Monday, March 10, 2014
By Shonna Milliken Humphrey
With all the hype surrounding Jay Villani’s latest food venture, this time into the world of barbecue, I broke away from the traditional understanding that new restaurants often take a while to settle into a rhythm. Villani is the head of Local 188 and Sonny’s, so this isn’t his first restaurant rodeo, and like every other barbecue lover driving by the old Portland Architectural Salvage building, I was curious.
The new Salvage BBQ in the old Portland Architectural Salvage Building shows off owner Jay Villani’s penchant for creating spaces that feel intimate regardless of size.
Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer
SALVAGE BBQ, 919 Congress St., Portland. 553-2100; salvagebbq.com
HOURS: Kitchen, 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; bar until 1 a.m.
PRICE RANGE: $3 to $25
CREDIT CARDS: Yes
KIDS: No kids’ menu
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: Salvage BBQ is an overall good experience. What Salvage BBQ gets right, is quite good, especially the atmosphere, the drinks, and most importantly – the meat. Stick with the basics, and enjoy!
Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value: H Poor HH Fair HHH Good HHHH Excellent HHHHH Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.
First came the rumors. Then the signage, retro-hip and painted in big letters on the brick facade. Then the press. Then even more press, this time with photos. It spiked an anticipation frenzy, with whispers of “When is Salvage BBQ opening?” along with the understanding that it would be not just be good, but outstanding.
All to note, expectations were high. This level of expectation is a blessing and a curse for restaurateurs, and my experience at Salvage BBQ reminded me that these expectations must be managed.
Local 188 is among my go-to recommendations and Sonny’s tops that list, too, not just for the excellent food, but because Villani knows how to create a space that feels intimate regardless of size, with artistic interest and inspired use of light and color.
This was evident upon opening the Salvage BBQ door. The wood floors shine, the high ceiling is lined with minimalist light fixtures, retro chrome kitchen tables offer seating at the front, and family-style benches accommodate larger parties (or shared smaller parties) in the back.
Festive string lights add fun, and there is a lounge area near the front windows. The menu is a massive chalkboard, and painted arrows direct diners to “order here” on the right and “pick up” on the left.
The system is a little confusing, so I asked the counter server if, after ordering, I should find a table or wait for my order. (Answer: Order at the counter, find a table, and the server will then bring food to you.)
Before ordering, however, I checked out the bar. As expected, Villani’s good taste in liquor was clear, with a big vat of house-infused peach bourbon sitting on the counter and just waiting to be mixed into the West Hills Billy, an $8 cocktail with citrus and honey.
Salvage BBQ has plenty of beer options, too, but bourbon cocktails and BBQ – while a departure from the norm – taste good. Try it.
First, let me describe the positives, and by positives I mean astonishingly tender, well-seasoned meat in even and manageable proportions at fair prices for the level of quality. The Meat Coma ($24) is the best value proposition, as it includes a quarter rack of ribs, brisket, chopped pork and a cup of chili. It arrived on a large, paper-lined metal tray with no real explanation from the server, just an assortment of meats, separated by tangy, crunchy sweet cucumber and onion pickles.
We just dug in. The St. Louis-style ribs, dry rubbed and gristle-free, had none of the giant salt lick sensibility that often accompanies dry rubs. Heavy with spice, these ribs were smoky and tender. Chopped pork was a little dry, but any dryness was addressed with a squirt from one of the two types of table sauces – vinegar and a mild tomato-based. Salvage BBQ brisket, the standout for me, comes in fatty or lean options at $17 per pound if bought individually, and was fall-apart tender with the bits of fat adding a succulent texture and rich flavor.
The Meat Coma’s chili, however, was the first indication that the meal would not be 100 percent sublime. On this night, the Salvage BBQ version of chili was loaded with meat chunks, but in a bland, mushy sort of meat stew way. It was not a table favorite.
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