North Star Café
225 Congress St., Portland
It’s hard not to like the North Star Café. Arriving as it did at the end of a long, weird winter, the North Star cozied right up to The Snug at the bottom of Munjoy Hill and opened its doors on a city looking for reasons to cheer up. As their early success has shown, there are lots of reasons here.
For example, the food is excellent. Owners Anna Maria Tocci and Kim Anderson have worked closely with their food manager, Tamara Torres McGovern, to provide healthy, organic sandwiches, salads, and soups at a reasonable cost.
The North Star’s hours are ambitious – 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays, and open later on weekends to accommodate musical acts — but they reflect the owners’ desire to become part of the community. The establishment draws early-morning commuters in need of coffee and bagels, the local lunch crowd, and nightlifers seeking beers and live entertainment (the café’s stage hosts folkies, poets, bands and DJs alike). This new neighborhood place has something for everyone.
When I visited the café a few days after it opened, Torres McGovern led me to the dry goods storage area, where containers of organic grains and cereals are stacked in a small space behind a bright curtain. “We do organic as much as we can,” she said. “Where our food comes from is incredibly important to us.”
Their ideals are as lofty as the stars that lend their names to the sandwiches, but taste is important, too. When the two come together, the effect is doubly satisfying.
On my first visit, I ordered the Cassiopia (sic; $6.50), a curried chicken salad with raisins and walnuts on toasted, seven-grain bread. Every sandwich comes with a small salad of mixed spring greens and sliced tomato with a sweet balsamic vinaigrette.
Before committing to buy meat and eggs, Torres McGovern and the owners visited Mainely Poultry to check out the chickens’ living conditions. I’m glad they did – the chunks of chicken in the sandwich are moist and flavorful. The curry is balanced perfectly by the occasional sweetness of a raisin or the crunch of a walnut, and a layer of spring greens kept the bread from getting too soggy.
My dining partner ordered the Virgo ($6.50), a tomato, mozzarella and pesto sandwich, and requested it on spelt bread. The bright pesto and the creamy mozzarella worked together to create an incredibly fresh-tasting sandwich. After the first bite, it never hit the plate again.
The Dorado ($6.50) combines yellow-fin tuna, capers, and spring greens, and is notable for its judicious use of red onions — just enough to impart the flavor, but not so much that I had dragon breath for the rest of the day.
The menu accommodates all manner of food needs: there are several vegan and vegetarian sandwiches, and all the sandwiches are available on gluten-free bread or as salads. There is also a daily, homemade soup ($3 for a small bowl, $4.50 for a larger portion) and a bowl of rice and beans ($4 for a generous serving; a little extra for cheese and sour cream). The sweets are from the neighborhood bakery 2 Fat Cats. I highly recommend the whoopie pie and the energy bar.
The North Star Café offers the standard coffeehouse varieties of espresso drinks and tea, and their regular drip coffee (from Jim’s Organic Coffee) is strong and flavorful ($1.50 for a small cup). There’s also a small selection of natural sodas and juices, local and regional beers on tap (including Sebago, Smuttynose, Allagash, and Belfast Bay Brewing Co.), and wine by the glass.
The service is informal: food is ordered at the counter and then carried by counter staff to whichever table, couch or chair you choose; dirty plates and cups are bussed by the customers. A local photography exhibit graced the pumpkin-colored walls during my visits (the shows change monthly). There’s free Wi-Fi Internet access and a designated kids’ area with seating for grown-ups nearby.
If there’s a drawback to this café, it’s that regardless of my best intentions and busy schedule, I end up staying much longer than I mean to – I keep bumping into people I know. But, after all, that’s the point of a good neighborhood place. The North Star Café is already well on its way to becoming a Munjoy Hill institution.
— Jen Hodsdon