Thursday December 06, 2012 | 12:00 AM


Newly situated at the Wharf Street space where the former Havana South struggled until its demise, Buck’s Naked Barbecue seems poised for success in ways that its predecessor could not achieve.

This is a big space to fill up nightly from the dining pool of  this concise metropolis.  But as a casual restaurant where the prices are family-style sensitive with big portions, it becomes a good deal for local diners.

Notwithstanding, the restaurant is still a sprawling, hopelessly dysfunctional conundrum of rooms. While the faux southwestern motif is gone it’s been replaced by a brew  of Lone Star embellishments complete with knobby wood finishes and tables that look like they belong at a backyard hoedown. 

Ultimately the reason to go to Buck’s Naked is for some excellent barbecue--about as good as it gets anywhere in Maine.

Portland is the third outpost of the Buck’s Naked mini empire.  The original one opened in Freeport in 2005, followed by a branch in Windham. I’ve been to the Freeport establishment since it opened and have returned over the years to enjoy many meals there. 

The kitchen’s massive smoker ovens are primed to deliver a semblance of real pit barbecue layered with natural wood smoke as the various cuts of beef, pork and chicken roast slowly over wood embers of hickory, ash and maple.
 
The kitchen uses a primary spice rub that imparts wonderful flavor during the smoking process and the meat emerges fall-off-the bone tender and succulent. 

As the restaurant name implies this is “naked” BBQ, a method that  doesn't slather the meat with sticky sauces. Personally I like my BBQ wet and wily, with the roasted on  sauce being  the last layer of goodness

Instead, you can choose from a bucket of squeeze bottles on the table containing Maine blueberry, Carolina, smoke house and a curious concoction called red skinny dip, which I didn’t try.  You can also have your ribs glazed in the oven (upon request) with such slathers as Jamaican wet jerk, chili lime, peach glaze and other house concoctions.

We went this past Monday, a slow night for restaurant.  There were three tables of eight filled with mostly male diners chugging beers and digging into those meaty ribs and such.  The two of us sat at a table large enough for six.
 
We shared a selection of, St. Louis-style ribs, pit-barbecued chicken, French fries, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, Cole Slaw and corn bread. 

(Yes, I’m still here to write about it)

Side dishes are a vital component at any BBQ restaurant, and the selection runs the  range  of the usual quirkily delicious dishes like “dinky salad” sweet potato fries, onion rings,  baked beans (very good) and loaded baked potato to name a few.

The ribs with the optional peach glaze were excellent—extremely tender and meaty with rich flavors of smoke and spice.  The chicken was moist, with a perfect smoke ring of red around the meat sheathed in a beautiful mahogany hued skin. 

Buck’s serves one of the best potato salads anywhere in Portland—rich, creamy with just enough spice and sweetness.  The mac and cheese was very good without being soppy and greasy as it can be elsewhere in town.  Its only fault was not having that essential crusty top. 

The terrific fries are humongous wedges of crispy-skinned spuds.  My least favorite sides were the Cole slaw (too dry, somewhat bitter) and the cornbread—New England style but cakey and too dense.

Service was prompt, the kitchen was fast and the wait staff knows the menu well.  Speaking of which, the menu has more than just standard BBQ fare.  It offers a range of burgers and steaks and other choices that include global offerings like grilled Korean short ribs, Thai chili coconut shrimp, lamb kebabs and other culinary kickshaws that benefit from expert grill techniques.
 

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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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