My aversion to Linda Bean’s particular brand of Maine runs deep. Maybe it’s the way she has been buying up St. George, my former hometown, dividing the fishing population there into two camps; those that depend on her to make a living, and those that resentfully depend on her to make a living. Maybe it’s the way she sticks cameras up on the docks, imposing an all-seeing eye on anyone who might dare sell their catch to a competitor. Maybe it’s her unique ability to seize real, long-established businesses, like Hall’s Market and the Dip Net, in Tenants Harbor and Port Clyde, respectively, and paint them with a brush of peculiar gold-leafed inauthenticity, turning them from something real into Disney-eque tourist attractions. Maybe it’s her insistence that slapping her name and label on existing old-time Maine institutions somehow improves their image. Or maybe it’s just that she makes a really, really shitty lobster roll.
In any case, I realize that I had been dragging my feet when it came time to visit The Thirsty Pig, located on Exchange Street in the Old Port, in the former home of Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine® Lobster Roll™. In spite of the favorable reviews buzzing around the Portland blogosphere, my assumptions regarding The Thirsty Pig’s relationship with the building’s former tenant kept me from ever setting foot inside. Finally, though, on a rainy Sunday, my natural attraction to sausage and beer overcame my aversion to ham-fisted billionaire heiress restauranteurs, and I decided to have a look.
The menu at The Thirsty Pig couldn’t be simpler: Choose from eight different sausages (there are usually a few more specials), all made in-house, served in a grilled New England-style split-top bun, with coleslaw or chips, ranging in price from $3.50 to $6.50. The back of the menu features a few nods to the touristy location, offering a token bowl of clam chowder, a shrimp roll, and…what’s this? Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine® Lobster Roll™?
Determined to get to the bottom of this relationship once and for all, I asked owner Allison Stevens about the seeming connection. She explained that she subleased the space from Linda Bean, who required that she continue selling the lobster roll as a condition of the lease. This thin relationship seems to be working unbelievably well for The Thirsty Pig; they get to reap all of the benefit of inheriting a slick, renovated space right in the middle of the Old Port, built on the back of Bean’s shuttered restaurant, with tons of wood, gleaming tin ceilings, a curved bar, beautiful lighting, signage, and branding, and then make food that people can afford and actually want to eat, served in the old business’ lobster-roll sleeves, plastic baskets, and disposable cups. It’s the perfect arrangement.
“Start learning about making sausage,” Stevens explained, “and you won’t believe the fillers a lot of places are using.” The Thirsty Pig uses only real ingredients in their homemade sausages, and this dedication to quality shows through in each dish I tried. The “Hot Italian Sausage” ($6.50), a split grilled pork sausage spiked with plenty of red pepper flakes, fennel, and black pepper, and topped with a spicy pickled gardinera, was paired with a $10 happy-hour pitcher of Shipyard Export. The sausage was remarkable: each fiery bite was infused with strong fennel flavors, and the pickled vegetables on top added additional spice and tartness. The “BBQ Banger” ($6.50), a pork sausage simmered with onion, before being finished with barbecue sauce and caramelized onions was similarly outstanding, with the sweet barbecue sauce offering an excellent contrast to the strong onion and garlic flavors in the sausage.
Regardless of how it got there, The Thirsty Pig is a wonderful addition to Portland’s food scene; not only are there few places to get a complete lunch, including a pint of beer, for under eight bucks in this city, but the level of care and quality in that lunch sets The Thirsty Pig well beyond the reach of its competitors. This is unabashed beer-drinking food; eat a sausage, and you’ll want a pint, which will make you crave another sausage, and then another pint, until you lack the ability to get up out of the cozy booth you’re seated in. It’s a perfect way to spend a rainy weekend afternoon with nothing to do, tucked in with friends, letting the pitchers flow, and keeping the grilled sausages coming.