Tomaso’s Canteen – A New Dive Rises from the Ashes of an Old One

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My wife and I love good dive bars. I generally think of them as decrepit to some extent, but the standouts among them exhibit a paradoxical contrast between the old, seemingly run-down decor and the quality food and drink they provide at a bargain price. These top neighbourhood locations provide a fun place to go, middling to great service – occasionally with a bit of a snarl, and a wide array of hours in which they do business. There are certainly other aspects which make some of them great, but those are the basics. With all that in mind, I went to Tomaso’s Canteen which popped up in place of Sangillo’s when the city – and then the state – would not renew their liquor licence.

The first impression of Tomaso’s confirmed that it was indeed a dive, but not so much old or busted up. It looked new and nice, though not at all fancy. Since the previous occupant had such a big reputation, I was a little surprised that it was on the small side with maybe five tables and several bar seats. It was definitely cozy, but they had plenty of space for me which was all I really cared about. Overhead, running the length of the bar, was a chalkboard full of food and drink specials. We made our way to a table close to the kitchen and started looking at the menus sitting on it. I had a case of the hunger, so I was very focused on sorting through the list and picking something to chew on.

In a weird move which definitely didn’t fit our surroundings, both my wife and I passed on an alcoholic beverage. Nonetheless, a thorough scan of the drink options revealed some nice mixed drinks, great beer and shot combos, and a modest but well thought out selection of both draft and pre-packaged beer. They also – like any good dive – had jello shots available. And in a play which makes any bar more endearing, Tomaso’s seemed to carry a good selection of local beer and spirits. We requested only waters and worked to finalize our food selections.

When our high quality H2O was delivered, we were itching to put in our orders. We started with an app of Fried Mozz Balls to share and she went with the Fried Chicken Sandwich with a side of fries. I was craving something on the spicy side and settled upon a Buffalo Haddock Sandwich with a side of mac and cheese. I was ready to see what this kitchen was about, but had a lot of faith that they would meet my expectations for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that I had heard positive words about the owner’s other restaurant. We would soon find out.

Our wait for food was a little longer than we hoped it would be. It didn’t matter though as we passed the time by playing patty cake with our feet and then drawing schematics for our newest Rube Goldberg machine. As soon as we got to the bird pecking on the button covered in sunflower seed causing the flag to rise and swipe a turning handle, our mozz balls were placed between us. I gasped. They were so incredibly displayed that I doubted they could come from a dive bar kitchen. The artistic presentation started with a martini glass. From there, a half lemon cut-side-down was skewered and placed into the glass. Next, it was filled to the top with marinara poured over the lemon and sprinkled with cheese and onion. Five fried balls were then added to the skewer and on top of those were a folded piece of radicchio and an onion designed to look like a pineapple. It was quite a sight to see.

Almost not wanting to disturb our dish, I reluctantly dug into the cheesy spheres. I divided them unevenly with Mrs. Portlandeater receiving two and I three. We each forked some sauce into our plates and went to town. The balls were quite delightful and the marinara even better, taking some of the citrus from the lemon and adding a twist to the usual acidity of the red relish. We kept eating until those little suckers were done. My sole criticism of the app was that we could have used an extra one or two balls for the price of eight bucks. However, it was so pretty that I was totally mesmerized by it, so maybe that was enough to justify the cost.

It wasn’t too long after our app was done that we were given our sandwiches. Hers came with plenty of chicken, lettuce, tomato, pickle, and a nice pile of fries. Mine had lots of haddock, lettuce, pickle, and a lemon slice. A radicchio garnish, along with some curly carrot strings and a side of ranch completed the plate. My side of mac and cheese arrived after my initial evaluation of the sandwich. The sides that can be ordered with the sandwiches are only an additional two dollars and my mac was definitely a good deal as I was provided a heaping pile of the pasta which was topped with crumbs and a few green onions.

I decided to squirt some lemon juice onto my sandwich and then top it with – not to be too political – a liberal amount of ranch dressing. Trying to get an initial taste, I opened my mouth as wide as I could and it barely fit. Squeezing it in like my meal depended on it, I was able to get a reasonable sample of the spicy fish creation. I immediately recognized that there was a boatload of buffalo, causing an acute blast of awesome to my brain. All the flavors – buffalo, ranch, and lemon gave the fish an excellent combination of hot, cool, and some more citrus, and the grilled buns were the perfect container for the entire package of yum yums. It should be noted that very little sauce dripped out from between the buns which was quite a feat considering the amount that was on the haddock.

As my wife expressed amazement at the size of the sandwiches, I stole a couple of her fries. They were flawless – fresh, crispy, and salt and peppered, which are literally my three requirements for the perfect fry. After that, it was time for some cheesy mac. I shanked a bite and downed it. The mac was excellent – creamy and a little bit crunchy. As I ate more of it, I became happier and happier that I had a lot because I didn’t ever want it to go away. I alternated between that and my sandwich in a manner which said “this guy is eating and doesn’t want to be interrupted even if it’s to let him know he has cheese and buffalo sauce dripping from his beard.”

We ate and ate, stopping only to take short breaths and stare lovingly at our food. Eventually, it was nearly gone and we were filled to the brim. I reminisced about the past hour and realized that while I was well fed, the meter where I parked wasn’t. I asked for the bill and hoped that there wasn’t another one on my car. Our total came to a mere 31 bucks before tip. We didn’t have any drinks, but we had lots of food. It was all very good, and that app…that app was simply gorgeous. We were both smiling and raved about Tomaso’s Canteen as a great place to go and not spend all our cash while still getting top notch pub grub. If you do go, be sure to sample one or more of their speciality libations and be sure you pay for parking. My only other advice? Go sooner rather than later. Now that’s the ticket!

Stay hungry.

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3 thoughts on “Tomaso’s Canteen – A New Dive Rises from the Ashes of an Old One

  1. Pingback: Peter Peter Portland Eater’s Eating Portland, ME Awards 2015 | Eating Portland, Maine

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