The Breakfast Serial

photo/Dan Zarin
photo/Dan Zarin

Local Sprouts Café
649 Congress St., Portland

Portland’s a great town for breakfast. Be it healthy, greasy or gourmet; down-home, deep-fried, fresh or frozen; friendly, freaky, homey or hippie; meaty, tasty or downright nasty — you name it, you can find it here. That’s a good thing, but it means it’s also impossible to break new ground.

At least that’s what I thought before I visited Local Sprouts Café. Turns out there’s at least one culinary approach to the day’s first meal that I hadn’t experienced: communist.

Now, back off, Senator McCarthy. Some of my best friends are commies. (In fact, one of them once ran for Congress against Nancy Pelosi, but that’s a story for another day.) And we’re not talking hammer-and-sickle, capital “c” Communism. This is the lowercase kind, where the workers have input into how the restaurant is run and a direct stake in its success.

The Local Sprouts Cooperative began in 2007 as a worker-owned food co-op. They started the East Coast’s first “community supported kitchen” a year later, offering members a weekly menu prepared from fresh, local ingredients. The newly opened café is the natural extension of the LSC’s mission: “to provide people in Maine with creative local and organic food and holistic learning through cooking food for our community.”

Co-op members get credits they can use at the café, but it’s open to the public, too. My wife, our six-year-old and I drank in the atmosphere as we entered on a Saturday morning. The funky décor (dominated by an enormous earthen booth in the center of the dining area) made it clear this place is not an ordinary eatery.

We read with interest the list of Maine farms where Local Sprouts gets its ingredients: Turkey Hill Farm, Sumner Valley Farm, Sonnental Dairy, and more than a dozen others. After choosing a table, we scanned the chalkboard menu and walked over to place our order (counter service keeps the vibe casual and the labor costs low, comrade).

The coffee — fair trade, of course — was a little strong for my taste,  but hot and fresh, served in our choice of large, mismatched mugs. While my wife and I sipped our morning brew, our daughter checked out the play kitchen in the kids’ area. Hunger eventually drew her back to the table just as our food was arriving.

My wife and I both chose from a decent selection of breakfast sandwiches ($3 to $4.75) served on English muffins with herb butter. The muffins, like most baked goods at Local Sprouts, come from the Bomb Diggity Bakery, which shares kitchen space with the café and doubles as a development program for adults with “intellectual disabilities.”

My sandwich, filled with egg, pesto, roasted tomatoes, and goat cheese, was exceptionally flavorful. The muffin was thick and slightly doughy, and the juicy tomatoes made the whole thing awfully messy to eat. I added a small side order of homefries for a dollar more, and found them nicely crisped but a bit too bland.

The egg, wild mushroom, Swiss and spinach sandwich on my wife’s plate was a better choice. The combination of earthy flavors melded perfectly, and her English muffin was thinner and expertly grilled. On the side, she opted for veggie homefries (large order, $4) and thoroughly enjoyed the medley of seasonal vegetables mixed in with the potatoes.

Suckers for cold soup on a hot day, we decided to share a bowl of rhubarb gazpacho from the dinner menu ($3.50/cup, $5/bowl). Tart and just a little spicy, it would have been great … if both of us didn’t detest cilantro with every fiber of our being (strong aversion to the herb is said to be a genetic disposition). We brought the leftovers to a friend with a different chromosomal sequence and she absolutely loved it. Next time, I’ll ask first.

My daughter ordered a stack of ployes ($5), Acadian-style buckwheat pancakes served just as nature intended — with real, local maple syrup, at no extra charge (take that, capitalism!). For just 75 cents more she received a healthy scoop of delicious strawberry rhubarb sauce on top. Overall, hers was the best meal of the morning (“I don’t like it, I adore it,” she said). I was lucky to get a single bite before she cleaned her plate.

There are breakfasts out there that are bigger or fancier, but for fresh, local and organic food at prices on par with fast food and greasy spoons, there’s nothing even close to Local Sprouts Café around here. Leave your politics at the door and dig right in.

— Dan Zarin

Local Sprouts Café serves breakfast Monday-Friday from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m, Saturday 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Lunch and dinner hours and menus can be found at

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