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First Look at Portland's Two Newest Joints
Barbecue has come to Portland in a big way. Sure, Uncle Billy's left town, Beale Street begat The SoPo which be gone now, and Norm's Eastside begat the East Ender which is only part barbecue, as is Binga's Stadium. Then Buck's Naked moved in before the end of last year and two much-talked-about upstarts opened their doors by the end of this summer: Elsmere BBQ & Wood Grill in South Portland and Salvage BBQ in Portland proper. I'll be visiting both at least one more time each before posting an official review, but here's my first take of a first meal at each.
Salvage BBQ, located across the street from a medical center and around the corner from where the Portland Seadogs play, has so many of the edgy elements associated with hipster barbecue that it looks like it could have dropped in from Brooklyn—and that's a compliment. I love the space: it's wide open with rows of communal picnic tables in the back and retro lounge sofas and space age tables up front. They make the perfect chill-out lounges for the hipsters-at-heart to
whip out their modern gadgets and probably play a quick game of
Bingogodz while waiting for the order. You wait in line and order from one clerk market style, pay another clerk, get your drinks at the long bar and they'll bring the 'cue out to you when it's ready. Gotta love the signage on the brick wall and the free parking out back.
Sausage: Ordered as a single link ($6), this sausage arrived as a bunch of slices instead, each one a monotone bologna gray and each one somehow slimy and dry at the same time. Flavor was interesting. The meat had a gaminess that was a slight plus for me and a minus for my guest. Smoke was light, heat was more noticeable and sweetness found its way in there too—I guessed honey or maple, but it's brown sugar. Juiciness was absent. The casing not only didn't get crisp but was annoyingly tough. So overall, decent flavor and multilayered texture failings made this a below average sausage, and one that sat in the boat mostly uneaten.
Brisket: One of the quirks of the menu is that there are no substitutions allowed. Since the brisket sandwich is described as consisting of chopped brisket, I asked if I could make a quasi substitution: sliced instead of chopped. I was (politely) rebuffed. So I called an audible and switched the order to a half pound of sliced ($17/lb). I was so thrilled to avoid the chopped that I forgot to make the distinction between moist and lean on the brisket, so they gave me lean by default. And boy did they default: this was some dry, gray meat, sliced super thin deli style. A pleasant mix of beefiness, sweetness and all-around body ensured that flavor held up its end of the bargain, lack of smoke notwithstanding, but lack of moisture, color and texture did this brisket in. Just as with the sausage, most of the slices sat uneaten.
Pork: Oddly, a quarter pound ($14/lb) had the the same dry, gray appearance, but it wasn't too bad. While hardly bursting with (or even trickling) juices, this pork managed to avoid being completely dry and simultaneously delivered some nice pork flavor with smoke's first appearance of the night. A little of the table vinegar barbecue sauce gave it the nudge it needed to fully clear the moisture hurdle and brought out the smokiness too. With the sauce this pork was very doable.
Ribs: We skipped ribs on the first visit, mostly because a) you have to commit to a half rack of them at minimum—a not so uncommon practice—and b) the ribs I saw on other customers' trays looked small and monotone.
Potato salad: Cubes of potatoes. Mayo. Not much else.
Collard greens: Another simple treatment kept the condiment restrained and the bitterness unbridled. Good texture.
Sauces: Two sauces grace the table on plastic squeeze bottles. The tomato-based one is very close to ketchup; the vinegar-based one is mostly tart.
Elsmere BBQ & Wood Grill
Elsemere, plunked into more of a suburban setting across the Casco Bay Bridge in South Portland, has tighter but more diverse seating, with booths, tables, outdoor tables, big stools at the neon-lit bar and more bar seats facing the signature wood grill. Here it's full service.
Wings: A sizeable order ($11 for 12 pieces) served sizeably plump wings whose black-pepper-studded skins burst open in places. Two flaws here: the skins could have been a lot crisper and the doneness was a little shy of done. That said, these wings were still very enjoyable thanks to the intense flavor of the rub (strong, coarse black pepper rather than just chile heat) and a smoky, chickeny, almost gamey interior. Moistness was nice too. With a few tweaks these could be worthy of a spot on the next Wings List.
Ribs: A quarter rack of St Louis cut on the 3-meat combo ($23 with 2 sides and cornbread) brought average size and well-above-average rub quantity on the crusty surface. Smoke was moderate; rub and pork flavor were off the charts, making these ribs delicious. Texture didn't quite keep pace: although the meat tore and pulled off the bone easily, it was a bit chewy and dry. Overall, still satisfying thanks to the flavor component.
Brisket: Here, the moisture was very evident. Some mid-thickness slices had plenty of give, good tenderness, flowing juices and a near melt-in-your-mouth quality without falling apart. Flavor wasn't lacking but light in beefiness and smoke. Rub was noticeable on the edges but less so at the interior.
Pork: A pile on the 3-meat brought similar qualities to the brisket: tenderness and moistness excellent; flavor not lacking but light. Bark was impressive.
Mac and cheese: It was moist enough and the macaroni was cooked properly, so it was enjoyable, but if someone handed this to me and asked me what it was, I'd say it was macaroni salad, not macaroni and cheese.
Beans: Big, puffy and plain, these beans lacked oomph but not originality. Definitely not out of a can.
Sauces: Two table sauces in plastic squeeze bottles bring familiar flavors. The Kansas City style molasses sauce adds some heat to the equation. The mustard sauce is tangy, slightly sweet with a bite.
The Early Word
It's still quite early in the game, and Salvage and Elsmere both have a need for much improvement (both are struggling to supply good flavor and texture in the same bite), but both have potential across the board. For now I'm giving Salvage the edge for atmosphere and Elsmere the edge for food and service. I'll be back to both and rooting for both.
Yelp reviews of Salvage BBQ
Urbanspoon reviews of Salvage BBQ
Yelp reviews of Elsmere BBQ & Wood Grill
Urbanspoon reviews of Elsmere BBQ & Wood Grill
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