The intersection of Congress and St. John streets makes for one of Portland’s more interesting crossroads. To the north reside a handful of chain restaurants and auto services. Venture south and you’ll encounter a couple more chains before you run into a few markets and restaurants with an International flavor. The southeast corner houses a Greyhound bus station, from whose doors various “colorful characters” emerge on a regular basis.
And then there’s the Dogfish Cafe. Billing itself as “an intimate, informal restaurant,” the cafe possesses a vibrancy and charm suggestive of the Old Port or certain locations in the East End.
One of two “Dogfish” establishments in Portland (the other is the Dogfish Bar & Grille, a sister location with more of a bar/tavern vibe to it. It resides about a mile away on Free Street) the Cafe’s customer area is split more-or-less in half, with a bar occupying fifty percent of the floor and a dozen or so dining tables occupying the remainder. A small deck at the back of the cafe allows for outside dining in the summer months.
The Dogfish Cafe has a friendly, neighborhood vibe to it. Many of the patrons who were there during my latest visit seemed to know both the staff, and one another. As if to testify to this notion, a guest who entered the building during my dinner was greeted with a handshake by one of the waiters. Though a television is perched in one corner of the building, it is hardly noticeable, taking a back seat to the conversation at the bar and the background music.
On my most recent visit, I was greeted at the door by a gentleman named Mitchell (who would turn out to be my waiter). Mitchell—who I found to be likable, courteous, knowledgeable and outgoing—invited me to help myself to a table near the cafe’s big front windows. It was an invitation that I gladly accepted, in part because of the excellent people-watching afforded by my vantage point. I would not be let down by the people watching aspect. In the hour or so that I was there, I observed a verbal altercation between a driver and three pedestrians (they were taking too long to cross the street for the driver’s liking), an emergency call to the bus station (a limping man was carted off by ambulance), and a young man walking down the street carrying a cat in something resembling a bird cage (I’m not kidding).Mitchell returned with my drinks and took my order. A diet soda that tasted flat was whisked away with no questions asked (other than if I’d like to replace it with something else) and I was not charged for it.
I began my meal with the soup of the day. In this case, it was a turkey & sausage vegetable soup. Populated with big, tender chunks of turkey, the soup had a nice consistency to it, almost suggestive of a gumbo. The smaller pieces of sausage imparted a spicy—but not at all overwhelming—flavor. I’m not sure how often this soup is on the menu, but I’ll gladly repeat if I have the opportunity.
Next up was what I came for: the Dogfish Burger. Busting at the seams with toppings, the burger features a cast of toppings nearly as many and as varied as the folks outside. The ingredients include pepper jack cheese, tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, bacon, caramelized onions and mushrooms, barbecue sauce and chipotle ranch dressing. It is topped off with a pickle from Morse’s Sauerkraut & European Deli in Waldoboro. (Read Kate’s review of Morse’s here.)
Serving as the vessel for all of these ingredients is a whole wheat role, which the menu says is locally made. I neglected to ask Mitchell who supplies the bread, and I’m kicking myself for it. (To be fair, he was already doing a fair amount of running around on my behalf, confirming for me the source of the pickles and answering my questions about the beef.) Generally speaking, I’m not crazy about whole wheat buns (at least as far as burgers go), but I’m happy to make an exception from time-to-time, especially if I know that I’m supporting a local vendor. The bun was plenty large enough to accommodate all of the toppings, and held together fairly well. I did have to knife-and-fork it near the end of my meal, but I attribute that to user error, not the bun.
Of course, the star of any burger show is the beef. The Dogfish Cafe sources the beef used in its grilled eight ounce burger patty from Caldwell Family Farm in Turner, Maine. I’ve had Caldwell’s beef in the past (most frequently from Rosemont Market’s Brighton location, which sells it), and have never been disappointed with it.
Accompanying the burger was a generous portion of house made fried chips. Served straight out of the fryer, they are hot and crispy, and I’ll take them over almost any french fry on any given day. On this particular visit, I found that my order could have used just a dash of salt, but it was a problem easily resolved at the table.
So how did the burger stack up? Overall, pretty well. I found it to be a teensy bit overcooked (I ordered mine cooked medium), but not to the point of being dry. The beef had a nice consistency, though I felt that—in terms of the flavor—it struggled to stand out amidst all of the toppings.
When I see burgers that are overloaded with ingredients, I tend to wonder if it isn’t an attempt to cover up some fundamental flaw with the beef itself (e.g. terribly overcooked, not enough fat, etc…). That clearly isn’t the case with the Dogfish Burger, so I’d love to see them scale back the toppings just a bit and allow the beef to stand on its own. The Cafe does offer a “basic burger” for $9.99 which patrons can tailor to their liking at a cost of 75 cents per ingredient. But since the Dogfish Burger —with all of its toppings—costs only a dollar more, your wallet is better off with the latter. (I’m not sure if substitutions are allowed… there is no mention of this one way or the other on the menu, but the menu for the Dogfish Bar & Grille discourages them.)
Anyway, I’d probably start by eliminating the barbecue sauce and the chipotle ranch dressing. A visual inspection confirmed that both were present on the burger (the barbecue sauce is slathered on the top bun and the ranch on the bottom), but neither added much along the way of taste. This is not to say that they tasted bad… rather, that I couldn’t taste them at all.
A case might also be made for the fresh lettuce and tomato not being a great fit with the caramelized onions and mushrooms (if I had to nix one or the other, it would be the former, as I really did enjoy the caramelized toppings). And since we’re removing some ingredients, I might go ahead and add one more strip of bacon to the Dogfish burger (or perhaps thicker cuts of the two strips that are there). The bacon on my burger was strangely underwhelming, perhaps also due to all of the other ingredients competing for the attention of my taste buds.
One topping that should absolutely not be tampered with is the sour garlic pickle. Sliced in half length-wise, it is attached to the bun with a large wooden skewer. Not only does it make for a great presentation, the flavor of the pickle with the beef is unique and outstanding.
While the Dogfish Burger may not be Portland’s best, it is certainly a very good one. Coupled with a Morse’s pickle and a side of house fried chips, it is a great meal to enjoy while engaging in round of people-watching at the intersection of Congress and Saint John streets.
MY RATING: 4 MOONS (out of 5)