Everyone knows Portland is a foodie town. Bon Appetit Magazine said it and so did the New York Times. A stroll around the Old Port shows there are as many restaurants as there are shops. It’s easy to get lost in the seemingly monthly openings and closings on the scene — and it’s not easy to know where to go for a really good meal. In particular, the casual diner might not know that you could, conceivably, try a huge wealth of world cuisines, all within walking distance of each other, all with their own takes on the food of the countries and regions they’re inspired by. You could start in Cuba or Brazil, then hit up Mexico, make your way to France, Italy, and Greece, hop down to northern Africa and then eat your way across Thailand, Vietnam and Japan. Sounds delicious. Luckily, you can give that a shot right here in Maine.
Caribbean/South American: Sonny’s, 83 Exchange St.
One nice thing about Sonny’s is that on their lunch menu, served from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, they serve a Cubano sandwich ($10), a creative take on a Caribbean classic featuring thinly sliced roast pork, pork belly, ham, swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. Not a lot of places in Maine have Cubanos (though Hot Suppa on Congress Street does, too) and that’s a shame. Another nice thing is that they have an array of appetizers ($5-$13) inspired by the cuisine of both the Caribbean and South America such as fried plantains, ceviche and yam fries. The main dishes, such as tortilla pie and beef brisket enchiladas, are also tasty ($17-$22). And weekend brunch offers arepas — traditional corn fried flatbreads — topped with pork belly, fried eggs and cheddar.
Eritrean: Asmara, 51 Oak St.
As with Ethiopian food, Eritrean food is served with the traditional injera, a light, pancake-like flatbread that is the instrument with which the eater picks up his or her food. At the family-owned Asmara (established 2004), you can grab on and dig into the variety of dishes, which could be anything from a rich lamb stew to okra- and pepper-heavy vegetarian dishes. It’s hearty, very spicy and a different experience for Western palates — and affordable to boot, with main dishes hovering around $12, and appetizers, including fried cauliflower, at around $6.
French: Petite Jacqueline, 190 State St.
Portland’s only exclusively French restaurant serves up French fare in a modern-looking dining room. Escargot, soup a l’oignon (French onion soup, of course) and foie gras are on the menu, as well as more country-style French dishes such as Coq au Vin and some Maine-inspired treats such as Lobster en Papillote (steamed in paper). On Wednesdays, they make Cassoulet and on Sundays, Steak au Poivre, among other daily specials. The fresh-baked baguette comes in a cute little paper bag. It’s very French and very good. Soup, salads and small plates range from $4 to $13; entrees are $17-$26.
Greek: Emilitsa, 547 Congress St.
They call it “rustic Greek fare,” but Emilitsa takes Mediterranean classics to another level. Dishes like Moussaka — as traditional as it gets — are given an elegant spin. The spanikopita is almost impossibly flaky. The lamb and fish offerings are simple but perfectly seasoned and cooked. No tough hunks of meat or overdone fish here; instead, just olive oil, or lemon, or parsley, or yogurt and cucumber. There’s a reason it has been nominated for several James Beard Awards. It’s not a cheap date — expect to spend around $100 for two people — but it’s worth it. It’s definitely worth it.
Italian: Bresca, 111 Middle St.
This tiny, intimate restaurant has been wowing Portland diners since 2007. And with good reason: it’s truly excellent. The small, local menu is light-years from the Italian food you likely know. Start with the chorizo and gorgonzola stuffed dates ($8) and try to refrain from ordering more. Give the Braised Tuscan Black Kale ($12) a try. Or treat yourself to the Red Wine Marinated Flank Steak with black truffle butter, caramelized Brussels sprouts, mushrooms and creamy polenta ($28). Chef Krista Kern Desjarlais was a finalist for Best Chef Northeast for the James Beard Awards last year. It shows.
Mexican: El Rayo Taqueria, 101 York St.
You can spend any amount of money you want on dinner, but sometimes, it’s nice to show up at a restaurant with 15 bucks and get really good food that’s fast and affordable and still be able to leave a good tip. That’s El Rayo Taqueria, in a nutshell. Tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and an assortment of salads and rice bowls are offered, as well as good margaritas and Mexican beer and delightful little appetizers such as smoky potato fritters, Mexican-style corn on the cob and grilled pineapple. In the summer, you might have to wait to be able to sit outside on the patio, a popular afternoon watering hole. For your money and your taste buds, El Rayo can’t be beat.
Japanese: Miyake or Pai Men Miyake, 468 Fore St. and 188 State St.
Masa Miyake’s Japanese restaurants started with the eponymous Miyake, which began as a tiny hole-in-the-wall before moving to Fore Street. For the freshest, most creative sushi in Portland, it’s certainly the place to go, from Miyake’s custom rolls to expertly prepared steak and chicken. Yes, you can get Kobe beef. Yes, it’s pricey — but you’ll remember how good it was. Alternately, for a faster, more affordable meal, try his other restaurant, Pai Men Miyake, a noodle shop serving up hearty, satisfying ramen bowls ($10-$14), along with melt-in-your-mouth pork buns and grilled Yakitori-style skewers. Either restaurant is a treat.
Thai: Boda, 671 Congress St.
Boda takes Thai food in Maine to a new level. If you’re expecting to get curry crab rangoon and the standard coconut-based curries, look elsewhere; instead, try dishes such as the savory Pork Hocks Braised in Star Anise, or Mama’s Fried Chicken, served with sticky rice and green papaya salad. Or the many small plates and grilled items such as delicate crispy quail and impossible-to-resist Ma Hor (pork, shrimp, peanut and pineapple). It will make you think differently about the Thai food you’ve had before. They serve the tapas menu late, too. Boda offers tapas ($3-$9), grill items ($3-$8) and entrees ($12-$19).
Vietnamese: Saigon Restaurant, 795 Forest Ave.
There are a couple of Vietnamese restaurants, but for the most famous dish from that Southeast Asian country, the pho just can’t be beat at Saigon. Why? Well, they just do it right: a savory broth with hints of ginger and cardamom and all the usual good stuff that’s added to the bowl: al dente noodles, tender meat and crisp toppings. Of course, there’s other stuff there such as traditional pork dishes, wonderful spring rolls and, at lunch, the Banh Mi sandwich, a Vietnamese delicacy if there ever was one. It’s very affordable — you can definitely get away with a meal that’s under $10 for lunch and under $20 for dinner. And you can get pho for brunch, too, as they open at 9 a.m.