Ten whole years ago (gulp), Duckfat was one of a few storefronts at the tail end of Middle Street, opened by Nancy Pugh and husband/chef Rob Evans as a casual European-inspired spot back when they owned the refined Hugo’s down the block. Now Hugo’s has become part of a highly acclaimed three-restaurant stretch (paired with Eventide and the brand new noodle-focused spot Honey Paw), and Duckfat’s brick-and-mortar neighbor, the East Ender, has been revitalized by owners of a former cult-favorite food truck.
You could spend 48 hours in Portland and not leave the block to eat anywhere else. But keep your eye on Duckfat, because even a decade in, it’s still rivaling the newer darlings with lines out the door.
Two counters dominate the space: a wide, undulating wooden berm that stretches the length of the brick-walled room and a shorter, more traditional bar that also offers seating. Both fill up quickly, along with the few tables flanking the front windows, after the restaurant throws open its doors at 11:00 am each day.
Duckfat calls itself a sandwich shop, but I’d expand the definition a bit to think of it as an upscale diner. The sandwiches, as wonderful as they are, are only part of the attraction—menu items like “duck in a jar” with rhubarb and foie gras, creamy tomato-fennel soup with grilled cheese croutons, or creamsicle milkshakes made with scoops from Gelato Fiasco down the street, will force serious decisions on the final food tally.
And then, of course, there are the fries. Rustic, skin-on frites submerged in—you guessed it—duck fat until they’re crisp and burnished on the outside but still fluffy and tender on the inside, the fries are a must-order for pretty much everyone who eats there. Survey the room and you’ll see the requisite bent iron cones popping up like a field of poppies, surrounded by simple paper cups of garlic mayo, horseradish mayo, or truffle ketchup.
A large cone is more than enough for two people to share, especially when you’ve got those sandwich offerings to consider as well. (Or you can go all-in with the duck gravy-drizzled poutine, putting an egg on it to really make it a meal.)
I’ll make a case for hitting up the haddock melt if you see it on the specials menu—pickled diced celery and loops of sweet pickled shallots add piquancy and crunch, mixed with flaky haddock and house-made celery black pepper mayo. Gooey strands of Swiss stretch out with each bite. House-smoked brisket has the same rich but bracing effect, pairing chow chow and pickled jalapeños with that kind of tender meat that really does seem to melt in your mouth.
Need a simpler option? Goat cheese brightens up a simple BGT (and goat cheese is always > lettuce in my book, anyway) or a Caprese panini proves the point that this particular sandwich combo is a classic for a reason.
If you’re not going for a milkshake, beers and ciders from local favorites like Oxbow, Maine Beer Co., and Bissell Brothers round out the drinks portion of the menu. They’re all top-notch, but in this case, I’d advocate for a house-made soda, like the wild cherry phosphate made from a century-old recipe or the grape, sweetened naturally with concord juice, balsamic vinegar, and verjus.
And if the fries/panini/beer combination hasn’t yet done you in, you can always take a milkshake to go.
Duckfat, 43 Middle St., Portland Maine. 207-774-8080. No reservations accepted.