Wednesday, April 16, 2014
This is a tale of two emerging BBQ cities, South Portland and Portland, which might beg the question, Can you have too many barbecue joints? Or is it a matter of “You can never be too rich or too thin.”
After making the rounds of the enfant terribles of the current barbecue bacchanalia in Greater Portland, the answer is definitely this: Elsmere BBQ , 448 Cottage Rd., South Portland and Salvage Barbecue , 919 Congress St., Portland are the two reigning upstarts that will quickly make their mark in our dining frenzy.
Elsmere BBQ sits squarely on Cottage Road, with plenty of parking along the side and in the back
Salvage's discreet entryway belies the vast room inside
These two establishments embody authentic southern barbecue, which has been lacking in our northern clime until now, excluding Buck’s Naked, which I view as more of an interpretation of good southern BBQ northern style.
But what gives Elsmere and Salvage the edge is their success in replicating the essence of true southern barbecue, which many feel is the original American cuisine.
They’ve both mastered these essentials: the spice rub; the long, slow smoking over wood and the sauce. And there’s one other distinction that begs another question: wet or dry--glazed or with sauce or on the side?
Then there are the side dishes. These are must haves on any barbecue menu. It has to boast killer mac and cheese, great breads, collards, slaws, potato salad, beans and sauce.
Another essential is the smoking equipment. Elsmere and Salvage have very impressive custom-made smokers that are the warhorses of the genre. At Elsmere, it’s “Mama,” their nickname for a massive, handcrafted smoker, which is the only Bewley Texas-built barbecue smoker pit in the Northeast.
Salvage has their own unique custom built humongous smoker that looks big enough to power a steam ship. It sits behind the restaurant where all their smoking magic takes place.
Though I had already been to Salvage on Saturday for the preview party and tasting, I went on Monday with a friend to Elsmere for the sit-down experience. It’s a great looking place inside and out. Hugging Cottage Road on the stretch just before the tonier confines of Cape Elizabeth, the space was the former Colonial Cleaners until Tony Powers and Jeremy Rush, two long-time friends, each with a penchant for barbecue, bought the building. The rest is history.
As for the name It's so called because it's on the corner of Elsmere Street where in past times it operated as the Elsmere Garage.
Both Elsmere and Salvage respectively did their homework to learn the ropes by visiting roadside joints and diners throughout the south to get the gist of what constitutes real barbecue.
Elsmere follows the Texas style more than Deep South. Salvage also favors Texas style in preparation and procedural nuances.
The dining room at Elsmere is a happy, lively room where you definitely feel that you're in a Texas style BBQ roadhouse
At Elsmere, the room was packed with diners around communal tables, at the grill bar and the drinks bar with a mix of families, children and adults waiting for Lone Star eats.
My friend and I both ordered standard plates, which included the main course, corn bread and a choice of two sides.
Elsmere's pork ribs, collards and macaroni and cheese with cornbread wrapped in foil
Seating at the grill bar is a great place to sit and watch the cooks manipulate their massive grill fed by burning wood embers where the meats are heated up after smoking
The wood grill at Elsmere where the meats are reheated to give them that extra crisp finish
I had the ribs platter, St. Louis style, with macaroni and cheese and collards. My dining partner ordered the pulled pork, baked beans and Cole slaw.
Elsmere’s ribs are not heavily seasoned, staying true to the Texas style of using just salt and pepper. But they were well smoked, tender and meaty. The collards had good smoke and pork flavor and the mac and cheese was creamy. It wasn’t my favorite — made with evaporated milk and several cheeses — because it lacked that oomph of richness.
My friend’s pulled pork, he said, was so good it didn’t need any sauce. He also loved the cole slaw—a crunchy style just marinated in vinegar and probably a touch of oil and onion. It’s a great type of slaw without being cloying or overly sweet.
Elsmere's pulled pork, cornbread, crunchy Cole slaw and baked beans
Service, however, was slow. In fact I had to ask one of the chefs to find us a waitress. This is typical growing pains of a new restaurant and presumably it will all come together.
Jay Villani’s (Local 188 and Sonny’s) Salvage offers a different experience altogether. Their aim is to be an authentic Texas style barbecue hut. You walk in, go to the ordering station, place your order for food and beverages, pay for it and then find yourself a table; the food is brought out to you by a wait person. On a packed night this might prove troublesome unless these stations are well attended and the servers have photographic memories. But I guess it’s been working in Texas for years; Mainers will find their way.
The blackboard menu at Salvage BBQ next to the order counter
I loved the food at Salvage. I devised a combo platter with some pork ribs, beef ribs, sausage, brisket and lots of sides — a formidable portion that will certainly send me to hours on the treadmill.
There's a great feeling in the huge dining space at Salvage BBQ, where seating is at communal tables and the bar on the left
Other than the smoker out back, the kitchen handles everything else at Salvage; the meats from the smoker go into a holding oven where they're kept at 145 degrees, further breaking the fibers down to have meats and poultry emerge buttery soft within but crispy-smokey on the outside
The ribs had richness by being well spiced with a complex rub; the brisket was meltingly tender and the sausage very smoky and spicy. I wish these had a sauce glaze but that’s not the style here either. I’m getting used to the dry method, and since the meats and their preparations are so good, they stand well unadorned. The two sauces in squeeze bottles — one mustard vinegar and the other tomato based — were excellent.
The combo platter has it all with pulled pork, mac and cheese, hush puppies, beans, pork and beef ribs, brisket, sausage, house-made pickles and the esssential slice of white bread to sop up the juices
There’s no biscuit or cornbread on the menu but hush-puppies instead. I had a side of these, and I’ll take them anytime. They are incredible examples of this uniquely southern staple, which are basically cornbread balls that are deep fried.
The pinto beans were more Texas style than the sweet, sticky New England version — and they’re very good. I liked Salvage’s mac and cheese better than Elsmere’s but neither are as good as they could be. The best I’ve ever had was from a restaurant called Sweetie Pie’s in St. Louis, MO, whose chef, Miss Robbie Montgomery, makes a mac and cheese casserole fit for the gods (See March 20, 2013 posting for the recipe).
I splurged and treated myself to one of the desserts by baker Trent Harris who’s been with Villani for years. His peach pie set in a buttery crust with a crumb topping was classic.
At Salvage, Trent's peach pie with crumb topping
Elsmere and Salvage will not have to duke it out for the number one spot because they are two equally great additions to our dining Mecca. Whether you take the bridge to the outer limits of South Portland’s Elsmere BBQ or traverse the seedy byway of Lower Congress Street to reach Salvage BBQ each is a rewarding pilgrimage.Tweet
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.