Location: 437 Congress Street, Portland
Notes: Specializing in something called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Sandwiches,” a sub-designation of the sandwich world fully understood only by owner Mike Fink himself, Mike’s Rock Deli pays homage to rock music, with combination sandwiches named after local bands, and concert posters covering the walls. The shop is one part sandwich emporium, and one part promotional venue for local acts, whose tiny band flyers wallpaper the front of the restaurant, large enough to contain only a few stools to perch and have lunch.
While the shop offers plenty of exotic hot sandwich varieties, including “The King Memphis” (BBQ pulled pork on a roll with bacon) and something called, “The Big Meathammer” (a meatball parmesan sub), I opted for something more classic: The Geno’s Italian. Made of the kind of gigantic hero roll specific to the Northeast, which is soft, pillowy, and almost like more of a giant hot dog bun than an actual sandwich loaf, the sandwich was piled high with ingredients somewhat unusual for a classic Maine Italian sandwich. Unlike the version of this sandwich popularized by Colucci’s and Amato’s, which amounts to little more than a fresh vegetable sandwich with just a slip of ham and cheese, the Italian at Mike’s Rock Deli is piled high with tons of thinly-sliced ham, spicy pepperoni, and a layer of provolone cheese. In lieu of the customary green peppers and tomatoes, Mike’s uses pickled banana peppers, with a few slivers of yellow and orange bell pepper, in addition to thinly-sliced red onion. The sandwich is finished with briney Kalamata olives and huge shards of freshly-ground pepper, which add a surprising spiciness to the finished sandwich.
In a traditional Maine Italian, the sandwich’s flavor is dominated by the sharp tang of sour pickles, and the overwhelming crunch of the fresh vegetables. The Italian from Mike’s is a little different; the provolone cheese blankets the entire sandwich with a smoky quality, which is only enhanced by the cured meats. The mild red onions and banana peppers bring a very slight heat to the sandwich, which I would have liked to see a little stronger, to lighten the other heavy flavors present. The result, though, is satisfying: A moderately-priced, pleasantly musty-flavored sandwich, heavy with quality meats and cheese, as well as some inventive twists on Portland’s signature sandwich. It’s enough for a hearty meal, and enough to make me anxious to try Mike’s other offerings.