There are probably a half-dozen places I could go for a good sandwich within a block of the Press Herald’s office on Monument Square, but nine times out of 10, I end up at Big Sky Bread Company in the Public Market.
It’s not about the still-warm loaves of bread, although undeniably they’re nice and make the place smell good. It’s about the good humor and goodwill that seems to radiate from behind the counter. Take the sign that asks customers to refrain from using their cell phones at the counter: “Don’t be Cellphish” it says. Admonitions like this one can be obnoxious, or holier than thou, but the way this one is framed makes me smile. It’s a request to look up, recognize the human beings – who all seem to be fresh-faced and kindly – waiting to serve you and not be that jerk on the phone.
I’ve probably eaten at Big Sky a dozen times in the last year (most days I pack a lunch for myself, to keep it healthy and cheap) and I’ve never been unhappy with what I’ve ordered. I’ve mostly avoided the rut of ordering the same thing every time I go because experience has taught me that it’s all pretty pleasing. On my Eat & Run mission I ordered a half tarragon egg salad sandwich, which I’ve got a fondness for, and then debated which one of day’s special soups to have with it. I quizzed the young woman in the hipster knit cap behind the counter and she offered me a taste. Light, clean and just a little spicy; I went for it. With an icy cold Honest Tea Half and Half, the bill came to $9.66.
Half the fun of ordering at Big Sky is what you look at while you’re waiting for your order. I read the leaflets pasted to the front of the counter; it’s like the equivalent of reading an alternative weekly (lots of concerts or plays I don’t have time to go to) crossed with an opportunity to browse for story ideas for Source, our Sunday section on living and eating sustainably in Maine. Everything is local and hearty and oozing earnestness. I pick up a form for a CSA with New Beat Farm, a purely horsepower farm in Waldo County I’ve been meaning to check out for awhile. By the time I’ve read all I care to read and grabbed myself a pack of soft licorice coated in some white sugary substance from the counter K. Horton Specialty Foods (I don’t know where this souped-up version of Good & Plenty comes from but it’s highly addictive).
There’s nowhere to sit downstairs at the Public Market, but if you’ve got a good book in hand and don’t feel like eating at your desk, it’s worth a trudge upstairs to the seating area of about a dozen tables. I love this space – it’s the antithesis of every bland food court in America. Everything is a little rough hewn and hodge podgy but it’s warm and cozy and feels real. Something about the atmosphere makes me flashback to the Portland of my youth when my mother and I would come to the big city for a day of shopping at Benoit’s or Porteous, Mitchell and Braun and grab lunch somewhere simple.
The egg salad has just the right balance of tarragon, enough to scent it but not overwhelm. Big Sky doesn’t go overboard on the mayonnaise either, so what you get is the sense of say, a good deviled egg stuffed into a sandwich instead of yellow mayonnaisey glop. It comes on wheat bread unless you ask otherwise, with lettuce and tomato (not too bad for out of season) and sprouts. If you like egg salad – it’s one of those foods people run very hot or cold on – Big Sky’s is delicious.
So is the soup, which features enough chick peas for one a spoonful, but doesn’t feel like a chick pea soup necessarily. It’s more like a lively vegetable soup permeated with the tang of lemon. There are chunks of tomato, swirls of something green and leafy that I suspect is chard and orzo. There’s nothing mushy about it and I’d be surprised if it hadn’t been made that morning. Big Sky has been around since 1994 and in this location since 2006, and there’s nothing stale about it.
28 Monument Square, Portland | 207-228-2040 | www.mainebread.com
WHEN: Hours from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes
OUTDOOR SEATING: No, but Monument Square awaits you.