Location: 186 Brighton Avenue
Notes: As has been mentioned on these pages, I have a soft spot in my heart for “Rib-b-cue” sandwiches, those unholy combinations of pre-formed, highly-processed rib meat portions that have only the thinnest relationship to barbecue, and even less of a relationship with pork. These warm memories stem mostly from a few high school years spent bumming around Port Clyde, eating this sandwich on the dock in the hot Summer sun with friends I have had ever since.
It was the occasional, improbable but unrelenting craving for this pork-McNugget sandwich that finally led me to try “Punky’s,” on Brighton Avenue. After living in Portland for almost a year, I admit to having been put off by Punky’s. I’m not sure if it was the big handpainted shining sun on the logo, or the signage advertising Punky’s focus on “fried foods,” but the whole presentation combined into some sort of stoner-vibe that I didn’t find particularly appealing, imagined or no.
How delighted I was, then, to actually finally visit Punky’s, where I found the kind of Portland fast food restaurant that I love: A few steam tables selling daily $5-a-scoop hot casseroles, like American Chop Suey, potatoes au gratin, and something called, “Mexican Casserole,” a few faded, red-Formica tables in the back, and an enormous selection of locally-made whoopie pies, cookies, and fruit bars. There’s a full complement of beer and wine, and a menu that stretches on for days, covering every possible classic Portland lunchtime option: ham Italians, bacon & egg sandwiches built on real bulky rolls, fried chicken, roll-ups, and hot sandwiches, including meatball and chicken Parmesan. After covering the basics, Punky’s sticks a toe out into some new territory, offering huge burritos and the Punky’s “classic” hero: a Thanksgiving hero with fresh roasted turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce on a roll, using Punky’s own in-house roasted turkey that they make fresh every single day. There’s also a “haddock roll-up,” a cold sandwich with fried haddock, lettuce, and tartar sauce.
I visited Punky’s for one thing, though: A BBQ Rib sandwich. Not a “pulled pork” sandwich. Not a “Barbecue” sandwich. I craved something different, something a little lowbrow, but filling, and delicious. The half BBQ Rib sandwich ($4.25) delivered perfectly on that level. I was a little surprised to hear the kid behind the counter ask what I wanted on it, assuming that it would come already prepared in a specific way. Stumbling, I asked for onion and mozzarella cheese, the ingredients I remembered from these types of sandwiches in the past.
I was delighted to find the exact pre-formed “rib” portion of my memory, complete with molded “bone” shapes, though the sandwich obviously contains no bones. It seems Punky’s even thought to put an extra char on the outside of the rib patty, blackening and caramelizing the sweet barbecue sauce and adding to the sandwiches gloriously inauthentic quality. At first, I suspected way, way too many onions had been used, but the proportions were good: the raw crunch of the white sliced onions complimented the thick, rich bottled barbecue sauce. The whole thing was stacked on a reasonably-sized half of a hero roll, that was chewy and satisfying, with a very faint, slight crust on the outside.
The only choice that was a little peculiar was in the mozzarella: I expected the grated cheese to be crumbled on top of the sandwich and then browned in the oven; instead, the cheese was put on first, with the idea that the heat from the barbecue rib would be sufficient to melt the cheese. It wasn’t, leaving a ribbon of cold, grated cheese underneath the rest of the sandwich. It was an odd move, but now that I know it is the norm, I can modify my ordering to more specifically request some post-assembly browning.
Punky’s is, in many ways, often exactly what I am looking for when I am choosing a lunch spot in Portland. It has delicious versions of enough of Maine’s lunchtime staples that I know I will find something I want. And when I’m looking for something a little more complicated, I know Punky’s will deliver on a giant burrito, a homemade dish that I hadn’t even thought of, or on an inventive sandwich. It’s the kind of place you see scattered through almost every town in Maine, regardless of size. It falls somewhere in-between a general store and an independent fast-food restaurant, where the food is good, fast, inexpensive, and served with zero pretension. It’s the kind of place you go when you want a sandwich, not an “experience,” and sometimes, that’s just fine by me.