Barbecue or BBQ? Spell check says both are correct. Having lived in South Carolina, I understand that Southern enthusiasts take barbecue nuance (even spelling) very seriously. New Englanders do too. Did you know there is a New England Barbecue Society with cooking classes and barbecue judging lessons? (Note to self: sign up at www.nebs.org.)
Luckily, Alex and Wendy Caisse, owners of the Buck’s restaurant series in Freeport, Windham and now Portland, also appreciate barbecue nuance. While I miss the Cuban music drifting from the old Havana South location on Wharf Street, I was excited to learn about the Buck’s Portland expansion plans. Especially so, when I found myself entertaining two Australians on a chilly Old Port night. They craved distinctly American cuisine, and lucky for us, there was Buck’s — open and ready for business!
Here is where I applaud the Caisses’ genius idea for families with children. Immediately upon entering, I noticed the separate dining area with a play space for kiddos. Little ones are free to run around, climbing in and out of the mini-playhouses while parents eat at nearby tables. Well done, for finding a way to satisfy the needs and dynamics of all families, including the kid-free.
The bulk of the Buck’s space, though, is dimly lighted and cavernous with a long bar area and an abundance of folksy hand-painted signs bearing messages such as “Make your own magic” and “Feed me BBQ and I will love you.” Most barbecue lovers understand the “naked” reference, but it was fun to explain to the Aussies that the Buck’s philosophy is to slow cook the meat in its purest (and, arguably, most flavorful) form, without use of any sauce.
House-made bottled sauces line each table in a range of heat (and sweet) levels that include Blueberry Haze, Smokehouse Juju, Carolina Gold and Red Skinny Dip varieties, but augmentation is entirely a personal preference.
Bucking (ha!) the naked trend, though, are the Hickory Smoked Chicken Wings ($7.99 for six, $13.99 for a dozen), coated in flavors that include two kinds of capital-letter HOT — Ring Your Bell or Slap Your Mama.
As tempting as it was to note subtleties between bell ringing and mama slapping, we enjoyed the milder barbecue. Fat, smoky and still crispy while glazed in sweet, sweet tomato-based sauce, these wings were cooked to the bone with no hint of grease or rubber. Wing lovers will not be disappointed.
Buck’s Sweet Potato Fries ($6.99) are the shoestring variety, and these are thinly cut, deeply fried and lightly coated with brown sugar. As far as appetizers go, I recommend them. Sweet potato fries are part of the psychological salve that suggests some level of nutritional content.
While talking appetizers, it’s good to note the Fooze. What is Fooze? It is a combo of food and booze, and although the same kitsch factor can be irritating in the larger chain restaurants, it felt charming at Buck’s.
Signature cocktails are served with a bit of food garnish, in most cases, a rib draped over the large tumbler of beverage.
I opted for the Bloody Buck, dressed with three mammoth olives, a pepperoncini and a slow-cooked baby-back rib. It felt a little weird to dunk the bone into the spicy, ridiculously thick Bloody Mary and then munch away the meat, but the effect sure was tasty.
Another signature item at Buck’s? The Burnt Ends With Horseradish ($8.99) are exactly that — a plateful of those tasty bits at the end of a roast. Drier, but especially delicious to those of us who like to chew. The horseradish dipping sauce was delicious, and felt like a bonus.
Too heavy, too fast? Try the Grilled Romaine Salad ($10.99). Buck’s adds to the growing trend of grilled lettuces, and this dinner-sized version includes a charred romaine head with roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, goat cheese and croutons.
Make no mistake, Buck’s is about flesh, but vegetarians will leave satisfied and not just by the side dishes available in regular offerings and Jacked Up varieties. (Of particular note: Cheesy Cheddar Grits and the Baked Beans. Mmm.)
The “Global Wandering” section of the menu offers veggie-friendly items like the Falafel and Vegetable Dinner for $15.99 or Four Cheese Mac and Cheese for $12.99. This new menu section tips very close to “all things to all people” territory, but, ultimately, it felt less distracting and more interesting. (Those Grilled Korean Beef Short Ribs for $16.99 sounded good, as did the Citrus Soy Sesame Salmon with edamame for $18.99.)
But I came for the barbecue. In either seven- ($31.99) or four-bone ($22.99) quantities, the Buck’s kitchen turns out dinosaur-sized and velvety tender beef ribs. The same is true for the pork ribs, in full- and half-rack sizes. While the difference between baby-back and St. Louis ribs involves an unappetizing lesson on porcine anatomy, the synopsis is that the Buck’s kitchen does both right. Cooked low, slow and naked, the meat reaches its highest possible flavor potential. When the ribs arrived at the table, the Aussies were suitably impressed and this food writer was too.
It’s the most tired of cliches, but the meat did, indeed, fall from the bone. Or, rather, it offered very little resistance. Packed with taste already, it seemed a sacrilege to squirt the ribs with sauce, and I suspect that’s the point of naked meat enjoyment.
Noting the subtle addition of “Steakhouse” to the Buck’s name, I had intended to sample the steak menu, especially the 16-ounce grilled Ribeye (market price) topped with chimichurri pesto, but Buck’s food is so solid, the portions are so substantial and I was already nearing critical meat coma status. That noted, those thick steaks served to the table next to us now top the “to order” list for next time.
The cheeky “I ate naked at Buck’s” bumper stickers? I will probably buy some of those too.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”