When King of the Roll opened on the corner of Congress and State streets in 2005, diners in Portland had never heard of Masa Miyake and the word ramen likely would have conjured up an image of a plastic orange package.
The place next door was called Bangkok Thai, whose closure a couple years later was met with skepticism as so-called street food was set to replace its menu of more familiar Thai dishes.
But Boda quickly put all that in the past, and, with Pai Men Miyake across the street and Ramen Suzukiya up the hill, Portland is now a two-ramen-restaurant town. Miyake has become synonymous with sushi royalty in this city, yet King of the Roll still stands, right in the heart of hipness, in Longfellow Square.
It’s nice to know, just as duck gravy poutine hasn’t eradicated the french fry or brown butter lobster rolls made null the mayonnaise kind, a regular old sushi restaurant still has its place in Portland. In benefit-cost ratio, its lunch menu is hard to beat. The options are abundant, all under $14 and many under $8. Lunch entrees include teriyaki, tempura and katsu dishes featuring various proteins and served with miso soup, salad and steamed rice, starting at $8.95. There’s donburi (rice bowls with scrambled egg and protein, $7.95), two- and three-roll lunches ($9 and $12), yaki udon or soba (stir-fried noodles with vegetables, $7.95 to $10.95) and, yes, even ramen.
For a good sampling of what the restaurant has to offer, I got the bento lunch special ($8.95), which includes two of about 20 options (about half from the lunch entrees and half from the rolls), along with miso soup, salad, steamed rice and daily fruit.
Most of the rolls are simple, with only a single fish or a vegetable, so I chose the California roll, for the variety of its insides, and the tonkatsu (breaded and fried pork), because that’s what I think of when I think of a bento box.
I sat on the patio, a cement slab with folding chairs and nylon tablecloths in spitting distance of the traffic sitting at the stoplight on State Street. Not exactly an urban oasis, but, on a nice day, it was a welcome alternative to the dark dining room.
The miso soup came in seconds, along with a tiny complimentary cucumber salad that jogged my memory of visits there years ago, when I thought I was special for getting that bite on the house. With sesame seeds and shards of crab meat in a vinegar dressing, it was just as good knowing otherwise.
The soup was mostly broth with small bits of tofu and seaweed, but perfectly satisfactory. As I was finishing it, my meal arrived.
The tonkatsu was fried a little more heavily than I prefer but wasn’t too greasy. The roll was soft and almost melted in my mouth, including the nori, which I often find too chewy, even at fancy sushi restaurants.
The simple iceberg salad with shreds of carrot and a slice of tomato was lightly coated with a creamy homemade sesame dressing, some of which spilled onto a slice of watermelon resting on top. The watermelon served as a nice little dessert, though others are available, including ginger and green tea ice creams (plain for $3.50, fried for $4.95).
The mound of steamed white rice seemed unnecessary and, next time, I’d probably ask to hold it in favor of giving my fruit its own compartment. Actually, next time, I’ll probably try something new.
With all the restaurants that have popped up in Portland, I had forgotten about King of the Roll, but this meal was reminder of what I was missing.
WHERE: 675 Congress St. Portland, 828-8880 and on Facebook
HOURS: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 4:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4:30-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
WAIT: Less than 10 minutes
PARKING: On street
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes