There is a large Ball jar filled with Dickel Rye Whiskey infusing with an undisclosed amount of smoked brisket at Elsmere BBQ in South Portland. The jug, which hides somewhere behind the bar, holds the makings of Elsmere’s house Dickel Rye brisket shot, a drink that will be available in a couple of weeks. The smoky, boozy concoction has been marinating for nearly a month.
Co-owner and chef Adam Powers says each shot will come with a piece of smoked brisket on a toothpick. This, along with many other special features, such as the free of charge Pac-Man machine, bourbon tastings and “Mama,” their custom-built 4,400-pound Texas smoker, is what makes Elsmere not just another restaurant in town – it’s an institution that will likely be around for years to come.
Powers, a former touring musician, and his business partner, Jeremy Rush (their names alone sound like a rock band), opened Elsmere in August 2013 and quickly became a South Portland favorite.
Powers and Rush wanted to pay homage to the Elsmere Garage that once operated in the same location at Elsmere and Cottage Road back in the 1920s.
They tore down the old Colonial Cleaners and gutted everything. In its place are custom-built booths, beams, vintage-style lighting and even a hand-carved bar made from reclaimed wood found in the Shenandoah Valley.
What’s left is a cozy space with a distinctive, perhaps even intentional, edginess. Think: a pair of distressed designer jeans.
But there’s still a lot of original charm to the place, such as the old vault door to the right as you walk in.
Rumor has it that South Portland residents used to keep their mink coats in the vault back in the 1930s. The vault is now used for office space.
The most obvious tribute to the Elsmere Garage is the massive 1930s sign that’s bolted behind the bar – “Ray’s Auto Radiators” – fit with hand-blown neon tubes, Powers and Rush found the sign from a collector in Connecticut.
Elsmere is packed most nights. In fact, Powers says to expect a 30-minute wait on weekend nights, but also says that things move quickly, so you might not notice.
He’s right. The bartender, while somewhat gruff, is super-fast and if you order food (which, of course, you should), expect your platter of ribs to arrive in less than 15 minutes.
The crowd at the bar is boisterous – some are nursing beers and watching a game, others crowd around each other with what can only be described as BBQ giddiness (there’s something about classic American BBQ that gets to the core of our happiness).
Powers says he’s proud and excited to be part of the ever-growing community of South Portland eateries.
A chef for nearly 15 years in Portland, he says there’s a more collaborative and friendly vibe on the other side of the bridge.
For a taste of Elsmere, check out their happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday. Draft beers, wines and well drinks are discounted, as well as select appetizers. You can’t go wrong.
Claire Jeffers is a Portland freelance writer.