Adam Powers, of Elsmere BBQ and Wood Grill, is not a celebrity chef, but if he were, “It’s nothing fancy” would be his catchphrase.

Powers, who shares ownership and executive chef duties with his business partner, Jeremy Rush, is so fond of that particular description that he used some version of it six times over the course of our recent 40-minute telephone conversation.

It applies equally to his preferences and perspective on beer, food and even the décor of the new Stevens Avenue outpost of the duo’s well-established South Portland “Tex-Mex BBQ” joint.

“When we were looking for another location, the only place we found that fit our criteria was Deering Center. It’s tucked away, somewhat sequestered,” he said. “Neighborhoods like this have a huge impact on how we design our restaurants. They’re nothing fancy, just someplace people can walk to. Not like a lot of the restaurants in Portland that are a little more high-end and aren’t exactly family-friendly.”

The interior of the new Elsmere may not be glitzy, but it certainly is bright and vibrant. If you’re familiar with the building, you may find it hard to believe that just a year ago, this gleaming space with an open kitchen full of stainless steel was the homey, dimly lit Siano’s Pizzeria. Today, it’s sharp and subtly ’50s-themed, with large-format tile floors, picnic-style tables made from blond wood and iron, and a gigantic bar illuminated by salvaged neon: a visual nod to the buzzing light display at the original Elsmere.

And just like its sister, Portland’s Elsmere is loud – sometimes barbarically so. I couldn’t spot a single sound-dampening baffle or soft surface on my recent visit, and with televisions blaring, music overhead and dozens of simultaneous conversations going on in every direction, I felt at times like I was caught in a rebel uprising. “What!?” became my own catchphrase that evening.

Fortunately, my server was patient about explaining things several times, at ever-increasing volumes. When I inquired about the brownie sundae ($8), she shouted back, “We make that ourselves. It’s the only one of the desserts we do in-house, and it’s amazing. Get it. You won’t regret it.”

She couldn’t have known, but I had already enjoyed an Elsmere brownie sundae when I reviewed the South Portland location in 2017. So I went along with her suggestion and ordered another. It arrived looking like a scale model of the Taj Mahal, with whipped cream turrets, a massive ice cream dome and a fudgy brownie as the foundation. I absolutely did not regret ordering it.

The same can’t be said for the seat I chose. Facing the space between the bar and the kitchen, I sat looking at the open doorway between front- and back-of-house. It wasn’t the water heater or walk-in freezer that bothered me, but the bussers and servers stuffing food into their mouths bare-handed each time they crossed the threshold. None of them washed their hands.

Clearly, it’s important for staff to be up to speed on the food they serve and prepare, but it’s unappealing to watch a busser chug a pint glass of milk, then wipe his hands and mouth on the same rag he was using to wipe down tables.

I lucked out that night, having been paired with the one server not snacking while working. More importantly, she knew her stuff, guiding me toward the right combinations of sauces to go with the meats on my combo plate ($24). For the tender, very smoky barbecue chicken, she recommended the Texas Red, a classic tomato-based BBQ sauce. For the miraculously juicy pulled pork, the 1866 Fire, a spicy sauce just shy of the fiery heat of Cholula or Crystal hot sauces. And for the too-dry half-rack of slow-smoked ribs crusted with mahogany bark, the Golden Mustard, a vinegary, Carolina-style sauce.

All three sauces were sweetened to some degree, but only the 1866 Fire sauce found the right balance between tartness, spice and sugar. The others were, just as they were in South Portland, too sweet.

Most dishes I tried twice were indeed remarkably similar to their counterparts in South Portland, from vegan collard greens ($3) that somehow crackle with umami, to cornbread ($3) – still more like a sweet, kernel-strewn muffin than bread. And even the blackened catfish ($17), which ought to be spritzed with lemon juice and salt when it comes off the Argentine-style grill, rather than leaving the mandatory seasoning step to the diner. Each dish reminded me of my previous meals at Elsmere.

Everything that is, except the meat. That’s due to the Portland location’s custom-built Texas smoker, a model that is significantly larger than its 11-foot sibling, fondly referred to by everyone as “Big Mama.” “The new smoker is made by the same company. But we decided to go with a bigger one, so we asked (the manufacturer) what’s the biggest he’s comfortable making. He was comfortable with a 14-footer, but he said we might want to think about another 11-footer and just add six inches of depth,” Powers explained. “So we said, ‘Let’s go with the 14-footer and still add that extra 6 inches!'”

Shawn Hennigan of Yarmouth and Danielle Gismondi of Portland enjoy a beer on the patio. Adam Powers and Jeremy Rush, who also operate the South Portland Elsmere, opened the restaurant recently in the Deering Center neighborhood. Staff photo by Derek Davis

The behemoth smoker takes considerably longer to heat up and cool down – Powers calls it “lazy.” And those extra few hours of languid smoking under gently tapering temperatures produce meats that are, by and large, juicier and considerably more flavorful than their counterparts across the Fore River.

That uptick in the density of smoke and char is noticeable. You can spot it in the cubes of beef brisket that fill cheesy quesadillas ($10) alongside strips of glistening strips of poblano pepper.

It’s also what animates the burnt ends in Elsmere Portland’s bean-free, Southwestern-inspired chili ($6 cup/$11 bowl), a dish best served on hot, crispy tortilla chips ($11). It might just be the best item on the menu, partly for the shreds of ancho-chili-infused meat that submit willingly to the slightest pressure, and partly because Powers has trained his team to consider the sequence of components that make up the dish. On those salty tortillas goes a layer of shredded cheddar jack cheese that melts into a gooey, protective coating that keeps the chips snapping and crackling. Only once that’s been applied can the masa-thickened, tomato-based chili be ladled on top. Thirty minutes after pickup, my nachos were still crunchy and hot. The dish may be nothing fancy, but it showcases all the new Elsmere’s virtues on one comically oversized appetizer plate.

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. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME