“Mama can get real hot,” Adam Powers, chef and co-owner of South Portland’s Elsmere BBQ and Wood Grill, told me in the middle of our telephone conversation about ribs. “But that’s what you want.”

“Mama?” I asked, quickly scrambling to scan my notes, looking to see if I somehow missed that his mother was in the kitchen alongside him and fellow chef/co-owner Jeremy Rush.

“Yeah, she has three shelves. They all vary in temperature by 50 degrees, so we start the ribs at night on the middle shelf, then move them to the bottom shelf the next day,” he said. Suddenly, it clicked: Mama is the 4,400-pound wood-fired smoker Rush and Powers had custom-built and shipped from Texas for Elsmere’s 2013 opening.

“I was videotaping when she came in on a flatbed truck, and when I saw it, I just said ‘Welcome home, Mama’ without thinking, and it stuck. But her full name is Big Mama,” Powers said.

Today, she sits just inside the kitchen, next to an open dining room outfitted with steel chairs and wood booths. Steps away, a billboard-sized neon auto-body sign from the 1930s presides over the space, linking the building thematically to its roots as a former garage. The buzzy remnant of light-up Americana also gives the space a dramatic infusion of color: Light blues and electric reds wash over the bar and bounce off every shiny surface in the place. Even Mama gets in on the act, throwing off yellow gleams and flickers that vibrate the air.

But those visuals are just a pleasing side-effect; Mama’s real purpose is to cook. And when it comes to pork ribs, she certainly does her job right. Elsmere’s half-rack ($18) of St. Louis-cut spare ribs arrives with a thin, tawny exterior – “bark” in barbecue lingo – built up from a dry rub of salt, pepper, garlic and turbinado sugar. Inside, the ribs are a garish pink and tender enough to pull away from the bone with just a whispered suggestion.

Saucing is up to the diner, a deliberate choice Powers describes as “putting the focus on the flavor of the meat, not what goes on it.” On every table, you’ll find three squeeze bottles: Texas Red BBQ, a runny, classic ketchup-and-vinegar based sauce; 1866 Fire, a not-too-spicy crimson condiment named after the fire that destroyed much of Portland; and Golden Mustard, a tangy, sinus-clearing sauce. Each of the three is significantly different from the others, but all fall victim to a problem that plagues several of Elsmere’s dishes: They are far too sweet.

It’s also true of the grilled watermelon Caprese salad ($9), made with grill-marked triangles of melon, fresh mozzarella and a syrupy balsamic that amplifies the fruit’s caramelized sugars without creating enough acidic contrast. So too, the Northern-style cornbread accompanying the ribs (also available as a side dish for $3), a palm-sized, oven-browned square, freckled with whole kernels. “Come on, honey. It tastes just like a corn muffin!” a mother at the next table said, pleading with her toddler to take a bite.

As spot-on as her appeal was, she and her party left most of their plates unfinished. I know, because their dishes sat uncleared on the table for 20 minutes in the sparsely occupied dining room. Attentiveness was not the evening’s only service issue. When I asked for guidance on what to order from the sizable menu, I got what turned out to be iffy advice. Standing right in front of a sign that reads, “Our BBQ is something to scream about,” overlaid on an image of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” our server said, “People usually want meat, but seafood is our secret super power. Trust me.”

So I did, and ordered the BBQ salmon sandwich ($14), made with farm-raised, Canadian salmon and served with greens and tart pickled onions. Eighteen minutes on the top shelf of the smoker was enough to cook the filet solid, as well as to give it what Powers called “a kiss” of smoke – really just a disingenuous air kiss that left the salmon practically flavor-free. I doused it in 1866 Fire sauce.

Adam Gilman works the wood-fired grill, which was custom-made in Texas for Elsmere’s 2013 opening.

At our server’s suggestion, I also ordered the grilled oysters with garlic butter ($17 for six), cooked on the grill until they start to crack, then popped open and dressed with a bourbon-garlic butter. I found the texture of the oyster meat confusing – stuck in a semi-firm limbo between raw and cooked – and the flavors out of balance, in desperate need of more lemon to cut the garlic butter’s richness.

In other places on the menu, seasoning seems more creative and compelling. The sides, all of which are unexpectedly vegetarian (and many vegan), include a rice and beans dish ($3), frisky with cumin, coriander and a wallop of ancho chili, as well as a bowl of savory, vinegary collards ($3) that taste good enough to make you forget about fatback forever.

But if well-seasoned, well-executed meats are what you’re after, the proprietary half-beef, half-pork sausage ($8) does the trick. First, you notice the casing’s taut, kielbasa-like snap. Then, a deeply smoky, anise flavor profile that recollects the German heritage of Elsmere’s spiritual home, Central Texas. A dish of Golden Mustard sauce comes with each order, but ignore it. The sausage needs nothing extra – a fact I confirmed on a recent visit, when I witnessed children at a neighboring table grabbing bias-cut slices in their chubby fingers and shoving them, sauceless, into their mouths.

If it sounds as if kids are everywhere are Elsmere, that’s not far from the truth. While they are not the target audience – this is still a restaurant that serves cocktails, not a Chuck E. Cheese – children are actively welcomed. “I wanted a place where families come, and when kids are growing up, they love it,” Powers told me. “When they leave home for the first time to go to college or wherever, and come back home to visit, Elsmere is the first place they want to go because it reminds them of home.” It certainly doesn’t hurt that the behemoth stove chugging through cord after cord of wood nearby is fondly referred to as “Mama.”

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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