Before anyone starts suggessting restaurants I would enjoy eating at, I should describe my criteria. We eat out on a budget, so any place that considers itself Fine Dining is outside of my resources. I can honestly say I have never eaten in any of the restaurants that score in the "if money is no object" category in the Casco Bay Weekly's annual survey. On the other hand, most of the extras you get when you go to a Fine Dining Establishment don't appeal to me that much anyway. I like friendly service and honest good cooking. I'm not interested in indescribable specials. I don't order Great Wines. When I stayed in Bordeaux, all the locals were drinking wine that came from Spain in brown plastic jugs.
There are a lot of restaurants in the Portland area, so there are some good ones. But the Chowhound dilemna is, how to find out which are which without eating out constantly, something I can't do.
As far as Chinese food in Maine is concerned, I don't know of a single restaurant that is not of the so-called "Szechwan-Hunan" theme. Every restaurant has exactly the same menu, and you know every item on it. Americans expect to see these things on the menu, and feel threatened by anything different. It's a conspiracy, or a cartel. Or maybe it's just a giant supermarket somewhere that you go to when you open a Chinese restaurant. (menus: check; décor: check; kitchen: check ) Half of them have backlit plastic pictures of mishmash stirfry dishes in the front room, for people who have never been in a Chinese restaurant before, or maybe for takeout, if the customer is too drunk to remember what Chinese restaurants serve. None of the food is very much like anything you would see in a Chinese cookbook, and none of the restaurants appear to have a menu written by an owner who had any sort of pride in his or her native cuisine. The good ones are reliably edible. The bad ones are becoming more common, as buffets serving dried-out trays of dumplings and soggy batter-fried mystery things seem to be the wave of the future. I have no hope that any of this will change in this area in the future, but I am willing to be proven wrong, so please try.
Other sorts of ethnic food are rare: Indian, Japanese, and Thai are pretty reliable. Italian has pretty much been reduced to overcooked spaghetti drowned in bland and watery tomato sauce, virtually unseasoned.
I have a few favorite restaurants right now, but not as many as I'd like. The Great Lost Bear on Forest Avenue serves archetypical bar food plus a complete menu, with loads of beer on tap. Their specials are really good, too. Last time I had a great chimichanga, and they have really good soups.
I like Casa Novello on Main Street in Westbrook, where they have good pasta and lunches, but the dinner pastas are too large to eat and the tomato sauce is too splashy to eat on spaghetti unless you're wearing orange.
I haven't eaten at Fresh Market Pasta on Exchange Street in Portland lately, but my daughter eats there regularly and still swears by it.
Norm's Bar and Grill on Congress Street serves appetizer plates they call tapas, dinners, really good steaks, blackboard specials.
Right now we're on the lookout for new favorite restaurants. I'll let you know.
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