February 10, 2013

Dine Out Maine: Buck's Naked has great barbecue, any way you spell it

Barbecue or BBQ? Spell check says both are correct. Having lived in South Carolina, I understand that Southern enthusiasts take barbecue nuance (even spelling) very seriously. New Englanders do too. Did you know there is a New England Barbecue Society with cooking classes and barbecue judging lessons? (Note to self: sign up at www.nebs.org.)

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Buck’s Naked BBQ Steakhouse opened recently in the Wharf Street space in Portland formerly occupied by Havana South.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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50 Wharf St., Portland. 899-0610; bucksnaked-bbq.com


HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICE RANGE: $3.99 to $31.99; sandwiches in the $8 to 9 range; dinner entrees in the $13 to $25 range; large group platters available for $135 to $265, as are full pig roasts with advance notice

BAR: Full bar with specialty drinks


VEGETARIAN-FRIENDLY: Despite the focus on meat, a vegetarian could leave satisfied


RESERVATIONS: Yes, for parties of six or more


BOTTOM LINE: If you crave meat, Buck's Naked BBQ Steakhouse offers it in all forms. With a clear understanding of Portland's foodie sensibilities, Buck's expands the barbecue experience to include international influences, and the menu offers a few interesting options for the vegetarian and fish-loving crowd. The atmosphere is fun, kid-friendly (in a non-obnoxious way), and the staff is hilarious.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value: ★ Poor  ★★ Fair  ★★★ Good ★★★★  Excellent ★★★★★ Extraordinary.

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

Luckily, Alex and Wendy Caisse, owners of the Buck's restaurant series in Freeport, Windham and now Portland, also appreciate barbecue nuance. While I miss the Cuban music drifting from the old Havana South location on Wharf Street, I was excited to learn about the Buck's Portland expansion plans. Especially so, when I found myself entertaining two Australians on a chilly Old Port night. They craved distinctly American cuisine, and lucky for us, there was Buck's -- open and ready for business!

Here is where I applaud the Caisses' genius idea for families with children. Immediately upon entering, I noticed the separate dining area with a play space for kiddos. Little ones are free to run around, climbing in and out of the mini-playhouses while parents eat at nearby tables. Well done, for finding a way to satisfy the needs and dynamics of all families, including the kid-free.

The bulk of the Buck's space, though, is dimly lighted and cavernous with a long bar area and an abundance of folksy hand-painted signs bearing messages such as "Make your own magic" and "Feed me BBQ and I will love you." Most barbecue lovers understand the "naked" reference, but it was fun to explain to the Aussies that the Buck's philosophy is to slow cook the meat in its purest (and, arguably, most flavorful) form, without use of any sauce.

House-made bottled sauces line each table in a range of heat (and sweet) levels that include Blueberry Haze, Smokehouse Juju, Carolina Gold and Red Skinny Dip varieties, but augmentation is entirely a personal preference.

Bucking (ha!) the naked trend, though, are the Hickory Smoked Chicken Wings ($7.99 for six, $13.99 for a dozen), coated in flavors that include two kinds of capital-letter HOT -- Ring Your Bell or Slap Your Mama.

As tempting as it was to note subtleties between bell ringing and mama slapping, we enjoyed the milder barbecue. Fat, smoky and still crispy while glazed in sweet, sweet tomato-based sauce, these wings were cooked to the bone with no hint of grease or rubber. Wing lovers will not be disappointed.

Buck's Sweet Potato Fries ($6.99) are the shoestring variety, and these are thinly cut, deeply fried and lightly coated with brown sugar. As far as appetizers go, I recommend them. Sweet potato fries are part of the psychological salve that suggests some level of nutritional content.

While talking appetizers, it's good to note the Fooze. What is Fooze? It is a combo of food and booze, and although the same kitsch factor can be irritating in the larger chain restaurants, it felt charming at Buck's.

Signature cocktails are served with a bit of food garnish, in most cases, a rib draped over the large tumbler of beverage.

I opted for the Bloody Buck, dressed with three mammoth olives, a pepperoncini and a slow-cooked baby-back rib. It felt a little weird to dunk the bone into the spicy, ridiculously thick Bloody Mary and then munch away the meat, but the effect sure was tasty.

Another signature item at Buck's? The Burnt Ends With Horseradish ($8.99) are exactly that -- a plateful of those tasty bits at the end of a roast. Drier, but especially delicious to those of us who like to chew. The horseradish dipping sauce was delicious, and felt like a bonus.

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