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Cheap eats in Maine's culinary capital

13 ways to experience Portland’s great restaurants for less
By KATE MCCARTY  |  September 19, 2014

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The Lightning Smokestack burger at Small Axe Food Truck

Welcome to college in the big city! Aside from the chilling cold seven months out of the year, Portland is a great place to spend a few years pretending to study. The Forest City’s culinary options stretch before you like so many oyster varieties at the hippest new raw bar. There’s duck liver crostini! Truffled mac and cheese! Three-pound porterhouse steak! Wood-oven roasted mussels! But after a trip to the campus bookstore, the annual pilgrimage to Target, and let’s not even mention that first tuition installment, your bank account balance is starting to look mighty paltry in the face of anything truffled or sous vide. So here’s 13 options that will satisfy your inner foodie without causing you to decide between the omakase and your Econ text book.

El Rayo’s rice and bean bowls
This festive Mexican restaurant, set in a refurbished gas station, offers many affordable dishes packed with the tangy, salty, spicy flavors of the cuisine. You could snack on the Mexico City-style street corn on the cob, coated with chipotle mayonnaise and dusted with cotija cheese ($4.95). The fried plantains ($5.95), fundido (chorizo cheese dip with corn chips, $5.95), and nachos ($4.25) all call to the budget diner. But go for an oft-overlooked option: the rice and bean bowls with grilled fish, steak, vegetables, or mushrooms ($8.95-$9.75). Piled high with fresh toppings like shredded lettuce, sliced radishes, and cilantro, these rice bowls leave you feeling virtuously full in a way nachos never could.

El Rayo Taqueria, 101 York St. | elrayotaqueria.com

Blue Rooster Food Co.
Chef/owner Damian Sansonetti sports an impressive culinary resume from the kitchen of his high-end Italian restaurant Piccolo. Sample the talented chefs’ cheaper offerings at his casual sandwich shop Blue Rooster Food Co. Blue Rooster offers “lowbrow” foods like bacon-wrapped hot dogs and tater tots, made with creative twists and high-quality ingredients. Tot standouts include Buffalo Hot Tots ($6.50), smothered in hot sauce and blue cheese, topped with fried celery root and carrot, and the Early Bird ($6.50), where a bed of fried potatoes supports bacon, a drizzle of maple mayo, hot sauce, and a fried egg. Note: Blue Rooster is one of few late night dining options in the city (open until 2 am Thursday through Saturday).

Blue Rooster Food Co., 5 Dana St. | blueroosterfood company.com

Kamasouptra
All of the vendors in Monument Square’s Portland Public Market offer quick and affordable meal options. But Kamasouptra’s soups are hearty, creatively flavored, and surprisingly filling. A $5 cup of soup comes with a fist-sized whole wheat roll to complete the meal. Try the rich grilled cheese and tomato soup, refreshing gazpacho, or kicky jalapeño beer and cheddar. A variety of gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan soups are always available. Should you find yourself needing fuel for back-to-school shopping while you’re at the Maine Mall, Kamasouptra’s second location in the food court is your best option.

Kamasouptra, 28 Monument Way | kamasouptra.com

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The hand slab at Slab

$1 oysters at Hot Suppa
Between Eventide Oyster Co., Boone’s Oyster House and Fish Room, and J’s Oyster Bar, there’s no shortage of fine places to enjoy a wide variety of bivalves from Maine and away. But the pleasure of slurping down a dozen or two often comes with a hefty price tag. Not so at Hot Suppa, the Cajun-themed West End restaurant, best known for its stellar brunch (and corresponding long waits). Their happy hour (Tuesday through Saturday, 4-6 pm) offers $1 oysters and $4-6 bar snacks, like wings, poutine, and fried calamari. If you’re old enough to enjoy the $1-off beers and house cocktails, even better.

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ARTICLES BY KATE MCCARTY
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