With all the hype surrounding Jay Villani’s latest food venture, this time into the world of barbecue, I broke away from the traditional understanding that new restaurants often take a while to settle into a rhythm. Villani is the head of Local 188 and Sonny’s, so this isn’t his first restaurant rodeo, and like every other barbecue lover driving by the old Portland Architectural Salvage building, I was curious.
First came the rumors. Then the signage, retro-hip and painted in big letters on the brick facade. Then the press. Then even more press, this time with photos. It spiked an anticipation frenzy, with whispers of “When is Salvage BBQ opening?” along with the understanding that it would be not just be good, but outstanding.
All to note, expectations were high. This level of expectation is a blessing and a curse for restaurateurs, and my experience at Salvage BBQ reminded me that these expectations must be managed.
Local 188 is among my go-to recommendations and Sonny’s tops that list, too, not just for the excellent food, but because Villani knows how to create a space that feels intimate regardless of size, with artistic interest and inspired use of light and color.
This was evident upon opening the Salvage BBQ door. The wood floors shine, the high ceiling is lined with minimalist light fixtures, retro chrome kitchen tables offer seating at the front, and family-style benches accommodate larger parties (or shared smaller parties) in the back.
Festive string lights add fun, and there is a lounge area near the front windows. The menu is a massive chalkboard, and painted arrows direct diners to “order here” on the right and “pick up” on the left.
The system is a little confusing, so I asked the counter server if, after ordering, I should find a table or wait for my order. (Answer: Order at the counter, find a table, and the server will then bring food to you.)
Before ordering, however, I checked out the bar. As expected, Villani’s good taste in liquor was clear, with a big vat of house-infused peach bourbon sitting on the counter and just waiting to be mixed into the West Hills Billy, an $8 cocktail with citrus and honey.
Salvage BBQ has plenty of beer options, too, but bourbon cocktails and BBQ – while a departure from the norm – taste good. Try it.
First, let me describe the positives, and by positives I mean astonishingly tender, well-seasoned meat in even and manageable proportions at fair prices for the level of quality. The Meat Coma ($24) is the best value proposition, as it includes a quarter rack of ribs, brisket, chopped pork and a cup of chili. It arrived on a large, paper-lined metal tray with no real explanation from the server, just an assortment of meats, separated by tangy, crunchy sweet cucumber and onion pickles.
We just dug in. The St. Louis-style ribs, dry rubbed and gristle-free, had none of the giant salt lick sensibility that often accompanies dry rubs. Heavy with spice, these ribs were smoky and tender. Chopped pork was a little dry, but any dryness was addressed with a squirt from one of the two types of table sauces – vinegar and a mild tomato-based. Salvage BBQ brisket, the standout for me, comes in fatty or lean options at $17 per pound if bought individually, and was fall-apart tender with the bits of fat adding a succulent texture and rich flavor.
The Meat Coma’s chili, however, was the first indication that the meal would not be 100 percent sublime. On this night, the Salvage BBQ version of chili was loaded with meat chunks, but in a bland, mushy sort of meat stew way. It was not a table favorite.
A fluke, we thought, and moved on. Returning to that delicious brisket, we also ordered it in sandwich form. The Chopped Brisket Sandwich ($9) with house bread is topped with a traditional relish of coleslaw and pickles. It looked great, presented on those homemade bread slices, but unfortunately, the slices could not support the heft of the meat with its liquid, and the soggy bottom slice of bread fell apart upon lifting. It tasted delicious, and the bread texture was fabulous. As a unit though? This sandwich needs work. Maybe as an open face or with a more substantial bun?
Sides are sold by size: small ($3), pint ($6) and quart ($10) and include the BBQ standards: potato salad, cole slaw, pinto beans, collard greens, and mac and cheese. Hushpuppies, also a side, are priced differently (eight for $4 and 16 for $7).
The hushpuppies, little balls of fried cornbread, were grease-free and crisp with a light, slightly spongy structure. (Interesting etymology, if it is to be believed: Corn balls were originally thrown at dogs to “hush the puppies.”)
Salvage BBQ clearly studied up on the nature of mac and cheese and collard greens. The mac and cheese, creamy, mild and smooth with no hint of mush or oily cheese separation, was the simplest and most direct form of comfort food – and, I’ll wager, among the tastiest in town. Same for the collard greens, again, with simple preparation as the guiding principle. They tasted like straight-up greens, and that is a good thing.
On this particular night, the cole slaw was limp and the dish half full of liquid, rendering it a sort of watery cabbage soup. The potato salad’s potatoes weren’t fork-tender but rather, crunchy and sour. I can’t believe that’s how any of these were meant to be presented.
Pie was on the dessert menu, and we ordered both blueberry with streusel topping and pecan (both $5 a slice). The pecans themselves were burnt. The pie innards – sweet and gooey – were in keeping with the best of all possible pecan pies, but the crust was so tough, we could not cut it with the plastic utensils. The blueberry, with the same tough crust, posed the same cutting problem, but with the addition of a very gummy filling.
I sincerely hope the three unsavory sides and the desserts were just a Wednesday night, midweek anomaly, because Villani’s food is better than this. This is where managing expectations is so very important. Mine were too high.
Jay Villani has set a local food standard, and I was expecting the best of the best, so any disappointments felt unusually magnified. Had I wandered blindly into Salvage BBQ for some ribs, a bourbon cocktail, and a side of hushpuppies without the hype or buildup, no doubt I would have left ecstatic at the fabulous new find. My sincere hope – is that other diners will do the same.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”