It’s Maine Restaurant Week (Week and a Half, really) this month, a time when thousands of diners prowl the streets hunting for great meals at a good deal. If you’re looking for a lunch that meets that criteria and then some, put down your Restaurant Week brochure and look no further than Commercial Street Pub.
Commercial Street Pub? Yes, that Commercial Street Pub, the Old Port bar once considered one of the Three Doors of Death. That’s ancient history now, to the extent the moniker ever really fit. The pub attracts a working-class clientele, but it’s never had tolerance for bad actors (as the long list on the wall of characters barred from the establishment attests).
It’s a small, squarish establishment with a pool table and nine TVs tuned to seemingly every major sporting event happening on the planet. The bartenders and regulars are friendly, and you can usually find owner John Guinn among them.
The pub serves lunch weekdays from 11 a.m. till 4 o’clock or so. As expected, you can get a hot dog or a hamburger or a grilled cheese sandwich. But there are other items on the chalkboard that’ll make you do a double-take. Slow-roasted beef short ribs au jus with buttered potato and horseradish ($10). Grilled center-cut pork chop with Madeira sauce ($10). Veal Cordon Bleu with lemon caper sauce ($10). Seared turkey confit with vegetable rice pilaf and French lentils ($9).
Turkey fuckin’ confit? And for nine bucks? The only thing more ridiculous than the price and the fact this kind of food is available here in the first place is the taste — off the charts delicious.
The man in the kitchen is Mel Allex, a 50-year-old Peaks Islander with 33 years of culinary experience. Originally from New Jersey, Allex attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and was trained in the art of classical French cuisine. Before Guinn brought him to the pub about a year ago, Allex was cooking at Cinque Terre, the classy Italian restaurant on Wharf Street.
Despite his professional cred, Allex takes a no-bullshit approach to his craft. “I look at it as a trade,” he said. “I’m not a chest-pounding kind of chef. I’m a kitchen kommando.”
You can get a salad at the pub, but meat’s the main attraction (a steak salad with “choke hearts” and blue cheese costs $10). A lot of the meat comes from Smaha’s in South Portland. It’s not necessarily organic or all-natural — it couldn’t be as affordable if it was — but Allex makes the most of it, coaxing flavors out and adding others. The beef short rib I had for lunch had a dry rub on it for 24 hours, then it was seared with white wine and bay leaf and slow-cooked for five-and-a-half hours after that.
The portions are big. The pork chop is an inch-and-a-half thick. Allex said one customer ordered the chop 20 days in a row, stopping only for Lent (or maybe doctor’s orders).
“I’m making real food,” said Allex. “I think about it 24/7.” In addition to the meat dishes, Allex makes breads and desserts, though these aren’t on the pub’s menu. He can butcher with the best of ’em. Given a pig, he’ll make use of “everything but the oink.” Depending on the season or Allex’s inspiration, house-made schnitzels and sausages and seafood dishes show up on the chalkboard.
There’s only one way to find out what he’s cooking from day to day: stop in, take a seat and prepare to be amazed.
— Chris Busby