Welcome to the October edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Jordan Rubin. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on Instagram, so stay tuned.
Mr. Tuna premiered in Portland in July 2017 and made a splash from the start — gaining national attention and building a loyal local following. For many, Mr. Tuna is a gateway to sushi. Colorful cone-shaped rolls served cartside coupled with owner Jordan Rubin’s laid-back attitude makes eating sushi for the first time far less intimidating. You don’t need to know the difference between nigiri and maki or how to use chopsticks to enjoy his food.
Jordan has worked on and off in sushi for over fifteen years. His first professional kitchen experience was at Uni Sashimi Bar under the mentorship of Ken Origner, one of Boston’s most notable chefs and restaurateurs. His time at Uni overlapped with Chris Gould’s, who went on to open Central Provisions where Jordan eventually got his local start.
Jordan’s affection for Maine brought him to Portland in 2014. He joined Gould in the kitchen for one year before leaving Central Provisions to help open Solo Italiano with Paolo Labao. He manned Solo’s crudo bar and crafted spectacular dishes, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy his love of working with raw fish.
When he launched Mr. Tuna, he set up shop on Commercial Street right across from Solo Italiano, slinging hand rolls and sushi burritos from a hot dog cart. Not surprisingly, Paulo was one of his first customers. Since then, he’s added several trailers to his mobile unit and landed a spot in the Public Market House.
These days, you can find Mr. Tuna in Portland at the Eastern Promenade seven days a week from 11am to 7pm and Austin Street Brewery every Saturday year round. For now, he remains temporarily closed at the Market House. You can also catch him in Brunswick at the Town Mall Monday through Saturday from 11am to 3pm. Follow @mr.tuna_maine to stay up-to-date on schedule changes.
In this month’s edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, you’ll learn where to get a great meal outside of Portland, which hand roll Jordan’s loving right now, and how he’s staying in business during a pandemic while also giving back to the community. Read the full interview below and stay tuned for weekly Instagram stories featuring some of the excellent dishes and restaurants that he frequents.
AA: What made you want to start Mr. Tuna?
JR: I loved working at Solo, but deep down in my heart I’m a sushi chef. I remember seeing the HighRoller Lobster cart with maybe twenty people in line and they just looked like they were having a great time. I didn’t have the capital to open a restaurant, so we started the cheapest possible way we could – with a hot dog cart. I got it on Craigslist from Vinalhaven. It was a real hunk of junk, but we made it work.
AA: Your fiancė, Marisa, has been crucial to the business from the start. What is her role?
JR: She does a lot – payroll, scheduling, booking events, our social media and marketing. She is also front-of-the-house manager at the market and works on the food truck.
AA: How has the pandemic affected your business?
JR: A lot of people assume food trucks are making a killing through the pandemic, but we’re really not. The majority of my business is in catering and special events. Without the festivals, breweries, and Thompson’s Point concerts, it’s been really tough. In the beginning, we were making a ‘Laid-Off Lunch’ bento box for two dollars. Over 200 people came the first day it was available. Eventually, I couldn’t afford to do it anymore, but then I heard about Cooking for Community.
AA: What is Cooking for Community (C4C) and how has it helped support your business during the pandemic?
JR: C4C raises money to pay restaurants to make food that feeds those in need. It’s a win-win. I have guaranteed work for my employees, we’re making a small profit, and we’re feeding the hungry. We do 200-500 meals per week for the YMCA, the My Place Teen Center in Westbrook, and Amistad. We usually make sushi with seaweed salad and edamame or chicken teriyaki with steamed broccoli and rice.
AA: What is your vision for the future of Mr. Tuna?
JR: I’ll never stop doing hand rolls, but I’d like to offer more elegant and traditional Japanese cuisine. When I went to Japan, it really opened my eyes to omakase-style dining. Before COVID-19, I did a couple omakase ticketed dinners at the Market House. We sold out both times for all three seatings. There were fourteen courses of nigiri, a few hot dishes, and a dessert. Ultimately, I hope to have my own brick-and-mortar someday.
AA: What are some of your favorite Mr. Tuna hand rolls?
JR: Right now, the otoro roll is one of my favorites. It’s has local line-caught bluefin tuna belly that is aged and brushed with nikiri, a sweetened reduced soy sauce, with pickled daikon radish and scallions. We age all of our tuna for up to two weeks to develop the flavor and texture. I also really love Boston mackerel; it’s so under appreciated. A lot of people have had a bad experience with mackerel, but I encourage everyone to try ours. We use fresh, locally-caught mackerel. It’s lightly cured , brushed with nikiri, and paired with grated ginger, and scallion, and nikiri.
AA: If someone is visiting Portland for the first time, what restaurant do they have to eat at?
JR: I always recommend Solo Italiano – it’s some of the best food. Get the carbonara di mare. Instead of using eggs, he uses sea urchin to emulsify the sauce. It’s really rich and creamy. Then he adds clams, mussels, and shrimp. It’s so decadent. The tajarin with sixty-yolk pasta and white truffles will blow your mind, too.
AA: What are some of your go-to meals in Portland?
JR: Being in the Market House, I eat at Yardie Ting a lot. Chef Wright does this curry goat that is unbelievable. It’s so tender with tons of spices. [watch Yardie Ting hef/owner Shanna-Kay Wright make her curry goat] Another one is Belleville’s pepperoni pizza. Chef Deutsch makes it with the really good pepperoni that curls up into a cup then drizzles hot honey on top. I drive by every day leaving the Eastern Promenade and it’s so hard not to stop. [learn how Belleville makes their pepperoni pizza]
AA: Where have you dined recently that really impressed you?
JR: I just tried Judy Gibson in South Portland. I really like Chef Wilcox’s flavors. They’re very unexpected. He builds the menu around whatever is in season and uses a lot of local produce and seafood. I especially appreciate his salads – there’s always two or three. Some places put salad on a menu because they feel like they need to, but he’s really thoughtful about it. [learn how to make a Judy Gibson salad]
AA: Where else outside of Portland would you recommend?
JR: One of my favorite places is Purple House in Yarmouth. It’s unbelievable. Everything I’ve eaten there is so good. She does pizza, ice cream, wood-fired bagels, salads – all kinds of stuff. Krista Desjarlais is next level. She cooks from the heart. I have so much respect for her. [watch Krista Desjarlais dish-up some of her excellent ice cream]
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article…Solo Italiano has both indoor and outdoor seating, Yardie Ting is available for takeout as is Belleville, Judy Gibson has takeout and The Purple House will be re-opening for takeout next week on October 22nd.