HOT STUFF WITHIN Locate an attractive interior and scrumptious grilled cheese at Maps.
Because music is now basically free (thanks to torrents, Pandoras, Spotifies, etc.), the only way for musicians to make money is through constant touring and related merchandise sales. Or they can appear as a judge on The Voice. Food, on the other hand, will still cost ya, and is getting less free all the time as Governor LePage puts diabolical new restrictions on our Supplemental Nutrition Benefit Cards. But nonetheless food culture imitates the worst trends in pop-music—with the chef-as-celebrity, style and spectacle over substance, and even the meal as merchandise—an “experience” to own and show off, usually in the form of a post on some website or other.
So you might expect the worst from a new Old Port grilled-cheese and wine/beer spot run by two music industry folks—one of Lady Gaga’s handlers and a Mumford and Sons merchandise guy, no less. But instead, their Maps Café, tucked away in a downstairs space on Market St., is the rarest of things in today’s Portland food scene: a genuine pleasant surprise. There was no Kickstarter, no big PR push, no pop-up tie-ins, no menu or remodel plans leaked to Portland Food Map. Owners Vikki and Kyle went low-key. The Munjoy Hill News broke the Gaga connection. Nice scoop, MHN.
So these aren’t foodie/craft-cocktail hypesters, and they aren’t too hipster either, despite the music gigs (though Kyle did hustle about on a recent evening in some tight red pants). The décor, heavy on maps and globes, flirts with kitschy to eventually charm. Dark wainscoting and slate-gray inlaid tile emphasize the cozy quality of the downstairs space. There is an eclectic mix of seating—from little tables, to vinyl rocking chairs, with a two-seat leather bar in the corner to supplement the main bar—but it all fits together into a warm and casual atmosphere. Vikki and Kyle seem warm and laid back as well.
A focus on grilled cheese sandwiches might sound like a gimmick, like Lady Gaga’s new duets album with Tony Bennett. But the sandwiches, at least, are a great idea in practice—a way to send something both interesting and satisfying out of what must be a miniscule kitchen.
The sandwiches come on thick slices of Portuguese bread—which gets dense and chewy enough in grilling to stand up to the melted cheese. This style of bread is a touch sweet—often made with honey—and the sandwiches play up that quality even as the grill’s sear fights it.
The English sandwich, made with aged cheddar and provolone, was sweetened by a roasted garlic jam and sharpened by some red onion. The cheese had a soft oozy quality. Another sandwich, the Blue, combined its namesake cheese with mozzarella, which gave the melted result a more clingy-gooey nature. Diced red onion and a Maine blueberry chutney combined for a subtler sweetness and a somehow mustardy flavor. The sandwiches have a great look with their grilled browns and tans, and a satisfying heft.
They make for great food to go with drinks, and the bar serves a nice selection of beers on tap—in two sizes and reasonably priced. The mild bitter of a pint of Bissell Brothers Substance Ale went well with the sweetness of the sandwiches. Wines are by the glass and mostly $7.