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John Golden

John Golden writes about food and has a highly opinionated blog, The Golden Dish.

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Posted: April 4, 2014

Ruski’s Tavern: A hungry man’s lament

Written by: John Golden

Some restaurants are better left to their own devices. Consider Ruski’s Tavern, a rosy star of Portland’s dive bar constellation. Beer, booze, broads, burgers, maybe a local brawl or two and the obligatory game of darts add up to some lively local cohabiting there.  But go beyond its gustatory norm  and you could wind up in unchartered territory especially if you venture past the bar’s basic grub menu.

I’ve gone to Ruski’s for years for their burgers, which I think are one of the best in town.  At $6.95 per plate with fries and slaw you can’t beat the price.  The burger is a thick half-pound patty of good beef, charred just right, and the accompanying sides are decent.  Add some onion rings and you’re in high-caloric deep-fry heaven. 

But I’ve long been curious about their specials board, which often presents home style dishes like baked pork chops or Yankee pot roast.  And with that in mind I convinced a friend to join me  there for dinner last Friday night to delve deeper into this kitchen’s (perhaps) darker side.

That was a mistake.  The specials board didn’t have those fabled pork chops or anything else worthy on the list.  And our waiter was about as helpful as a boa constrictor.

We were there on the early side of the cocktail-dinner hour, such as it is there, and the small room hadn’t gotten hysterically noisy yet as it would later. Ruski’s all-night happy hour can go into the wee hours.

There wasn’t much on the board for good eats that evening except for a fried clam platter. Was I expecting to find Tasmanian sea trout on the list?

My pal, a fussy eater, settled on a hamburger.  I chose the fried clams.  (For this, I thought, I went to Ruski’s?)

We also figured we might as well order some onions rings.  We got our drinks—beer for my bud and vodka rocks for me (I eventually switched to a supercilious glass of Diet Coke.)

The basket of onion rings was huge–at least 100 deep, which we polished off ridiculously fast.

As I said the place wasn’t busy and our food came out quickly.  The hamburger platter looked like it always does: a basic bun sandwiching a hefty chunk of beef and the obligatory fries and slaw.

But my fried clams were just strips, which to a fried clam lover is sacrilege not to have the whole thing–belly, bod and all. 

Strips should be banned from the deep fryer anyway.   It’s half the clam and the least interesting part.   The batter might as well have been filled with bread cubes; there was no discernible clam flavor whatsoever.  I reluctantly finished them off because I was hungry.

My friend was not happy with his burger, however.  He chided the kitchen’s choice of roll, which he said was ordinary and too small. And he was not impressed with the burger itself. This, by the way, was commentary coming from someone who is in the throes of opening a casual grill restaurant soon so I suspect he was extra critical.

We finished our meal quickly, feeling fairly unsatisfied.  We decided to go somewhere for dessert and   crossed the bridge and wound up at the iconic Red’s Dairy Freeze, which loomed like a beacon in the eyes of two hungry men.

 Ruski’s Tavern, 212 Danforth Street, Portland, ME 207-774-7604

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