Sunday, August 1, 2010
The Maine Barbecue Pilgrimage
Most people will tell you that there’s no such thing as good barbecue in Maine, and to get the real deal, one must head south. I will premise this post by saying that I’ve never been to the south, but the one thing I will do before I die is a true barbecue pilgrimage to all of the major capitals. This was my warm up.
The primary problem with Maine in relation to BBQ is that it doesn’t have a style of it’s own, and for the most part everyone that does it well is paying homage to Texas, Memphis, Kansas City, or the Carolinas. These are places where BBQ is religion, and I can imagine you’d be dealing with a very unforgiving group of locals if your restaurant produced a sub-par product.
I started my journey at Beale St. Barbecue, a Memphis-style staple currently at their second location in South Portland. Let me just say that one of my favorite elements of good BBQ joints is the full roll of paper towels that’s generally at hand. I personally have a paper towel fetish, and I almost always have both the Bounty Big Roll™ and Viva™ brands in my kitchen at all times, the Viva for drying my hands and Bounty for cleaning up spills. I use so many when I cook that it actually initiated a fight with a girl I was dating several years ago, and was what I believe finally prompted me to break off the relationship that was already going south.
Because beer on an empty stomach helps me think, I start with an Ayinger Weisse (Germany) before I even pick up the menu. They have actually added a few nice selections to the usual parade of generic Maine stand-bys, so there’s something for everyone. The ribs on this particular visit had nice flavor, but weren’t as fall-off-the-bone tender as they have been on other visits. To compensate, I sauce the fuck out of them and I’m good to go. After liberal use of the paper towels, I was ready to retire to their game room for a few rounds of Big Buck Hunter before getting on with my day.
The next stop on my voyage was Little Dan’s in Lewiston, a roadhouse that looks like it may have the potential to get a little rowdy late at night. No sooner had I kicked open a cold bottle of Bud when a soul-crushing pop-country cover of the regular pop hit, “Life is a Highway” came blasting over the stereo. I already hate that fucking song, and to hear this version re-opened old wounds and filled them with salt and razorblades.
I decided that I would take solace in cheap beer and pork, so I stayed put and ordered up some ribs, beans, and slaw. I tried to be as consistent as I could with my ordering throughout this ordeal to make it easier for comparison. A surprisingly delicious smoked chicken soup with rice began things nicely, and I start to think that maybe life IS a highway after all. The ribs arrive, which turn out to be decent, but it’s the sauces that stand out to me, one being spicy and the other very sweet. I admit that I’m a sucker for the sweet & savory, hence the fact that I’m so fucking overweight, and I slathered that shit onto every element of my plate. The beans are good, and the slaw is pretty run-of-the mill. I didn’t see any paper towel dispensers anywhere so I settled for having napkins disintegrating all over my hands.
After not going to the gym for a few days, I plan a very ambitious solo trip to Monson, Maine on the fourth of July to sample what was rumored to be the best BBQ in the state – Spring Creek. It had been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show and had been a destination I’d been looking forward to reaching for quite some time. The fourth fell on a Sunday, so I called on both Friday and Saturday to confirm that they’d be open before I made the three-hour drive northwest.
The drive was pretty uneventful, with the exception of a yard sale in the town of Abbot, featuring a picnic table full of shirtless trolls overseeing an operation of broken children’s toys, piles of clothes, tires, and a bicycle. I considered stopping, but then thought better of it when I realized I had no cell phone reception, and things may have got a little dicey…
I arrived around 1:15 in the afternoon, and as I perused the chalkboard menu I saw a sign that read, to my horror, “out of pork ribs.” When I got to the counter I politely expressed disappointment over this after driving three hours from Portland. I guess I can’t blame her for not giving a fuck as she responded, “Well, you need to call and make sure we have ribs. Always.” At this point I begin thinking to myself that I had, in fact, called twice to make sure they were open but was unaware that I had to ask if they’d have any fucking food.
In an attempt to make the best of the situation I ask her what she would recommend as a substitute. She says the barbecue beef or pork sandwiches are local favorites so I order one, along with slaw, beans, and corn on the cob (to which I’m greeted with a sigh and a “the corn’s going to take a bit,” to which I respond, “fine. I’ll be right over there,” but am thinking “it took a bit to get up here, so I think I’ve got time.”)
As I’m seated I take deep breaths and try to convince myself that my sandwich is going to be delicious. They don’t serve beer so I pound water while taking in the scene. It was pretty slow, and I understand that it was the fourth of July, but if you don’t want to be open on the holiday then don’t open.
I’m prepared to forgive everything as my sandwich arrives, which looks fantastic. The first bite, however, reveals pork with charred, smoky flavor but in very dry chunks. I ask for a little extra sauce, and it’s handed to me ice-cold out of the fridge. As far as the beans go, I think they went the extra step and soaked their own, but they had no flavor. Even after loading salt, pepper and sauce into them they just tasted watery. The best part of the meal was the corn, which I ate while anticipating what I would treat myself to for dinner that evening to make up for this bunch of bullshit.
The Maraschino cherry on my shit sundae of a day was that every place I wanted to eat for dinner was closed for the fourth. In a desperate attempt to salvage the evening I drink several expensive bottles of wine out of my cellar that I had been saving for a long time, order pizza, and watch some old Sopranos episodes. Calm sets in….
The following BBQ experience four days later ends up being a direct contrast to the previous. My morning begins with my family celebrating my dad’s birthday at IHOP. Because of my parents love for consistency and “safe” food, I have a great working knowledge of all Mall-side chains, and this is one of my father’s favorites. Knowing what I’ve got in store for myself later, I politely eat half of an omelette, enjoy some people watching, and hit the road.
I head up to Smokin’ Good BBQ in Bethel (Formerly Bob’s) and am greeted with a trailer set-up that makes me immediately optimistic about what I’m about to get into. I meet Dan, the owner, who not only knows how to smoke some ribs but is also into wine. We hit it off, and soon I’m sitting down to a roadside picnic table meal eating some of the best Memphis-style ribs I’d ever had. Meaty and falling off the bone, with a spicy sauce spiked with fruity habanero pepper, I ate until I was going to be sick. Dan then presented me with a sample of his brisket, which even in my state of being so full that I was on the threshold of Hell, was fucking delicious.
I would highly recommend making the drive up here, and as with any BBQ spot I would suggest calling to make sure they’re open. Dan’s also got a great gourmet food shop next door with a few wine gems in the reserve case.
I head down to Sanford on a dreary, rainy Thursday to the Shaws Ridge Farm BBQ Barn to continue my festival of pig. They have a mini-golf course, but it was raining so I figured I’d have to impress the other children with my skill and horrifying temper some other day. There is also an ice cream counter, which is a perfect place to rest your aching body and enjoy a frosty treat after 9 grueling holes.
I opt for the combo platter of smoked chicken, pulled pork, and ribs. I’m obviously the first customer of the day, and I get the “what is this guy’s deal?” look from the very friendly girl at the counter. I am unfazed as I sit down by myself at a table that could hold six and wait patiently for my food. The barn is spacious, clean, and a little generic, with pig memorabilia that may have come from the Christmas Tree Shops but is made to look like it came from a yard sale.
The ribs were definitely the standout, and I wished I’d ordered them exclusively. The chicken and pork are both passable, but need lots of sauce due to being a little on the dry side. The dining room starts to fill up so I figure I should be on my way before someone recognizes me as mini-golf champion, and I have to start signing autographs for all of my rowdy 8 year-old fans.
One of the best things I ate along during this odyssey was at Hot Suppa in Portland. The “Bennies in June” is a pulled pork eggs benedict with fried green tomatoes and holy shit – it was a damn near perfect breakfast. I went back a week later to have it again and when I didn’t see it on the specials board, I asked them to make it for me anyway. You know something has to be really fucking delicious for me to engage in the “make your own menu” behavior, one of the things that piss me off when customers do at my places of employment. I didn’t care. I needed it again.
By the time I arrived at Buck’s Naked BBQ in Freeport, I needed a few Coors Lights to get my head on straight. Earlier that day, while driving around looking for the Skinny BBQ Cart (that you’ll hear about shortly), I was waiting at a red light at Monument Square. I got distracted with a scene in front of the library involving a cute blonde girl in very short shorts, who looked to be an employee of the library, moving along some loitering homeless people who were trying to play bongos and guitars. I was in the right lane, and all of this was taking place to my left, where the neighboring lane must have had a green arrow because the cars started to move which prompted me, not paying attention, to hit the gas and drive right into the car in front of me. Turns out that the girl who’s car I hit was also quite pretty, and after realizing that the only damage to my car was my license plate, we had pleasant conversation and I was on my way.
I’ve always liked the ribs at Buck’s, they’ve got a really nice dry rub that tastes strongly of cumin (to me, anyway). The meat is tender, and though unnecessary they offer three sauces, of which I like the house BBQ the best. Buck’s has the feel of a restaurant that is aspiring to someday be a chain, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Fooze - ” their practice of putting ribs in cocktails - doesn’t appeal to me but certainly has me amused, Imagining the person who thought of it declaring “fuck it – lets put ribs in these fuckers.” I also visited the new Windham location, which doesn’t have the greatest location but will do fine once it develops it’s local following.
My final stop is Skinny Cart BBQ, located currently in Portland on either India Street during the day or Congress Street on certain nights. Ronny G is the man behind the operation, serving up delicious pulled pork sandwiches and what he calls the “Bacon Bong,” a sandwich with bacon-wrapped sausage. I’m not sure if we were going for the whole “erect penis” look with the photo shoot, but that’s what we got.
Ron’s sauce has a really nice sweet, sour, and spicy characteristic that would go well on pretty much anything. If you’re having trouble finding the cart, just go to his website and shoot him an email asking where he’ll be. Who knows, at my next food event he may be set up in my driveway.
I feel properly warmed up and ready to head south... Who's coming with me?