Here at Eater Maine, we've been celebrating cheap eats all week long. When my editor asked me to write about dining on only $10 for a day in Portland, I thought — as someone who likes to eat out and is cheap — I got choo, bae. But short of eating three Amato's Italians in a day (and even that's over budget), it turns out that making a day's meals out of the cheapest of eats in Maine's largest city is no easy task.
My first problem is that whenever I place myself on a budget, I immediately start wanting things that I have no business buying. Take out sushi! Kombucha as a refreshing pick-me-up! Cupcake cravings mid-afternoon! I'm surrounded by tasty, handcrafted treats in our foodie playground.
But before I begin the battle that is resisting the siren call of snacks, I need breakfast. A softball, I figure. But while options for breakfast sandwiches abound near my house on Munjoy Hill — the delicious egg and cheese on a biscuit at Hilltop Coffee; an egg, cheese and avocado sandwich at Katie Made Bakery; and even a Union Bagel, piled high with vegetables like I like it — were out of reach if I was going to make it to dinner.
My friend Alysia Zoidis, owner of East End Cupcakes, advised me to go for hearty when I discussed this challenge with her. Specifically, the breakfast bars, sold at her Fore Street shop, Bard Coffee, and Coffee By Design locations. They're dense squares of peanut butter, oats, sunflower seeds, and dried fruit, sweetened with agave. "They'll fill you up until lunch," she said. "You'll probably only be able to eat half." Challenge accepted.
8:28 a.m. At Bard, I order a breakfast bar ($2.75), holding my head high so as to avoid making eye contact with the pastry case. Several days before, I'd noted that Hilltop Coffee sells single shots of espresso for $1.50. I was hopeful I could get my morning caffeine fix in on this budget too. No such luck at Bard, where espresso is $2.50. Sigh. That's OK, I'm trying to cut back on caffeine anyway, I tell myself.
The breakfast bar is indeed dense and filling, but tasty enough that I don't feel like I'm being too deprived (but let's be honest, it does not adequately take the place of a sausage on a biscuit). I do feel a little bit like I'm preparing to hike the Appalachian Trail. Off to work we go. Dollars remaining: $7.25
11:45 a.m. The breakfast bar is still doing its job, and I feel pretty good about this whole thing. I'm coasting! (Note: it's been approximately two whole hours since I've last eaten.) I recruit a friend to head down to Kim's Gift Shop on St. John Street for its legendary, absurdly inexpensive banh mi sandwiches.
Kim's is indeed a gift shop (spoiler alert: you're all getting faux Louis Vuitton bags and Tommy Hilfiger t-shirts for Christmas), with a deli in the front. Several women behind the small counter make sandwiches with efficiency, assembling a choice of pork roll, pâté, jambon, or ham and cheese (not recommended) on a crusty roll with pickled carrots, thinly sliced onions, and a large sprig of cilantro. I go with pâté and jambon, having no idea what jambon is, but pumping my fist when I see it's the square ham reminiscent of an Italian.
Our laughably cheap sandwiches secured ($3.50 for all types, except the "combination" where you'll have to drop an extra dollar), we head back to the yard to enjoy lunch al fresco. Filling a glass of water in my friend's apartment, I absentmindedly pluck two cherries from the fruit bowl. Oops, did I just blow the challenge?
Kim's bahn mi is a great budget eat — it's different enough that you feel like you're getting something special, but at under $5 for a footlong sandwich, it has to be one of the cheapest in Portland. Dollars remaining: $3.75
3:37 p.m. Afternoon hunger sets in. Exchange emails with editor complaining; he compares me to Chris Farley in his Gap Girls SNL skit (LAY OFF ME, I'M STARVING) and warns me not to choke anyone out. I'm not sure I can make that promise.
4:35 p.m. Head back into Portland from work, my commute takes me past THREE ice cream stands. Can I safely run the gauntlet of delicious frozen, sweetened dairy products??
5:07 p.m. Usually when I get home from work, I hit the cheese and crackers hard. I consider happy hour (alcoholic beverages are blessedly exempt from this challenge), specifically one that includes free food like bacon and cheese at Bull Feeney's or at The Corner Room or Boone's Fish House & Oyster Room, where the spread is abundant. Decide instead to conserve energy and focus efforts on securing dinner for less than $3.75.
5:26 p.m. Trolling Facebook for restaurant specials, I realize it's Tuesday. I'm in luck! Taco Tuesday specials abound. I have my pick of Mexican restaurants in Portland — Taco Escobarr, El Rayo, Margarita's — so I go with my favorite, Hella Good Tacos.
Hella Good's tacos are pretty cheap as it is, at $2.49 for your choice of meat or veggies or $3.49 for seafood (fish or shrimp). The corn tortillas come overflowing with filling, so I'm hoping only one will be enough to satiate me. Usually I order two and make it a plate by adding rice and beans for $6.99.
Taco Tuesday at Hella Good reduces the cost of a taco to $2.16. Bargain! But I'm still stuck ordering only one. My salvation? Free chips and salsa. I could make an entire meal out of the offerings on the salsa bar.
At the register, I hand over $3, resisting the urge to explain why I'm only ordering one taco, while others around me gorge on huge burritos and a torta the size of a child's head. I pocket my handful of change, together with my remaining $.75 leaving me $1.59.
I text my editor, triumphant: I still have a dollar left over. That I avoided subsisting on low-quality sandwiches all day is a particular victory. That is, until I realize that my remaining $1.59 would have definitely gotten me an espresso at Hilltop Coffee that morning. Consider getting espresso at 7 p.m., just for spite, but decide sacrificing a night of sleep isn't worth it.
Total spent: $8.41
Green things consumed: several servings of cilantro
Impromptu ice cream purchases: 0
Lesson learned: Head off peninsula (or at the very least look outside the Old Port) for deals; throw caution to the wind and order the damn espresso.