October 6, 2013

Dine Out Maine: Salvage BBQ in Portland lives up to many well-stoked expectations

You’ll enjoy tender, well-seasoned meat in manageable proportions at fair prices.

By Shonna Milliken Humphrey

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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

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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

BAR: Full




KIDS: No kids’ menu


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.

A fluke, we thought, and moved on. Returning to that delicious brisket, we also ordered it in sandwich form. The Chopped Brisket Sandwich ($9) with house bread is topped with a traditional relish of coleslaw and pickles. It looked great, presented on those homemade bread slices, but unfortunately, the slices could not support the heft of the meat with its liquid, and the soggy bottom slice of bread fell apart upon lifting. It tasted delicious, and the bread texture was fabulous. As a unit though? This sandwich needs work. Maybe as an open face or with a more substantial bun?

Sides are sold by size: small ($3), pint ($6) and quart ($10) and include the BBQ standards: potato salad, cole slaw, pinto beans, collard greens, and mac and cheese. Hushpuppies, also a side, are priced differently (eight for $4 and 16 for $7).

The hushpuppies, little balls of fried cornbread, were grease-free and crisp with a light, slightly spongy structure. (Interesting etymology, if it is to be believed: Corn balls were originally thrown at dogs to “hush the puppies.”)

Salvage BBQ clearly studied up on the nature of mac and cheese and collard greens. The mac and cheese, creamy, mild and smooth with no hint of mush or oily cheese separation, was the simplest and most direct form of comfort food – and, I’ll wager, among the tastiest in town. Same for the collard greens, again, with simple preparation as the guiding principle. They tasted like straight-up greens, and that is a good thing.

On this particular night, the cole slaw was limp and the dish half full of liquid, rendering it a sort of watery cabbage soup. The potato salad’s potatoes weren’t fork-tender but rather, crunchy and sour. I can’t believe that’s how any of these were meant to be presented.

Pie was on the dessert menu, and we ordered both blueberry with streusel topping and pecan (both $5 a slice). The pecans themselves were burnt. The pie innards – sweet and gooey – were in keeping with the best of all possible pecan pies, but the crust was so tough, we could not cut it with the plastic utensils. The blueberry, with the same tough crust, posed the same cutting problem, but with the addition of a very gummy filling.

I sincerely hope the three unsavory sides and the desserts were just a Wednesday night, midweek anomaly, because Villani’s food is better than this. This is where managing expectations is so very important. Mine were too high.

Jay Villani has set a local food standard, and I was expecting the best of the best, so any disappointments felt unusually magnified. Had I wandered blindly into Salvage BBQ for some ribs, a bourbon cocktail, and a side of hushpuppies without the hype or buildup, no doubt I would have left ecstatic at the fabulous new find. My sincere hope – is that other diners will do the same.

Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”

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