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Aimsel Ponti

Aimsel Ponti is a Content Producer at MaineToday.com and a music writer for MaineToday.com and the Portland Press Herald. She has been obsessed with - and inspired by - music since she listened to Monkees records borrowed from the town library when she was six years old. She bought her first Rolling Stones record at a flea market when she was in 7th grade and discovered David Bowie a year later. She's a HUGE fan of the local music scene and covers it along with national musical happenings in her "Face the Music" column and with artist interviews that appear in print in the Portland Press Herald and online at Mainetoday.com. You'll also find her out and about absorbing live music like a sponge and roaming around local record shops and flea markets. Aimsel is also the host of Music from 207 on 98.9 WCLZ and appears monthly on the WCHS TV show “207” to talk about...music of course.

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Posted: December 2, 2016

Get more than good shawarma at Portland’s Olive Cafe

Written by: Aimsel Ponti
Chicken Shawarma at Olive Cafe in Portland Photo by Aimsel Ponti/Staff Writer

Chicken Shawarma at Olive Cafe in Portland
Photo by Aimsel Ponti/Staff Writer

It was a total fluke that I ended up at the Olive Cafe the other day for a heavenly solo lunch.

I had a meeting on Commercial Street, and my route there took me by the cafe. I realized it had been years since the last time I’d eaten there.

Later, as I was wandering back to work, headphones on and in a daze, my internal lunch bell starting ringing. So, I retraced my steps back to the Olive Cafe and was seated next to the window by the friendliest waiter you’d ever want to meet.

I know two things about Lebanese Mediterranean food: Anytime I’ve had it, I’ve loved it, and I need be eating more of it.

Butternut squash and ginger soup at Olive Cafe in Portland Photo by Aimsel Ponti/Staff Writer

Butternut squash and ginger soup at Olive Cafe in Portland
Photo by Aimsel Ponti/Staff Writer

That said, I started my meal off with one the day’s specials, which I don’t think is of the Lebanese persuasion but was one of the best things I’ve had all year. It was the butternut squash ginger soup ($5), and the flavor echoed around my mouth long after swallowing. I could have sat there and eaten a gallon of it.

But I had lunch, part two to attack, and that came in the form of the chicken shawarma ($9.50). Shawarma refers to meat that’s been cooked for a good long time, sometimes up to an entire day. I am not sure what methods Olive Cafe uses, but the end result was mouth-watering. The sandwich is grilled chicken, garlic sauce, tahini sauce, lettuce, tomatoes and pickles wrapped in pita bread. All of these ingredients played a role in making it so tasty. Per usual, I initially thought I’d bring half back to the office for a late afternoon snack, but, of course, I ate the entire thing. Other options for shawarma on the Olive menu are beef, shrimp, falafel, haddock, fatoush (hummus), ya baba (baba ganoush) and Brussels sprouts. I pretty much want to try all of those, though I might pass on the fish.

But Olive Cafe isn’t just about shawarma. It has thin-crust pizzas ($13 to $16) with toppings including Brussels sprouts and baba ganoush (as well as chicken and beef shawarma). There are also four kinds of tacos ($9.50) and four kinds of salads ($9.50, including the Beirut, which is romaine lettuce, shredded carrots, tomatoes, fried cauliflower, garbanzo beans, toasted sesame seeds and tahini vinaigrette.

But what really jumped off the menu — and what I’ll be trying on my next trip to the Olive Cafe — is one of the plates ($13 to $17). They have six in all: Mediterranean, vegetarian, chicken kabob, lamb kabob, baked haddock and baked kibbi (shell of ground beef and cracked wheat stuffed with pine nuts, white onions and pomegranate syrup served with rice and toped with mint-cucumber yogurt). I’m all about the Mediterranean plate, which is hummus, falafel, tahini sauce, seasoned and fried cauliflower, house salad and fresh pita bread. Heck, yes.

My final thoughts on the Olive Cafe are about the atmosphere. It’s right in the heart of the Old Port but is a chill and unassuming spot with gloriously low lighting and kitchen chairs that are close to a version from my childhood. By the time I left, it was filling up, and I was glad to see that. Although it could be easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, the food is terrific and affordable.

OLIVE CAFE

WHERE: 127 Commercial St., Portland; 772-6200; olivecafeportland.com
HOURS: Open for lunch 11:30 to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, dinner 5:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 5:30 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
WAIT: Less than 10 minutes
PARKING: On the street
HANDICAPPED ACCESSIBLE: Yes

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