. The steak, done just how I asked for it, came with a fried egg and cheddar on a very good bialy bagel. The steak was incredibly tender — it came apart easily with each bite — and had the smell and taste of meat just off a charcoal grill. With a little of the artisanal salt they have on hand it was the best breakfast sandwich I have had in town. They serve them all day.
Lunch (served until 8 pm actually) is nearly as good. Sandwiches come on a very good ciabatta and are made with care. The flank steak, sliced thin, was piled up under thick bacon, onion, and spinach. There was a little too much of the cream-cheese-like boursin, which washed out the taste of the other ingredients a bit. The mango bourbon barbecue pulled pork is piled high, a little vinegary and sweet, but not too much. Each came with a side salad, which might be a perfectly nice spinach salad or pasta with a little oil, balsamic, and scallions.
Hot Suppa, with its wood booths, high ceiling, and brick, offers a more polished charm. Big windows up front keep the place bright, though they look out on the Citgo. The staff seemed semi-hip and friendly, and the customers tend to skew a little older.
My Cubano sandwich was probably better than the pork I got on the other side of the street. The bread was thin and flakey. The chef pulled off the trick of using plenty of tender meat and Gruyere, with a hint of mustard, without the sandwich getting too heavy. The falafel had the thin crisp outside and soft interior you want, but could have used a bit more spice. It came with a pretty good thin and mild tahini.