If You Haven’t Tried Cafe Louis in Knightville, It’s Time
Bringing a medley of Central American fare to South Portland, this casual but lively cafe has strong opinions about what makes a good Cuban.
Chef Evan Richardson has strong opinions about mustard—specifically, the mustard sauce used on the pressed pork sandwich known as a Cuban or a medianoche. He insists there shouldn’t be just mustard on the sandwich, but a sauce made from the drippings from roasted pork mixed with mustard. “I’ll never win that argument. It’s just one I’m willing to have,” he says with a laugh as we sit in the sunny dining room of his South Portland restaurant, Cafe Louis.
When I try Cafe Louis’s medianoche, I am struck by the difference made by the mustard sauce (or “salsa Louis,” as Richardson calls his version). Where mustard alone is usually sharp and overpowering, the addition of the drippings makes his sauce mellow and creamy. The heavily griddled pan suave bread is sweet and dense with crispy, browned bits of Swiss cheese. Inside, salty Virginia ham, roast pork, and briny pickles mingle together for a rich and satisfying lunch.
Cafe Louis’s menu is inspired by the food Richardson grew up eating while visiting his paternal grandparents outside of the Costa Rican capital of San José. He remembers eating the “tipico food”—traditional Costa Rican dishes—his grand-mother made. One of these is casado, a hearty plate of black beans, rice, cabbage, fried plantains, eggs, and homemade tortillas that now appears on Cafe Louis’s brunch menu. “I’m just cooking food that I used to eat as a kid,” Richardson tells me.
Richardson first made a name for himself in Portland with his Creole cooking at Eaux—classics like gumbo, po’boys, and jambalaya. The native New Orleanian opened Eaux in 2017, first as a food cart and then, a year later, as a 40-seat restaurant on Portland’s Exchange Street. At Eaux, which closed in November 2020, Richardson served French-inspired Creole food as a “sit-down, proper dinner [with] white plates,” he says. But at Cafe Louis, he’s exploring his family’s Central American heritage with a lively, fun vibe. “At Louis, you can come as you are at any given time and pop in for a burger. It’s a neighborhood spot,” Richardson says.
The casual atmosphere at Cafe Louis invites diners to linger over bocas, small snacks that are served at bars in Costa Rica. Patacones, or fried plantains, deliver a crispy, salty crunch that yields to a tender interior. The gallo pinto—black beans and rice—is packed with flavor from a base of aromatic vegetables called sofrito, spices, and a drizzle of Salsa Lizano, a flavorful bottled Costa Rican condiment that’s similar to Worcestershire sauce. Slices of queso para freir—a soft cow’s milk cheese—are grilled until brown and crispy, then finished with honey and chopped macadamia nuts.
I enjoy dinner at Cafe Louis’s seven-seat bar with helpful recommendations from our server Peter Murphy, who also operates the food cart Rebel Cheesesteak. We exchange banter under the gaze of a large toucan featured in a mural on the far wall of the restaurant. The cafe is small, roughly 700 square feet, but despite its size, it has seating for about 35.
Costa Rican food has a reputation for being a bit bland. But Richardson’s skillful cooking amplifies the signature flavors of the cuisine, particularly evident in his take on ron don, a Jamaican fish stew popular on the East Coast of Costa Rica. Plump Bangs Island mussels are nestled into a sweet, slightly spicy green curry of coconut milk broth thickened with cassava. Slim slices of corn on the cob, sweet potato, and crab meat crowd the bowl. When it arrives, I initially focus on the mussels, thinking they are the star of the show as usual in steamed mussel dishes, but then I realize the flavor-packed dish is more reminiscent of a New England chowder, so I eat the broth with a spoon.
Richardson upgrades another relatively simple Central American staple in his marmahon. In this Lebanese dish, which migrated to Honduras with Arab immigrants, he stirs Israeli couscous while it cooks, making it decadent and creamy like risotto. Several preparations of mushrooms—pickled, fried, and powdered—are added, and it’s finished with a shower of nutty, aged Manchego and a spiced, bright red achiote oil to make for a hearty vegetarian entree.
Despite the focus on Central American food, Richardson is quick to say Cafe Louis is not “handcuffed” to one region’s fare. Richardson and chef de cuisine Khristian Martinez use seasonal, local ingredients in their rotating vegetable dishes and salads, like charred bok choy with fermented kohlrabi and an empanada filled with fiddleheads and cheddar. “We do our best to use seasonal ingredients,” Richardson says. “We’re not going to not use fiddleheads, but if I showed them to my grandmother, she’d have no idea what to do with them.” While she may not recognize all the ingredients, his grandmother would surely be proud of how well Richardson is representing the cuisine of Costa Rica in Maine.
173 Ocean St., South Portland
A casual cafe serving Central American cuisine in a lively atmosphere. Maine beers, natural wines, and a small list of tropical cocktails are available.
Small plates $5–$13
SoPo Restaurant Row
Cafe Louis joins a flourishing neighborhood of South Port-land in a strip of new businesses on Ocean Street. The closure of longtime favorites RJ’s Pub and Uncle Andy’s Diner made room for Cafe Louis along with Judy Gibson (helmed by Eventide alum Chris Gibson) and SoPo Seafood, a raw bar-cum-fish market. With Taco Trio and Foul-mouthed Brewing nearby, this South Portland neighborhood provides several enticing alternatives to dining on the busier Portland peninsula.
Brunch: Thursday–Monday, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
Dinner: Thursday–Monday, 5 p.m.–10 p.m.
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