They are the old-fashioned neighborhood food shops that keep Portland livable in a good way–the cornerstones of Greater Portland’s environs on both sides of the bridge. Look at these four shops and see why.
Neighborhood food shops are virtually a thing of the past, yet Portland has held onto a few. These neighborhood stores are not relics, rather they’re critical to their communities and where residents get the basics like meat, produce, groceries and even baked goods and avoid the hassle of congested supermarket lots or glacial waits at check-out lines.
In the old days these markets often catered to the carriage trade where personal service was delivered with the broadest, most conciliatory smiles. But the advent of of stores like Whole Foods have become the mainstream’s nod to a different sort of elitism – the organic and natural foods movement.
Of course these other shops in other places have to compete with super chains like Whole Foods, Hannaford or convenience stores – the 7-11s and Cumberland Farms – that dot so many corners in cities nationwide.
What follows is a profile of Greater Portland’s most venerable neighborhood food shops.
Residents of Portland’s West End have shopped at the Fresh Approach Market on Brackett Street for years. The core of the shop is its meat market, and shoppers swear by the quality of the meats and especially the purity of its ground chuck for burgers. The meat market wholesales their meats to many restaurants in town as do the other markets surveyed here. They also make their own sausages and the store has a brisk following for their prepared foods like sandwiches and hot entrees. They also endeavor to buy, when possible, meats sourced in New England. Otherwise the meats are not organic but are natural (no hormones, etc.).
I found some curious items there reminiscent of an old-fashioned dry goods store: In separate containers you could scoop out as much as you need of corn meal, sugar, flour and bread crumbs, sort of like borrowing a cup of sugar. And the store stocks a treasure of the past, Aunt Jemima’s yellow cornmeal. I didn’t check on whether they have that 115-year-old smiley lady’s pancake mix but they probably do.
Before great big supermarket chains landed in their humongous parking lots, Smaha’s Legion Square Market has been in business in South Portland’s Knightville neighborhood since 1939. The stretch of retailers along the street house a disparate collection of shops: restaurants (Taco Trio for the best Mexican food), a US armed forces recruitment center, a lamp-repair shop, the new Farm Stand store and a building called the Transportation Center, a cute brick and glass structure that doesn’t seem to be either a bus or railroad station but a waiting room (usually empty) set in a small parking lot that also hosts the SP summer farmer’s market.
Smaha’s is a large market filled with standard grocery items, but the core here is also its butcher shop. The hamburger beef is chuck ground fresh every day on the premises and at the best price of any of the other butcher shops: $3.49 per pound (compared with $1 more elsewhere). Smaha’s also sells to restaurants, but it’s their local clientele who also support the operation. Orders are being taken now for holiday cuts of prime rib, a favorite, according to owner Allan Cardinal, who bought the store about 2 1/2 years ago.
Prices are good at Smaha’s, competitive with the buying power of large supermarket chains who generally undercut the small markets. I spotted, for example, a pound package of Kate’s Butter at $3.39 per pound where it’s generally fifty cents to a dollar more at the big chains.
You won’t be getting local meats or organic vegetables at Smaha’s, though certain things like potatoes are from Maine, and in season the store stocks all the fresh berries and vegetables from local farmers.
Of all of Portland’s neighborhoods, none is more family centric than Deering Center along Steven’s Avenue, the main retail corridor. It’s where the much admired Deering High School holds sway as well as a variety of family shops like Roy’s Shoe Shop and Siano’s, which does an admirable job of serving dishes that are a dead ringer for Italian American cuisine.
But the most important shop in the neighborhood is Pat’s Meat Market. In these days of nose-to-tail butchery and the organic posturing touting pastured meats that seem as precious as though they were raised by hand, Pat’s remains the all-time favorite butcher shop for a lot of Portlanders. It’s also where you can get veal bones for stock or osso buco, Canadian raised pork, which is richer and fattier than American feed-lot pork, and where such items as lamb shanks, capon, pheasant, partridge, duck and rabbit are available just for the asking.
On Mondays they sell their prepared meatloaf put into foil loaf pans and ready to bake; on Thursdays it’s chicken pot pie day, which is made by the kitchen upstairs at The Cafe at Pat’s Meat Market and on Fridays it’s their famous smoked ribs ready to go after 3 to 4 hours of cooking low and slow in the smoker.
The meats are not organic or local, though on occasion they do sell meats from area farmers. But it’s all expertly butchered and presented, a full panoply of beef, pork, lamb, veal and poultry. In other words it’s a full-scale custom meat shop. They also stock grocery essentials including the freshest looking produce of all the stores I visited. Deli meats, sandwiches and some prepared foods are available; and it’s a popular neighborhood place for lunch where regulars shoot the breeze over a sandwich or soup while sitting at high tops in the front of the store.
At Rosemont you can’t buy a roll of paper towels or personal toiletries, but otherwise the specialty food retailer can be an amazing shop selling local produce and dairy; house-baked breads and pastries; a great wine collection that’s well priced; specialty groceries, many of which are locally sourced and of course the farm meats from their large nose-to-tail butchery operation–the core of the store’s business. Every cut of meat has the farm’s name posted on a tag and as you’d expect, these exquisite cuts are costly, generally double the price of traditionally sourced meats.
Shoppers don’t go to Rosemont for bargain items but are rather willing to pay the price for the quality of the foodstuffs that are sold there. The meat market and locally sourced foods are central to the operation of the Brighton Avenue store, whereas their other shops in their growing chain have only a smattering of meats from the butcher. The Commercial Street store, however, has a newly installed butcher shop. A fifth store is set to open in 2015 at the West End Place luxury rental building in the works on the corner of Pine and Brackett streets, virtually the only new construction from the ground up in the West End in the last 100 years.
The butcher shop cures a lot of its own meats like bacon, salumi and other charcuterie. It’s where you go to get containers of freshly rendered lard, duck or goose fat. Steaks are dry aged and many specialty cuts typical of the New World of butchery like culotte and spider steaks are a feature of the shop. But as a specialty market focused on locally sourced foodstuffs, Rosemont is incomparable.
Smaha’s Legion Market, 101 Ocean Ave., South Portland, ME 207-799-3374