West End Markets Part I: The Overlooked
This month’s review deviates from the previous two in that, honoring WEN’s May theme of “gardening, spring and urban agriculture,” I wanted to find common ground with this theme and write a food review that would be interesting and relevant. I chose to write about West End markets and to focus on those typically overlooked, as well as some new ones. Hence, my title.
After another long Maine winter, I am stoked about the arrival … albeit a slow one … of spring! And what feels more auspicious than the planning of the season’s first picnic? I can’t think of anything. It’s the stuff warm-season memories are made of.
I decided that I was under-informed about some of the markets in my own ‘hood.’ And I needed to see what I could find in them. Literally, for when it’s actually warm enough, and dry enough, to plan a picnic.
First, to be certain I had the definition of ‘picnic’ correct, I did what any writer with a perfectionism-complex would do. I did research! And so, I found myself at Wikipedia. It defines a picnic as:
An excursion at which a meal is eaten outdoors, taking place in a scenic landscape such as a park, beside a lake, or with an interesting view and possibly at a public event such as before an open-air theatre performance, and usually in summer. Picnics are often family oriented but can also be an intimate occasion between two people or a large get together. When the picnic is not also a cookout, the food eaten is rarely hot, instead taking the form of deli sandwiches, finger food, fresh fruit, salad, cold meats and accompanied by chilled wine or soft drinks.
In doing my research, I used the same multi-point criteria at each market to do a compare and contrast.
- Accessibility on foot
- Proximity to METRO bus system
- Internal and external environment
- Attitude and approachability of staff
- Demographic served
- Quality of product
- Hours of operation
With these in mind, I set out on my quest. Ultimately, I visited five local markets to “get my picnic on.” Here’s what I discovered:
49 Pine Street
“Cumby’s,” as locals like to call it, has been here ever since I can recall. Its Pine Street location at the corner of Brackett is a busy intersection, which many say is the epicenter of the West End.
Some locals consider the market to be an eye sore. It is car-centric with self-serve gas pumps, and delivery trucks often block pedestrian access to sidewalks. Yet, it is easily accessible on foot, and two blocks off the nearest #8 METRO bus stop.
Several businesses are located in the immediate area, most of them food-related. Cumberland Farms is a national chain business, and its urban stores have the notoriety of attracting an oft-seedy crowd of locals and unsavory types. Patrons often smoke out front, and one must pass through the toxic cloud to enter or exit.
At the risk of sounding sexist, this is a working man’s market. You can buy cigarettes, scratch tickets, scratch your crotch, fill up your coffee mug… and still find milk, eggs and bread to bring home for tomorrow’s breakfast with the family.
It is no frills, yet there’s a Red Box DVD rental machine out front. The staff are friendly, if not occasionally suspicious and weary, understandably. They’ve been robbed more than once. There are cameras watching your every move.
I recommend, due to the high volume of activity here, to place a barrier between your hand and the door handle when going in or out. Perhaps wear a glove, or use a WetNap, if you’re at all concerned about shared germs or to avoid the latest flu bug going around: cough cough.
Affirmative. Here’s what you’ll find: Pre-made deli sandwiches, bags of potato chips and an array of other similar snacks, candy and power bars, pre-packaged processed meats, cheese and sliced processed cheese food – whatever that is and perhaps its best we don’t ask. Also find breads, pickles, dairy, wine, beer, soft drinks, bottled waters.
The choice of healthier products is limited to yogurt, granola, pre-made salads, bananas, oranges, apples, and the occasional pear. Though most products here are chemically fortified to prolong shelf-life, they are otherwise edible. It’s some of the customers that most worry me.
Cumby’s is open 24/7, 363 days of the year, and possibly on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Gulf Express Mart
754 Congress Street
For years, this gas station and market has been, for me, the “scary” local grocerette. It sits at the corner of Neal Street.
Like Cumby’s, it sees a fair amount of foot traffic, yet caters to car-culture. I call it “scary” because there is no signage indicating where you are walking into, and in the past, staff have been just short of surly toward me here. As a result, I had not returned for about three years until embarking on the research to write this article. It was time to be brave and go back. And this time, in fact, it was not scary at all.
This market tends to garner a crowd more or less identical to Cumberland Farms and 711, and yes, there are cameras. There’s lots of smoking and carbon emissions …. and more smoking.
This, for me, is the “lesser end West End.” Even so, the experience was better than I expected this time, despite its unattractive exterior. Their standards for employee and customer hygiene, unfortunately, are low…. but at least the clerk was friendly.
They carry the most basic of household staples. An unusual feature here is the Dominican Republic food take-out counter. It seems they have contracted with a local family to cook up some fast food dishes for sale. At the moment we arrived, my friend was up for a bite of something Hispanic to eat….. but the pickings were sparse at 2 p.m., so we moved on.
When entering or exiting, remember the “gloves and WetNap” rule. You can get here on METRO bus routes #1, 8, 9a and 9b, though you have to walk a couple of blocks from the nearest stop.
Yes, at the most basic level and not dissimilar from Cumby’s or 711, with the caveat that there’s nothing in the way of fresh anything (like fruit, or vegetables). Lots of orange and brown, but no green. So, leave the healthier part of your picnic expectation at the door because you won’t find it here.
On the up side, I bet you that a nice chicken empanada or chimi churi burger, when they are available, from the Dominican Republican counter, would keep pretty well until eating time – and taste pretty good. How many other markets do you know in this city where you can find sundries plus a cheap, greasy dose of Hispanic comfort food to boot? I don’t know of many.
According to online sources, Gulf Express Mart is open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., 7 days per week. Though it seems that must be incorrect, because I know I’ve seen them open in the evening, despite choosing never to wander in there after dark, at least in the “scary” days of yesteryear.
704 Congress Street
Of course, 711 is a well-known national chain of markets, often located in urban centers. There is a self-serve gas station here. Needless to say, it is highly car-centric. Although, pedestrians can also find easy access (watch out for aggressive drivers with New York, Massachusetts and new Maine plates entering and exiting the lot who would as soon run you over as stop to let you pass). METRO bus routes #1, 8, 9a & 9b have stops nearby.
As for clientele, see the notes on Cumberland Farms and Gulf Express Mart. Cameras watching and recording.
The exterior is what you’d expect, aka ‘eye sore.’ Staff are mostly friendly or at least cordial. Again, consider the steady flow of dregs they have to deal with on a daily basis. Bright fluorescent lights, not so noticeable during the day, offer the experience after-dark of walking into a solar explosion at ground zero. These are downright blinding, so keep your sunglasses handy.
711 is well-stocked for essential household items, and they have several hot fast food options for on-the-go, none of which include anything green. This is artery-clogging central. I perused the store for healthier choices for my potential picnic, and was actually pleased.
In the end, I put the bananas back on the shelf, when after spotting a gooey, cheesy, piping hot “works” pizza, I went for the two-slice special! It cost less than $2.75.
The triangular paper to-go container kept my hands warm on the walk home. And it was recyclable!
The pizza was pretty decent, even as it had cooled off some. When purchasing my slices I remarked to the clerk that I felt impelled to forego the fruit for the slab, in an abject moment of weakness. He paraphrased the “your secret is safe with me” meme, without skipping a beat.
I feel that I am welcomed here, just as I am, healthy-picnic supplier or fat calorie-seeking hog. Gloves or WetNaps, once again, are a must, lest you take your life in your hands.
Do-able. All the usual staples, plus several kinds of breads, dips, salads, prepared sandwiches, yogurt, apples, oranges, lemon, limes, bananas.
711 is open 24/7, 363 days per year, and possibly on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
While it is likely best to plan ahead and make a trip to your local large grocery store for the best prices, quality and selection, it is possible to supply your picnic basket with the essentials for al fresco dining from your local West End markets. You may pay a bit more, find less fresh or healthy choices, and less variety, but with a little ingenuity, determination and a spirit of adventure, you can succeed very nicely.
This leads me back to my original question, and one that I’m hoping a friend – any friend – will soon take upon themselves to ask me, in a moment of generosity, or perhaps loneliness, “Picnic anyone?”
Check out the June issue on First Friday for West End Markets Part II: The New.
James has a background in volunteerism, equestrianship and crisis intervention. In his spare time, he enjoys white water rafting and questioning authority. James can be reached at ThePortlandPalate@gmail.com.