The Other Portland

After two rainy days in Franconia, New Hampshire, where the biggest attractions are Robert Frost’s home and a cheese shop, we were psyched for Portland. We’d heard the coastal city is New England hipsterdom at its finest, and like true millenials, we’d already sourced a Yelp list of cocktail and coffee joints to visit.

First stop upon our afternoon arrival: the very Victorian Inn at St. John. The building’s patrician facade speaks to its history as Portland’s oldest, continuously operated inn. The decorators certainly didn’t break character with the interior either, with its mahogany furniture, plush upholstery, and Tiffany lamps.

Greg had to work that afternoon, so I left the Inn to tool up Congress Street, the city’s main thoroughfare. It cuts through the Portland’s Arts district, which, as far as I can tell, comprises most of the downtown. A museum here, a gallery there, another gallery and museum there, there, and there, all nestled between Asian-fusion restaurants, used bookstores, and wine bars. Coming from San Francisco, this felt like the equivalent of a welcome mat.

I ventured into a few shops to check out wares and get info from locals. This was all per my quest to avoid “being touristy” while we travel in spite of, well, being a tourist. It paid off, as the people I met were largely generous and well-informed.

Liam at Found antiques suggested the Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box for cocktails after I complimented the shop’s dizzying array of cat’s eye sunglasses and costume jewelry. (We both agreed that it could do with fewer tchotchkes). The two gents running Mainely Maps, Frames & Galleries, which boasts maps from all over the world and a Maine Coon shopcat named Buddy, showed me their oldest relic ( a map of France from the 1600s ) before recommending that I check out Peak’s Island. 

“You can get a roundtrip ferry ticket for $7.50,” the owner, a salt-and-pepper fellow in a tan vest, repeated. “And when you get there you can hike around and explore and get a bite to eat. For $7.50! Both ways!” Sold.

I set out for Peaks the next morning, walking 40 minutes under an overcast sky to the ferry terminal. The cars loaded first, and the rest of the 30 or so of us braved the deck winds to take in gray-tinged views of Portland’s concrete, brick, and glass-tinged skyline.

Portland Harboer

I spent the ferry ride reading up on Peaks, which sits just 3 miles from Portland’s shore. It became a popular vacation spot in the late 1800s. It’s now the permanent home of about 850 people and houses 2,000 during the summer, its frequent ferries and welcoming beaches a big draw for families.

Peaks also remains part of Portland despite multiple secession attempts. Such attempts must be how Peak’s residents fill their time, since, according to an online FAQ authored by locals, there “is not a lot to do” on the Island. I planned accordingly, intending return on the next ferry back in an hour.

Peaks Island Harbor

Once we docked, I power-walked a mile up a residential street to visit the island’s biggest (free) attraction: the Battery Steele. It’s one of the largest WWII gun batteries built in America.

It’s also incredibly creepy if you go alone.

Battery Steele Exterior

The concrete edifice is covered in graffiti, part of the Sacred and Profane art installation that once occupied the space.

Battery Steele Inside

Walking into it feels like entering a post-apocalyptic novel. That feel is only heightened when you stare down into a quarter-mile-long, pitch-black tunnel connecting the Steele’s main structures.

Battery Steele Tunnel

Perhaps I’d have been willing to explore more if I didn’t feel like my murder was a distinct possibility. I snapped photos and booked it back to the docks, just in time to catch the next ferry back to Portland.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering Munjoy Hills and East Bayside. Both neighborhoods occupy Portland’s eastside, which extends out to the Eastern Promenade. The promenade runs alongside the waterfront, and encompasses Fort Allen Park, a playground and several war-related monuments, including the literal hull, bell, and mast of the U.S.S. Portland, my last site-seeing stop of the day.

USS Portland

Dubbed “Sweet Pea,” the ship withstood twenty-four air raids by Japanese troops, not to mention a terribly chauvinistic moniker, before her eventual decommission in 1946. She was scrapped in Florida in the 1960s (where even battleships go for retirement, it seems), although a few parts were saved for the current monument pictured above.

But enough about the sites. Let’s talk about food.

Portland was named Bon Appetit‘s Restaurant City of the Year for 2018. For good reason. There is lobster, of course, and a ridiculous richness of seafood, prepared in wonderfully diverse ways: we’re talking lobster dumplings at Empire Chinese Kitchen to udon with clams, garlic and sake broth at Izakaya Minato.

But the best meal I’ve had in a long time was seafood-free, at Con Tu Bot.

Right off Washington Street in East Bayside, the Vietnamese restaurant has few marks of external distinction other than a neon sign proclaiming “PHO” (indeed, one of its few menu items). We managed to snag a seat at 6 pm on a Thursday at the bar, as the place began to fill. Understandably so.

Our waitress recommended we try the Hu Tieu Xao (spicy stir-fried rice noodles with an insane number of chilis, Chinese broccoli, scallions, peanuts, and red-eye brown sauce) and the less-aggressively-spicy bun cha (cold vermicelli noodles with caramel pork patties, peanuts and oil for dipping, along with big leaves of romaine to create your own bites). I’m pretty sure I would have licked the plate if I could’ve; the blend of spices, sauces, and flavors was umami heaven. Bonus points for having tip included the price of dishes (yes, they actually do), and for the refreshing Oxbow beer they had on draft from the brewery down the block.

We ventured to Oxbow afterward for a flight of their farmhouse ales. I’m not usually a fan of beers that one might describe as “funky” or smelling “like a barnyard,” but these were clearly well-crafted and subtle in said funkiness. The open-air spot was buzzing and we spent our time sipping and taking in the crowd. You’d never think so many combinations of flannel and facial hair exist until you visit Portland. Ditto on flannel and dreadlocks, which were sported by at least two white women I saw who definitely voted for Kennedy.

Of course, before leaving, we had to get our lobster fix.

And, as Bourdain acolytes, we figured the best we could do was the same place our culinary hero had gone: J’s Oyster. It’s on the waterfront and perfectly dive-y, what with its old wooden tables, paper placemats, and middle-age waitresses who possess just the right blend of warmth and sarcasm.

Ours chewed out Greg for not knowing what drink I’d want, but also took the time to show us how to eat a “steamer” (what one calls a Maine soft-shell steamed clam). These came buried under our lobster dinner. And were delicious. (Just remember to wash them thoroughly in water before chowing down, lest you get a mouthful of sand. Trust me on this one.)

Lobster + Steamers + Steamer Water Bath at J’s Oyster

But the steamers were just a lobster palate primer. Greg was stoked. Me, less so. My relationship with crustaceans is complicated, in that I love the meat…but hate everything else about them. At age 12, on my first Maine trip, I refused to watch my mom eat one, its beady eyes staring reproachfully from a bed of corn. “They just put them in the boiling water!” I yelled at her like a berserk activist, despite the fish filet on my own plate.

Katie with Lobster

I quickly got over whatever aversion I had, years later, once I tried lobster tail, succulent and devoid of shell.

But breaking open a claw and sucking on a leg joint are still up there on my list of least-favorite-sounding activities.

Fortunately, Greg did some of the initial legwork (pun intended). Before long I was borderline Neanderthal, sucking on joints left and right.

We decided to end with cocktails at the Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box, where the ambiance might be best described as “a wedding at Grey Gardens.”

Bridal veils hang down from the ceiling and crystal-covered bric-a-brac abound in this box-sized joint. Vases of dying wedding bouquets line its curvaceous bar. The menu features several drinks made from the hipster-mixology staples (mezcal, gin, bourbon, vermouth) and is also heavy on the absinthe/aquavit side, which isn’t my thing.

But the drinks we ordered were fabulous, in terms of balance and temperature and overall bang for buck. They also do a half-size cocktail option and have an eclectic small-plate assortment (including naan and something called “bacon/honey crack pop”).

This is the kind of place I would definitely visit with a group of friends or on a date, and would probably have been overflowing any night of the week back in San Francisco. It was nice to find bar space and a mixologist-to-patron ratio that doesn’t necessitate waiting until your next birthday to get a drink.

Bearded Ladys Jewel Box

Portland could be summed up by a casual visitor as “the East Coast Portland,” or “Portland, the lobster one,” or “The Retirement Community For White People From San Francisco.”(And yes, there were a lot of white people, especially older white people, an astonishing number of whom had dreadlocks).

But the city definitely has a friendlier, smaller-town feel than SF, what with drivers helping people get onto their buses and having full-blown conversations about the Pats with homeless riders.

It also has a hell of a food scene, especially for being so small (the city population is just 66,000). And it must have quite a startup scene too, judging from the sheer number of coworking spaces I counted just on Congress St. I would definitely stop by again, so long as it’s not during a month that ends in “uary” or “arch.”

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