Summer in Maine means road trips up the coast, and if you find yourself craving barbecue in the Ellsworth area, I suggest a detour to Mainely Meat on Main.
One of three locations (two others are in Bar Harbor), Mainely Meat on Main is a welcome, leg-stretching presence after a few hours in the car. The building itself is nondescript: A squat edifice tucked back from the street with a large sign advertising the space above smaller, marquee-style letters noting five Atlantic Brewing Co. beers.
Farther down the driveway, a less subtle “BBQ” shines its enormous three letters in neon red above the side entrance. A metal-roofed smokehouse in the parking lot gives the space a roadhouse atmosphere, and Mainely Meat looks like a joint.
I love a good barbecue joint.
Live local music is advertised Wednesday to Sunday, and while the chalkboard warns that it might get loud, this Sunday was particularly quiet despite the dedicated stage area. (Musicians and music lovers take note: When a venue commits to a dedicated stage area, it’s generally a good space for a good time.)
Raised wooden booths dominate the room, separated by a unique set of clear-glass windowpane-style dividers. Industrial ductwork ceilings are softened by orange draping. With an occasional old-fashioned metal advertising sign, the place offers a strange blend of contemporary and country-casual.
Bar Harbor artist Helen Douglas plays a role in this ambiance, through her series of contour drawings (pigs, chickens, cows) that hang along the side walls and appear on souvenir T-shirts and notecards. The art itself is a little unsettling — black-and-white animals with evocative splashes of blood-red — but her drawings are also refreshing, cartoon-like and cute.
Dining tables are fashioned from old doors and topped with vintage black-and-white family snapshots, while table condiments are presented in repurposed cardboard Coors Light six-packs against an upright roll of paper towels.
Simplicity is the theme here, and the menu is true to its name, focusing on a half-dozen or so primarily meat preparations.
Choose between a Pulled Pork Dinner ($10.98), Half Chicken ($11.92) and a Full Rack of Ribs ($19.39) or taste all three, plus sausage, with The Sampler ($14.96). Or upgrade to The Max Plate for $45.33 and receive four times the standard amount. (This is a huge value for takeout or large parties.)
Slow-cooked, tender and unadorned, Mainely Meat’s kitchen produces succulent, flavorful meat on a plate. Boneless chicken thighs were my personal favorite, squirted with alternating house-made sauce flavors — also fitting the theme with just two basics, Sweet or Hot.
The Sweet is a standard tomato base with the tiniest hint of smoke, and the Hot is a jacked-up orange Tabasco sauce reminiscence. Both are delicious. (Note: Sauces are available for sale at $8 per jar on your way out the door.)
The chicken thigh, cooked well but in no way dry, had a pleasant exterior char, and I happily picked my way through the portion. Ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender, and the pulled pork equally so. Sausage tasted salty and spicy.
All of these meats, while in no way complex, showcased the best kind of simple: Meat in its purest form. Pork tasted like pork, and chicken tasted like chicken. While I appreciate the subtleties of marinades and rubs, this experience is not that. Instead, imagine your dad’s at-home smoker or grill running strong on the Fourth of July.
The Small House Salad ($3.04) is plenty big, but there is a Large House version for $6.32 (add grilled or fried chicken for $3.97). While the salad presents like the lettuce-in-a-bag variety — complete with individual plastic tubs of dressing and pre-shredded cheddar cheese — it is certainly substantial, and if expectations are managed, quite tasty.
Even tastier? Each of the sides. Although told they are made in-house, both coleslaw and potato salad have an industrial appearance, each served in the shape of a cafeteria ice-cream scoop. This is not a bad thing. Think vintage.
As a bonus for those who grew up on this entirely regional interpretation, the potato salad scoop is done mashed, not cubed, and rich with mayo and mustard flavor. Mmm. Comfort food, (northern) Maine style.
Now is where I confess my love of cornbread and appreciation of the many different interpretations. At Mainely Meat, cornbread is dense and moist, thin like a sheet cake and smooth-textured with very little crumble.
Likewise, the baked beans have no hint of pastiness, just tender, molasses beans like your grandmothers probably used to bake in the crockpot on Saturday night. Add that mashed potato salad scoop, and for those of us natives, it was nostalgia on a plate.
Sandwiches include the expected: Chicken ($8.41), 10-ounce hamburger ($8.41) or pulled pork ($7.71). But the most surprising and unexpected part of the meal also came from the sandwich section. I confess to ordering the Veggie Burger ($7.71) as a novelty, but it was one of the highlights.
Upgraded to the Ed’s Special Bomb for $1.40 more (jalapenos, grilled onions and cheddar cheese), this substantial burger was requested well-done to avoid any potential mush factor. Crispy and chewy in all the best meat burger ways, and with the loaded, spicy toppings, it was easy to forget its flesh-free status.
As an added consideration, our server informed us that veggie burgers are typically cooked on the same grill as the meat burgers, but that the kitchen would be happy to use a separate pan.
For a joint that advertises (ahem) mainly meat, the kitchen makes a terrific veggie burger that could convert even the most rigid carnivore. For those looking to enjoy meat-free barbecue, I absolutely recommend this menu item.
Add one of Atlantic Brewing Co.’s offerings to include root beer and blueberry soda (although I suggest the just slightly-bitter-in-a-dark-chocolate-good-way Coal Porter or the light and refreshing Bar Harbor Summer Ale), and I can’t think how to better punctuate a sunny Maine road trip.
As a destination or a rest stop, Mainely Meat on Main is well worth the drive.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”