Before we ever moved to Lewiston-Auburn — Sharon and I officially arrived here Sept. 1, 2021 — we’d heard tell of El Pocho’s Mexican Grill. Maine remains the most white-bread state in the Union, and so we have long endured an acute Mexican-food problem: not enough Mexicans. Or Central Americans, for that matter. The situation has improved somewhat over the last 10-15 years, but no one was prepared for the Covid-era appearance of El Pocho’s, a killer burrito shop that just happens to operate from one half of a gas station/convenience store, on outer Lisbon Street in Lewiston.
Intrigued, I sampled a carne asada model straightaway: superb, and they press-grill the final product to create a sort of South of the Border panini effect. Great enchiladas, too. The menu is small but they do everything on it very well. It’s not practical to just show up at El Pocho’s. It’s a tiny space. There’s a bar where 3-4 folks can sit and eat, but take-out is strongly encouraged, especially in Covid times. Last month, when I was out running errands, I not-so-cleverly resolved to stop in at 11:30 a.m., when the place opened. There were already a half-dozen guys standing around, waiting for their baby chimichangas. The woman behind the counter advised me — in no uncertain terms — to go outside, call in my order, and don’t come back for half an hour.
A mile away, at the foot of College Street, a similar operation has sprouted inside Dave’s Place, a pretty grimy gas station and convenience store where another pop-up kitchen, Tina’s Thai, has similarly colonized one corner of the indoor premises. The fare isn’t quite so revelatory here, though I can vouch for the tom kha gai (the cuisine’s signature chicken/lime/ginger/coconut-cream soup) and massaman curry. A more formal Thai restaurant sits right across the street. I’m willing to speculate that a kitchen employee named Tina got into a pissing match with the owner, stalked out, and set up competitive enterprise 30 yards away.
Lewiston-Auburn, Maine’s second-largest metropolitan area (combined population: 60,000), cannot compete with the celebrated food culture in Greater Portland, home to all manner of nationally recognized eateries, including, starting in 2010, some first-rate, upscale taco establishments. But I know of no gas stations down there serving up such high-quality enchiladas or satay. And let me be clear: The burritos at El Pocho’s are without peer in all of Vacationland. I was marveling at this bizarre, down-market L-A food trend, alongside the admirable edible diversity & ferment in our new place of residence, when Sharon pointed out that these are basically food truck operations: “It’s too cold in Maine to be outside on some street corner all year round,” she posited. “So they’ve gone inside.” I think she nailed it. El Pocho’s remains so informal, it doesn’t even maintain a proper website.
One the bands I play in, Bald Hill, has enjoyed a sort of monthly residence this winter at the Side By Each Brewery, across the Androscoggin River from Lewiston, in Auburn. Opened in 2020, SBE serves outstanding beer, but the canny owners there have essentially ceded the food operation to a third party: a food truck specializing in poutine. This type of relationship isn’t so unique. We play at another brewery, Fore River in South Portland, where, every time we’ve been there, a different food truck has conducted business from the parking lot. At New Gloucester’s Nu Brewery, a superb if pricy food truck, Yolk, is permanently ensconced there.
Pinky D’s still operates a mobile business; in 2021, Downeast magazine listed it among Maine’s top 5 food trucks. However, at Side By Each, the owners invited Pinky D’s to integrate one of its boxy vehicles directly into one of the brewery’s interior walls! A spectacular visual conceit that further buttresses Sharon’s observation. Through the small order window, one can spy an entire kitchen operation whipping up inventive takes on this Quebecois standard. Try the Korean BBQ poutine, and consider pairing it with a pint of Kuriro, SBE’s lovely Japanese rice lager.
We last played Side By Each in late January. Between sets I ran into Everton, a Jamaican fellow I’d met before. His brother, Jefferyton, owns an honest-to-goodness Jamaican food truck. He parks it more or less permanently beside the Caribbean Life grocery he owns with his wife at 940 Lisbon Street. To my dismay, the food-truck operation has been closed since December. When I saw him at SBE, Everton explained his father had recently passed away; he and Jefferyton had only just returned from Jamaica, where they laid him to rest. I offered my condolences — along with my hopes that the truck would reopen sometime soon.
“Not till the spring, mate,” Everton informed me. “Jefferyton closes the food truck each winter. Can you imagine standing in there all day, with the window open — in January? Not practical, mon!” We did agree there are plenty of Lewiston-Auburn breweries that would likely be eager to serve curried mutton and bone-out jerk chicken plates to young hipsters and Gen X fogies alike. Everton smiled: “It’s being discussed.”