Fateful changes

Local 188 has a rough transition to a new home
October 17, 2007 3:55:46 PM
VAST EXPANSE: Local 188's new turf.

Local 188 | 685 Congress St, Portland | daily 10 am-2 pm, 5:30-10 pm | Visa, MC, AE, Disc
Sociologist Arthur Stinchcombe has argued that those who work in dangerous conditions form “communities of fate” that result in greater solidarity and rigidity in unofficial workplace norms. Restaurant staffs, because they work near knives, heat, and liquor, and because they often have sex with each other, create communities of fate all their own. So it is not surprising that despite changing its space and its menu, the folks at Local 188 have preserved many of their old habits. Unfortunately, the old habits are not working.

Solidarity with the folks at Local 188 used to be easy. Service was casual and the food a bit uneven at their dark little space on State Street. In naming itself like a labor union, Local 188 urged you to relax — like you were stealing a few minutes in the break room to snack and complain about the boss. You didn't mind if you had to call across the small room to get your waiter’s attention. The dishes, mostly small plates, came when they came.

This doesn't work at their new location, which is probably five times the size. Your waiter may never hear you call above the din or see you over the crowd, and those small plates might never come. We ordered some tapas to try before our entrees, and waited 45 minutes for something to arrive or someone to check in. It was our waiter with the main course. She offered to bring the tapas out to eat at the same time, but I had enough of that sort of dining at Applebee's. I am not sure precisely the best way to handle the situation, but it wasn’t to offer us the food we no longer wanted free of charge.

The main courses themselves were a bit uneven — another sign of a kitchen stressed by the pace of a huge dining room on a weekend. A “Moroccan lamb” was fall-off-the bone tender, but unless the animal was raised in the Maghreb there was nothing Moroccan about it — just lamb. On the other hand, swordfish was meaty enough to stand up well with a mild curry rub, and the coconut-milk sauce was wisely thin and restrained. Both dishes came with sautéed local vegetables that were terrific — especially broccoli with a rabe-like stringiness. The big paella was meat-filled with a pleasing saffron essence — but had the shortcoming of most paella in that the seafood was overcooked.

For dessert, tres leches, as always, was a bit drier than the name suggests. An ice-cream cake was rock hard with a caramel topping stiff enough to yank fillings from your cavities.

Returning to try the tapas, we turned west into the bar area, whose red-tinged European shabby-chic is more like the old 188 than the bluish and table-clothed dining room to the right. It was a better experience. Tapas originated as free snacks that came with drinks — perched on little plates covering the glass. Ever since some evil genius decided to charge for them, tapas has seemed too small for the price. Not so at Local 188, where the portions are pretty generous for a uniform $6.

The flavors in the tender meatballs, the sautéed mushrooms, and the oily, meaty ribs that were our favorite were more Italian than Spanish — with lots of garlic, oregano, and tomato. Livers with shallot were a bit too straightforward and fried leeks might have balanced the flavor better. Manchego, a bit less dry, salty, and intense than the Micucci version that has become a personal staple, came with sweet slices of bright dulce de membrillo in the style that Argentine hipsters use to end their meals.

American labor unions have begun to focus their attention west of the old industrial belt. When I joined UAW Local 2165, I was in California. So should we, entering Local 188, lean west toward the bar. You are closer to the knives, the heat, and the liquor (though maybe not to sex with the staff). It reminds you of the old community feel across the street, where a misplaced dish was no big deal.

Brian Duff can be reached at .


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