It was a great night out in Portland. We were stunned by the presentation of “Papermaker” at Portland Stage, impressed with supper at Po’ Boys & Pickles and very pleased with our room at the Best Western Merry Manor Inn.

George

We don’t usually insist that you do something in this column, but please don’t miss Monica Wood’s extraordinary and powerful play, “Papermaker,” at the Portland Stage through Thursday, May 14. Wood is a Mainer with four wonderful novels and her autobiography. “When We Were The Kennedys,” about growing up in Rumford, is the best autobiography Linda and I ever read. And now, it turns out she is a great playwright, too.

“Papermaker” is about a strike at the paper mill in Abbott Falls (yes, could be Rumford, could be Jay) and the tension, hardship and anger — on both sides — is very real. But Wood has added a very touching human element, taking us inside the families of the mill owner and a striker, and bringing us to a surprising finish. It’s a play and performance you will never forget.

The Merry Manor, in South Portland, is a Lafayette Hotel property so it was no surprise to find a friendly staff and high level of attention to the comfort of guests. What did surprise us was the huge size of the inn, which includes a spa, exercise room, pool, restaurant and more. Our Captain Lafayette’s Suite included a double jacuzzi, massage chair, high ceilings with a chandelier, gas fireplace, executive desk and a huge and very comfortable bed. The convenient location on U.S. Route 1, with easy access to Interstate 295, makes this an ideal spot for a stay in the Portland/South Portland area.

As lovers of all-things “N’awlins,” it was not surprising that we loved Po’ Boys. The restaurant is unpretentious and inexpensive, out at the far northern end of Portland’s Forest Avenue, with outside seating on the street-side deck in the summer. Chef Brian Gastin, a friendly and engaging guy who has been cooking here for five years, took us through the impressive menu, noted the most popular items and helped us with our order.

Our food was every bit as good as any we enjoyed in New Orleans — even better in some regards. The Louisiana Gumbo ($6) was loaded with chicken, shrimp and andouille sausage. It was very spicy, making me thankful that I had a Shipyard Summer Ale to put out the fire in my mouth.

My blackened fish sandwich, made with Maine pollack, included a wonderful Cajun coleslaw, tomatoes and a red pepper mayo. I ordered the small ($8), and it was plenty of sandwich for me. It was also very good.

The fried pickles (just $4) is a dish that will bring me back here many times. Featuring those sour pickles we love from Morse’s Sauerkraut in Waldoboro, with a thick crunchy corneal crust and accompanied by a red pepper dip, this dish is unique and addicting. From the large array of sandwiches including the pulled pork, the Creole sausage, and the debris po’ boy — a traditional New Orleans sandwich of slow-cooked roast beef and gravy — to the golden fried oyster salad and Cajun fish nuggets, it’s going to take a lot of visits to try everything of interest on their menu.

While we had no room for dessert, Brian sent us home with one of their “World Famous coconut macaroons” which you can buy in markets throughout the area, marketed as “Choomy Cookies.” Of course, I had to get the cookie out while writing this column, in order to tell you that it is really good. Linda raced over to the desk to make sure she got her half!

Linda

During February break we were watching the Fox News morning show when I recognized somebody. In a cooking segment, chef Brian Gastin from Po’ Boys & Pickles was cooking with his daughter, Mya, who is a student at Mount Vernon Elementary School where I teach. Mya was a natural on TV, as was her father. I knew we had to get to Po’ Boys.

The restaurant’s sandwich board boasts salads, their famous sandwiches, sides and baskets. As chef Brian was going over the most popular items my heart was sinking, because I’d already spotted my favorite, the muffaletta. And then he announced his favorite sandwich, the Muffaletta Po’ Boy. When I think of New Orleans, I think of delicious muffalettas.

The secret to authentic po’ boys has to be the bread, and theirs comes from Leidenheimer Baking Company in Louisana. Started in 1896, this is a bakery with staying power. A framed cartoon on the wall says, “Sink ya teeth into a piece of New Orleans cultcha — a Leidenheimer Po’ Boy.”

I am so glad we tried the sweet potato fries as well — they were hands down the best I have had. Thinly sliced sweet potatoes were nice and crispy (both sides were not greasy at all) and topped with sea salt. Any establishment with pickles in its name had better have great pickles. Those that come with all the sandwiches fit the bill.

My muffaletta was as good as I dreamed. That crusty bread held three kinds of meat, prolovone, lettuce, tomatoes and olive relish to deliver that classic taste. They’ve perfected the ratio of ingredients-to-bread perfectly. Brian told us that a lady from New Orleans always buys some of the housemade olive relish to take home for her husband. This was a classic muffaletta for sure, and I didn’t leave a crumb.

Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed in the “Best of Maine” section.


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