Getting takeout during the pandemic, for me, has been all about safety and ease.

I have been leaning toward places that bring the food out to my car, have online ordering so I don’t have to pay in person, and basically allow me to stay away from people. While I enjoy feeling safe and not having to wait in lines, I miss getting to see places a little more closely, and experience their individual charms and quirks.

Outside seating is available at Verbena in South Portland’s Knightville neighborhood. Photo by Ray Routhier

I was able to do the latter on a recent lunchtime trip to Verbena in the Knightville neighorhood of South Portland. The cafe is nestled in an up-and-coming retail district, with stores, eateries and artsy shops.

When I got to Verbena to pick up my lunch order, I saw that the place had wooden tables and chairs set up along the sidewalk under a couple umbrellas, plus a few more tables and chairs near the street. I called the restaurant to say I was there, a couple minutes before my pickup time, and then sat down at a table in the warm September sunshine to wait. I was thoroughly engrossed in studying the artistic lighting creations in the window of The Lamp Repair Shop – lamps made from all sorts of salvaged materials – when my lunch order was handed to me.

Happy to have a had few minutes to soak up the charm of Verbena’s outdoor seating and its surroundings, I headed home with lunch for the family. Our order included classic comfort food like big, hearty sandwiches on bulky, fluffy rolls and warm soup.

The Flat Top chicken sandwich at Verbena in South Portland. Photo by Ray Routhier

My daughters both got the BBQ pulled pork sandwich ($9.95) with mango BBQ sauce, crunchy cabbage and lemon mayo, on a fluffy roll from Mainly Grains Bakers in South Portland. The pork was shredded and very tender, and the sauce tangy but not hot. The roll was perfect for a saucy sandwich, because it was fluffy enough to soak in the sauce but crusty enough to stop the sandwich from getting soggy or too messy to handle.

I had the Flat Top chicken sandwich ($9.95) with big, tender pieces of chicken, very thinly sliced green apple, cheddar cheese, local greens and curry mayo, on a Mainly Grains roll. The curry mayo was very tasty, and again, not hot. The thin green apples were a nice touch, adding flavor but not creating a texture issue. I don’t like thickly-sliced apples in my sandwiches.

My wife had a bowl of the soup of the day, a 16-ounce portion of vegan Moroccan-style chickpea stew ($6.95) with a hunk of bread. The soup had chickpeas, carrots, peppers, onions and celery in spiced tomato broth. The aroma and taste were warm and autumnal.

A vegan Moroccan-style chickpea stew from Verbena in South Portland. Photo by Ray Routhier

The menu at Verbena includes comforting food with an accent on freshness, local sourcing and health. The sandwich menu includes a burger made with beef from Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, a grilled local tofu sandwich, a vegan black bean cake sandwich and chicken salad with apples, celery and grapes. There’s a sandwich that includes Carnitas-style pork and a fried egg with Cooper sharp cheese and chili-lime mayo on an English muffin.

There are salads, including one with local greens and avocado. You can add chicken, chicken salad, tofu or BBQ pulled pork to any salad. There’s a grilled vegetable and goat cheese quiche on the menu. Sweets, including brownies and cookies, are available too.

While the fall weather is still relatively warm, Verbena’s outdoor seating area is a nice spot to have a socially distant bite while still feeling like you’re part of the universe. It’s also a good place to pick up a picnic lunch and the head to nearby scenic spots like Mill Creek Park or the Greenbelt Walkway.

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