Saturday, March 8, 2014
We enjoyed all the fixings too, like the excellent baked beans. Pulled beef held just as eloquent a flavor of smoke and hot cayenne and chili.
Monson, a three-hour drive from Portland, was my destination on a recent weekend for a visit to the Borestone Mountain Audubon Sanctuary in neighboring Elliotsville, and a hike up the three-mile trail through a forest left uncut for 100 years. The stop at Spring Creek Bar-B-Q was the essential preparation for the next day's climb up hundreds of feet of stone stairs, set in place by Maine Conservation Corps volunteers.
Mike Witham and his wife, Kim Witham, tend a smoker two doors down the street, getting meals under way at 7 or 8 in the morning. The supply of ribs can vanish early on some days of heavy demand, so reserving your desired portion by phone early in the day is a recommended tactic.
Ribs are sold by the pound ($12), and a half-rack split between two gave each of us three meaty and savory ribs to gnaw on, and one extra to fight over. The incredibly tender meat is enriched by smoky flavors and a spice rub that heightened the taste perfectly.
Texas Toast ($2) proved that fluffy white bread can be redeemed -- by sustained grilling that created a deep golden-brown crunchy surface, liberal amounts of butter or oil, and garlic powder.
Baked beans ($2) are imbued with the same perfume of smoke as the meat, with salt pork enriching the meaty, dark sauce around the tender little beans.
All the parts of our meal were served on a tray and set on paper plates with plastic flatware. A roll of paper towels is set on each table for the copious wiping necessary with such good barbecue.
Potato salad and coleslaw (both $2) are taken by the customer who orders them from the cooler next to the counter, where you can also find chow chow and corn relish along with a Tupperware container of deviled eggs. Tangy Morse's Sauerkraut, made in Warren, is transported to this outpost by a couple of fishermen from Friendship. In the freezer are supplies for a longer stay, like the house sausage, house pastrami and ice cream. Pastrami is also usually available to order.
The orange-painted dining room, with a yellow tin ceiling and worn, painted-wood floor, holds two large oak tables that are easy to share. At dinner, we enjoyed a conversation with a through-hiker whose trail name was Pilot, who had just emerged from the Appalachian Trail nearby to feast on Spring Creek's good hot food. Pilot started his hike in Georgia 2,100 miles away in March, and was looking forward to completing the trail a few days later.
As conversation bounced back and forth, a quick synopsis of the area was offered by Mike Witham, who said, ''Piscataquis County is considered the frontier. It's the size of Connecticut, and it has 17,000 people.''
A second narrow room holds a counter set beside windows with stools. A wood stove, located in the basement below the dining room, heats the building in the winter.
Smoked chicken salad sandwiches (small $5, large $7), grilled cheese ($3), and a BLT ($4) are served, and chocolate chip cookies can be picked out of a glass cookie jar on the counter ($1 each). A china mug is available to pour yourself a cup of Downeast Coffee Colombian Supremo.
A freshly baked apple pie was served for dessert on our visit, and although it could have cooked a while longer to crisp the bottom crust, its filling and top crust were delicious. By dessert, the cafe conversation had shifted to Maine's Land Use Regulation Commission, with folks weighing in on the controversial resort and 975-house-lot development called Plum Creek on Moosehead Lake.
''We have a lot of nice discussions here -- all the hot topics. We get every side on most things,'' said Witham. ''If you come through the door and you don't have an opinion, we'll assign you one.'' Customers include the rich, the poor, people for McCain, people for Obama, he said -- and everyone has a say.
If you visit Spring Creek on Friday night, you will also be able to revel in the weekly gathering of musicians at the Monson General Store a few doors away.
Music on one Friday was performed by seven or eight guitarists, three fiddle players, two on banjo and one on accordion, along with a clarinet and saxophone player, all squeezed together between the video rack and the Dayquil display in the store owned by Tim Anderson, husband of Monson's town clerk. The all-ages audience joined in on the refrain.
N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of ''Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.'' Visit English's Web site, www.chowmaineguide.com.