Each week the Orient spotlights different aspects of the arts and entertainment scene in Portland. This week's installment focuses on Maine Restaurant Week and one of the participating restaurants, El Rayo.
Many of us have caught snippets of Bowdoin tours while running to class or through the union or toward the stapler parked on H-L's front desk. In doing so, how many of you have heard the favorite fact that, following only behind San Francisco, Portland holds the second-highest number of restaurants per capita in the United Sates?
For the second year in a row, Maine Restaurant Week will be highlighting Maine's prowess on the restaurant front.
"This is our second Annual Maine Restaurant Week," said Maine Restaurant Week Project Assistant Lynda Stocks. "Looking back, there was a lot of media attention given to Portland—through Bon Appétit and the New York Times, for example—and they all talked about how 'foody' Portland was, which really gave us the impetus to put together such an event."
"People realized we had something to sell," Stocks added of the restaurants and chefs in Portland, and the state at large. For that reason, Maine Restaurant Week paired with the Maine Restaurant Association, the Maine Tourism Association and other state-based organizations, to create the first Restaurant Week last year.
"We really focused on the idea that March is a traditionally challenging month for restaurants—and for Maine business," said Stocks. "For that reason, we thought it would be a great event to help out and inspire people to enjoy our restaurants in March."
Thus, following in last year's footsteps, the associations contacted all of Maine's Restaurants, inviting them to offer a set Restaurant Week menu that offered a three-course variety of dishes for $20.10, $30.10 or $40.10. This year, however, restaurants were also given the option of creating a set lunch menu for $15.10.
Noting this year's differences, Stocks emphasized the fact that the event tried to draw from restaurants across the state, whereas last year's event focused largely on Southern Maine.
"Both years we focused on a broad range of restaurants," said Stocks. "But this year we decided to spread throughout the state with the understanding that there are just so many great restaurants out there—why not celebrate that?"
In regard to the fixed 10-day menus, Stock said that it has been a format that has been conducive to both restaurant and customer.
"One of the great things is that we can just drive people to the Web site," said Stocks. "It's a great place to showcase the restaurants, who can put up what they'll be serving for the week."
There is also an emphasis this year on the inclusion of broader media events. Already, collaborations with Cold River Vodka, The Portland Press Herald and the Portland Museum of Art have brought new celebrity to the event.
According to Stocks, the events have been a complete success.
"They've been great events that have all sold out and really demonstrated how popularity has grown for Restaurant Week," she said.
"Since last year, participation has risen 30 percent," she added, explaining how a wider range of restaurants, including bars and other pub-fare restaurants, have joined the list.
"What's great," Stocks added, "is that it's become expected now. People really want this celebration of Maine restaurants."
While many restaurants in Portland and throughout the state should be on Bowdoin students' radars, one restaurant in particular should draw students to the city: El Rayo Taqueria.
El Rayo is a small Mexican restaurant that offers fresh and locally inspired Mexican food, as well as a student discount that makes great prices even more affordable for college students. Located on Temple Street, El Rayo just opened this summer, making it one of the newest restaurants participating in Maine Restaurant Week.
"The community seemed to be wishing for a fresh Mexican restaurant on the peninsula that had a quick-service feel to it," said General Manager Norine Kotts of the restaurant, which opened in an old gas station. "Yes," she said to the lore. "It was once a Citgo station and then a pizza shop."
These gritty roots, however, have been transformed into a cute, eccentric restaurant with an interior with picnic tables, hand-painted wall murals and tall bar stools. In addition to the more intimate two- to four-person tables lining the restaurant, a longer, more communal table stretches through the restaurant's center which is great for larger groups.
Adding to this intimate atmosphere is the fluidity between the kitchen and dining areas: from your table you can easily see above the decorative, seated piñatas to where several chefs spin around each other in a dance of choreographed food making.
This comfortable, relaxed atmosphere has found hearty appeal across broad audiences.
"You'll see people in suits, college students, and families all eating in here—especially during lunch," Kotts said.
Of deciding to participate in Restaurant Week, Kotts said, "We like trying new things and this is still our first year. Really, we saw this as an opportunity to band together with other restauranters to promote tourism in Maine."
For the week, in addition to providing a $20.10 three-course dinner menu, El Rayo is "breaking from the pack" and offering lunch for $10.10.
"It's important to us to remain really accessible," said Kotts of their markedly lower lunch price menu. "It's our staple and we also like lunch to be quick to serve."
For its set Restaurant Week dinner menu, Kotts said El Rayo put the decision into the creative hands of the kitchen staff.
"We have two highly talented chefs and our wonderful executive chef Cheryl Lewis," she said and explained how, following El Rayo tradition, the restaurant chose dishes that are not smothered in flavors and don't leave you "feeling stuffed up to your eyeballs."
"The menu's a little bit more uppy than the normal burritos and tacos. But we want to keep our customers happy and so our staples are on the menu, too. You know, we often say here: 'What did people eat before they ate our chicken burrito?' And so we want to keep them all happy."
Dining at El Rayo and choosing dishes from their standard menu, it was easy to see why the regulars liked the typical fare.
Starting with chips and salsa, we were pleasantly surprised to find local ingredients down to the fresh salsa. It was a salsa with a kick of spice, we noted, a spice that was not prohibitive but had more of a pleasantly lingering aftertaste.
Choosing a portobello mushroom burrito and a Piñata Salad, the dishes were true to Kotts's promise that El Rayo dishes are not lathered in flavor or aggressively heavy. Both the salad and the burrito kept us chomping to the last bite!
In addition to expanding and preserving the favorites on the menu for Restaurant Week, Kotts explained that the set menu also showcases El Rayo's passion for providing and celebrating the fresh, local ingredients.
Kotts said that using these fresh foods is always at the forefront for El Rayo.
"It's a broader movement," Kotts said of the fresh and local food movement to which an increasing number of Maine restaurants are prescribing,
"Yeah, I think industry people who care about their community and the local farmers and the fisherman really want to support them—we're a place that's all about community. And in the end, it's these foods that make for a better product."
Maine Restaurant Week runs from March 1 - March 10. Visit www.mainerestaurantweek.com for a complete list of participating restaurants.
El Rayo Taqueria
101 York Street
Open daily 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.