(09/18/10) (06/16/12) (09/14/12)
Binga's Stadium Smokehouse, an offshoot of Binga's Winga's, has probably the most nondescript exterior of any joint in the PigTrip directory, with viewless windows and no real draw other than a neon sign. An understandable first impression is that it's probably a dive, but that could not be further from reality once you set foot inside. Well over a dozen large TV screens surround a spacious dining room that's subdivided into smaller all-booth sections (some private) and features a long bar along one wall, booths along another and high-tops in between. The booths are large, comfortable, squeaky clean and include a smaller TV that can be tuned to any station.
There's a separate smaller bar off the main entry and a game room and function room downstairs. It's the Jennifer Lopez of restaurant spaces, with enough slickness and enough "street" to appeal a wide range demographics. It's easily accessible just a block away from Congress Street and right across Free Street from the Cumberland County Civic Arena.
On weekends, Binga's is one of Portland's hottest clubs for live entertainment and theme parties.
Binga's was the third leg of a 3-joint Saturday afternoon Maine BBQ crawl with a frequent barbecue accomplice. Being full from the two earlier joints and having somewhat low expectations led to the uncharcteristically restrained ordering. I returned twice in 2012, once for another Saturday lunch and once for an early weeknight Happy Hour.
Usually a joint of this magnitude (and yes, slickness) has an all-encompassing something-for-everyone menu, but the relatively stripped down menu is another surprise here. As Binga's lineage would suggest, wings are the main attraction. Besides being able to choose bone-in or boneless and from around 20 sauces, you can also choose smoked, fried with light breading or fried naked.
The smokehouse offerings originally included only ribs and pulled pork, but not as a combo. Then a 2012 menu expansion upped the ante to include ribs, pulled pork, brisket, sausage, burnt ends, Canadian bacon in addition to the smoked wings. Combos now include up to three meats. The ribs can be had as a half or full rack, on a 2- or 3-meat combo or smoked and deep fried as an appetizer. Other apps include fries (plain, gravy, salt/vinegar, blackened, cheese-topped), potato cakes (ditto), fried pickles, fried mushrooms, fried mozzarella, burnt ends, smoked-then-grilled sausage and six different salads. Sandwiches include the usual barbecue suspects plus house-smoked pastrami, a Reuben and a Rachel, chicken Caesar and falafel or fried tofu with Buffalo sauce.
The Binga's menu also includes a "B.O.A.T. Challenge" section (Binga's Oral Assault Test) with challenges designed for volume eaters and heat seekers. Beat the challenge and the meal is free.
Note: Since many of the items can be had as appetizer or main, I'm going to take some liberties with the categories to aid in the overall chronology and flow. For example, I've had ribs as both but will keep the commenmtary all in one place.
Wings: On the first visit we tried two wing flavors (mango habanero and Cajun dry rub) but stuck with the smoked style for both, since we're both wing purists who frown on breading and tenders. Both were of average size, both were flash fried to impart a crispy surface that served the wings well, and both had a recognizable smokiness that stood up to the other flavors without standing out. The mango habanero were also tender and juicy inside; the Cajun were dry inside. I liked the density and strength of the Cajun rub enough to forgive the inner dryness somewhat. The mango habanero was the superior of the two, bearing a generous coating that lubricated the wings without compromising crispness. Flavor was very pleasing, with a strong but unlingering heat combining with sweet quite effectively.
Burnt ends: This menu entry caught my eye when I first noticed the 2012 barbecue menu expansions. When the plate ($6.99) hit the table, the cubes of beef brisket deckle (the fattiest part) looked pretty good: no smoke ring or noticeable exterior rub, but bearing dark surfaces and leaking juices. The bites varied greatly in these categories, but for the most part they had very impressive juiciness and good crustiness without killer crispiness. Fat also varied, with some pieces mostly fat but most pieces just right. Tenderness for the most part was right on the money. Flavor brought much smoke and a pleasing rub that emanated mostly from the interior. Overall, these were some surprisingly solid burnt ends—at a (predominantly) wing joint, no less—that might even rank somewhere among the best ones I've tried in the Northeast.
Sausage: The appetizer version of the sausage ($8.99) takes two smoked links, grills them, slices them on the bias into 1-inch segments and plates them atop lettuce with two dipping choices from the Binga's roster of about two dozen sauces. On my half priced Happy Hour order (weekdays 4-7pm), the exteriors were dark and snappy and the cross sections were pink and yielding. Smoke was definitely noticeable. Flavor all around was decent, though I was getting a strong bologna vibe that was a bit of a downer. This one isn't going to land on any all-time sausage list, but it's a fun and satisfying appetizer that's perfect for a group given the easy-to-share chunks and duo of sauces.
Pulled pork sandwich: Tried on the first visit in 2010, the pulled pork on a simple white bun was overmashed, a little oversauced and a little underwhelming. The low meat-to-bread ratio was as much a reason for the pork being overwhelmed as the high sauce-to-meat ratio. But there was some pink meat and tiny bits of bark to confirm that the pork was actually smoked (not always a guarantee, even at a joint with "Smokehouse" in the name). Sauce was fairly generic sweet non-hickory barbecue sauce. When removed from the sandwich, some of the larger unsauced chunks had a nice porky flavor and a better texture than I experienced between the bread. That said, this was a below-average offering. The ribs have changed since 2010, so the pork may have too, but I'm guessing this still isn't likely to be a strength.
Ribs as Side: A small basket of ribs ordered as a "side" (probably what's now an appetizer) presented well coated trimmed spare ribs that weren't as drowned as the pulled pork. Some appealing crusting action was in play under the sauce, with a crisp, flavorful bark that gave way to tender—no, make that overly tender—inner meat. Yes, these were the fall-off-the-bone style that barbecue purists usually avoid. And the style I usually don't enjoy. But unlike most representations of that style, these ribs had the aformentioned bark with spicing, some nice pink color and intense flavoring all the way down to the bone. Heavy smoke itself wasn't a part of the flavor profile, but these ribs were the unmistakable offspring of smoke and spice. So droop factor aside, I enjoyed these ribs.
Crispy Ribs App: Fast forward to 2012 and the appetizer ribs changed things up significantly. You now get five unsauced babyback ribs ($8.99) fanned on the plate with cross sections facing upward, and the dipping sauce of your choice in the middle. Or, if you prefer, they'll apply the sauce during cooking. On my Friday afternoon visit to catch Half Price Happy Hour, the ribs were short but plump and the rub was extremely thick and bumpy, especially on the end piece. Coloring wasn't classic smoke ring pink and running juices weren't in play, but these ribs were smoked and moist. Never in doubt, the smoke was easy to whiff and came through strongly on the bite. It was the rub that caught most the limelight here, creating a surprising pastrami-like flavor to go along with its crunch. Texture was nice, contrasting the crust with inner meat fully tender with a near meatloafy consistency that never approached mushy or fall-off-the-bone overtender. Someone who's a stickler for conformance to established styles may disagree, but I thought
these were some pleasantly unique babybacks that I'd rate as slightly above average, and that's before the sauce.
Ribs on Combo: A half rack of babybacks from a 2-meat combo ($22.99), requested unsauced, had a crusty exterior with no grilling required. Meat volume was very high for babybacks. There was only a hint of a smoke ring, but the flavor was just smoky enough to know they were smoked (especially coming right after the no-doubt-smoked burnt ends). The meat didn't have much of a rub flavor, which was a minor disappointment when I recalled the very strongly flavored ribs from the first visit. A faintly sweet backdrop to the meat and some really good juiciness helped bridge the gap. Again, we're talking only decent ribs here, somewhere around average, that would probably be better if ordered sauced.
Brisket: Grilled slices had a darkened surface that sweated juicy fat. A quick rip revealed ideal tender-not-droopy texture and barely pink meat on the cross section. The grilled flavor was by far the monopolizing component, but not too heavy, allowing the rub flavor (more inside than outside) to sing backup, with light smokiness further back. Each slice had a crisp exterior yielding to a thin layer of fat, yielding to a thicker layer of tender meat. This brisket struck me as beefy, steaky bacon that would be right at home atop a burger. If you're looking for a meaty experience that's a little different, this is one worth trying. If you're seeking more traditional brisket, this is not even close and probably not for you.
Meats summary: Aside from the wings, which are right in their wheelhouse, the meats are legit barbecue but stray far enough from from traditional versions that there's bound to be some polarization. One man's refreshingly different is another man's missed-the-mark, so keep this in mind when deciding whether to go and what to order.
There aren't any squeeze bottles on the table, but with most meats and combos you get a choice of sauce, and with some you can get two. Many are geared toward wings, with Buffalo and other spicy flavors; some are barbecue and barbecue offshoots mixing traditional sweet flavors with Buffalo or more hard core spice; fruit and maple are involved in some; a few dry rubs are also available. I liked some better than others, but all of the sauces I tried had potent flavor intensity aside from spice and all had a good body that allowed it to cling to the meat without being too gloppy.
Fries: On that early visit the only side we tried was the fries that came with the pulled pork sandwich, and they were excellent: skin-on, crisp and slightly brown outside, wiltingly buttery inside and kissed with some coarse sea salt to season them in unabashed fashion. Excellent.
Vinegar Fries: This is an appetizer ($4.98) that I'm listing here for the purpose of continuity. Tried on a recent visit, these fries still retained some crispness even though they were doused in vinegar and well salted. Like the first batch, they had plenty of skin and good flavor even aside from the extremely intense vinegar. I enjoyed the plain ones more, but these were nice for a while.
Cole slaw: This was very odd, made with mostly if not entirely lettuce, not cabbage. The backdrop was a thin mix of mayo and cider vinegar.
Collard greens: Something must have gone awry here, because the thin broth had so much salt it couldn't possibly be intentional. And remember, I like salt. The leaves were cooked just right though.
Cornbread: Most cornbread tastes faintly of corn and mostly of cake, but this one defied stereotype with a grilled version tasting like buttered popcorn. It wasn't burnt at all, but the nearly-burnt-kernels aspect added a refreshingly different dimension to the corny flavor. I liked it.
The pricing at Binga's is a little strange, and steep for most of the barbecue meats. If you're considering the 3-meat combo ($34.99), consider three single-meat platters instead, which'll get you more sides and more cornbread for around the same price and possibly less. Better yet, consider their appetizer versions during Happy Hour, when at half price they become a downright steal.
The Bottom Line
I'll echo my earlier sentiments: Binga's Stadium is hardly a destination joint for its 'cue but for what is essentially a wings joint—and a very good one at that—they sling some respectable, unique-flavored, legit-smoked meats in one of the best sportsbars in the Northeast. Somewhat for the barbecue but more for the wings and whole package, Binga's gets a thumbs up in my book.
My 2010 review of Binga's Stadium Smokehouse
Yelp reviews of Binga's Stadium Smokehouse
Urbanspoon reviews of Binga's Stadium Smokehouse