“Who Wants To Bring A Food Truck To Portland? Nobody.”
Some may recall an article written by Susan Axelrod and published via Eater Maine under this very headline in September 2012. Fast-forward to 2018, and the irony is almost palpable. Forget about the myriad of food trucks that have come, gone and still remain since the city passed an ordinance allowing them to operate. How about the fact that no less than six of these mobile eateries have transitioned into real-deal brick-and-mortar establishments and are still thriving to this day? I’m going to assume Axelrod didn’t see this coming. I certainly didn’t.
Of all these makeovers, the evolution of Mami — a truck dedicated to serving Japanese street-style cuisine that first went mobile in 2015 — proves to be the most unique.
Take the format of Mami’s brick-and-mortar location at 339 Fore St., which opened for business in April 2017. Unlike Eaux, El Corazon, Baharat, East Ender and other recent truck-to-brick transformers, Mami takes a counter-service-centric approach similar to Highroller Lobster Co. Walk in, order food, pay for food, sit wherever you’d like, food arrives. That’s it.
It’s a stark contrast to the restaurant’s closest relative in the city, Izakaya Minato. But whereas an evening at Minato can stretch on for hours and is often buoyed just as much by strong service as it is the food itself, Mami offers an entirely different dining experience (despite sharing many similar menu items). Eating here feels like an event not to be fussed over or perhaps even planned ahead of time — much like eating at a food truck. It’s a smart evolution of a concept, and one that doesn’t feel even remotely lost in translation.
This is not to say the food at Mami isn’t memorable. There are bites which yield flavors you won’t find elsewhere in Maine, such as the surprisingly cerebral Big Mami burger. Served on a house-made squid ink bulky roll and topped with a combination of lettuce/tomato/pickles, katsuobushi (fermented skipjack tuna), American cheese, ketchup and kewpie mayo, it balances savory umami with a burst of salinity for an end result unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. Similar in wow-factor was a recently tasted specials board prep of roasted brisket nikuman buns with misozuke daikon, scallions, more kewpie and toasted sesame. Served within two fluffy, pillowy steamed buns, my dining partner found the balance of vinegary assertion and deeply caramelized roasted meats to be worth ruminating over for a solid ten minutes.
Many of the items served at Mami fall under the umbrella of standard izakaya (re: Japanese pub) fare — think karaage (Japanese fried chicken), okonomiyaki (savory pancake), yakitori skewers and delightfully greasy yakisoba noodles. Though not as refined as similar offerings found at the aforementioned Izakaya Minato (minus the ultra-satisfying yakisoba), all hit the mark splendidly and have across numerous visits. My last time through, Mami chef/co-owner Austin Miller drove the kitchen as a solo unit and somehow still managed to execute these and a few additional menu items with striking proficiency in seemingly no time at all — perhaps a testament to his time as a short-order cook in a mobile kitchen.
As for the space itself, exposed brick, warm overhead lighting, strong red/black contrast and a two-tiered floor plan make for a cozy, unpretentious atmosphere that complements the restaurant’s overall vibe quite nicely.
The only gripe I can find in both incarnations of Mami (the food truck continues to run, by the way) is an overabundance of sweetness in certain bites, such as the full-stop blast of saccharine nectar imparted by generous amounts of okonomi sauce on dishes like okonomiyaki and the house staple kobayashi dog. Neither dish lacks balance, so to speak, but like the yaki onigiri — grilled rice ball with rotating filling, soy miso glaze and furikake — there’s little in the way of subtlety going on. A punch of flavor to the face like this works exceedingly well in small doses; it borders upon cloying when consumed across numerous dishes.
Maybe that’s the whole point. Mami feels similar to its original incarnation in that the restaurant’s format almost encourages wanderbys to stop in for a quick, umami-packed refuel and be on their way — the reasonable price point reflects this. There are no omakase options, no servers aside from an expeditor, no elaborate cocktails (although Mami does boast a solid beer, wine and sake selection). It’s not even clear how one is supposed to tip on a meal like this, though it shouldn’t take much searching to find an answer.
Whether or not co-owners Austin Miller and Hana Tamaki realized they would fill a mostly unexplored niche in the Portland dining scene back when their first okonomiyaki came off the truck in 2015 is unclear. Stop into their brick-and-mortar to warm up for a bit on a snowy winter evening, though, and you’ll be hard-pressed to argue that they haven’t.
Mami | 339 Fore St, Portland | Tue-Thu 11 am-9 pm; Fri 11 am-9 pm; Sat noon-10 pm | mamifoodtruck.com