For a long time, the Portland BBQ scene has been a bit schizophrenic. The few BBQ joints that pop up in the area seem to come and go and have had varying quality from great to not so good. The problem is that the great ones seem to disappear for whatever reason. So when a new BBQ place showed up in South Portland last month with a giant smoker outside, I was hoping it would turn into a go-to for BBQ.
Owners Adam Powers and Jeremy Rush are longtime friends with extensive experience in BBQ. Adam is also a founding member of the rock band Twisted Roots according to the restaurant website. In an effort to verify that, I pulled the Twisted Roots CD out of my collection and indeed, Adam Powers is listed as the guitarist. Aside from that bit of trivia, the website makes it clear that both Adam and Jeremy love food.
Saturday night brought a fine time to try Elsmere when some visiting friends suggested they would like to go. We made our way there and got a great glimpse of the smoker as we approached. Word has it that up to 600 lbs. of meat or as many as three dead bodies can be smoked at a time. It’s a magnificent sight and like nothing I’ve seen before. I also noted that they had a sizable patio out front which is great for nice days when you want to just chill outside with a drink and some smoked meat.
As we walked inside, I realized there was much more to see. A huge neon sign stood out and graced the bar which immediately gave the feeling that we were in an old school atmosphere. Flames shot up from the wood heating the grill. The look of the place was made complete by lots of reclaimed wood, including some from old whiskey barrels. I also couldn’t help but notice that the restaurant was set up with many different seating areas including two bars, a couple rows of booths, and a couple areas with tables. Upon taking in the scenery, someone walked up to us and offered us a booth if we were willing to wait a minute or two. We agreed, and within a couple minutes, as promised, we had a large booth that easily fit all five of us.
We sat with menus and a waitress immediately visited asking if we wanted drinks. We weren’t ready yet, so we asked her to come back. The drink menu was solid. There was a good mix of draft and bottled beer, wine, and signature cocktails. When the waitress made her way back to us, there were a couple beers ordered and I ordered the Elsmere Lemonade – peach infused bourbon with house-made lemonade. We began to check out the food menu.
I was really impressed with the menu. There weren’t too many items, but there was something for everyone. Among the starters, sandwiches, “mama’s plates”, and sides, were also some fish and vegetarian items. With only a few of each category, the menu is easy to navigate and not at all confusing. My eyes quickly focused on the sandwiches and mama’s plates – plates of smoked meat with cornbread and your choice of two sides.
Everyone at the table seemed to be ready to order some smoked meats. I decided that a sandwich would not work. I just needed a pile of meat and some fixins. I settled on pulled chicken with cole slaw and macaroni and cheese. The other meat options were sausage, ribs, pulled pork, and brisket. Others at the table wanted plates with two meats and my wife prepared to order the Flatbread with pulled chicken.
When the waitress came back, she brought our drinks. We were ready to order so she started with my wife. After ordering the flatbread, we were told that they were out of both the pulled chicken and the brisket. Unfortunately, everyone at the table planned on ordering at least one of those. It was odd that they’d be out of two of their main items on a Saturday night, but we had no choice except to change our planned orders. The waitress apologized for not letting us know sooner.
After receiving the bad news, we collected our thoughts and my wife made a game-time decision to go with the Portabella Mushroom Sandwich – a large marinated wood-grilled cap on a roll. I decided to go with the pulled pork. Between the remaining three orders, a mama’s plate – pulled pork and sausage with baked beans and cole slaw – was ordered twice. Despite the fact that no one ordered their first choice of food, we were ready to consume our alternates.
Before the food came, I tried my drink. It was tasty and definitely one of those drinks that I suspected was much stronger than it seemed after the first sip. It’s rare that I don’t like a drink with lemonade and this one was no different. The lemonade with just a slight peach taste was perfectly refreshing. Everyone was happy with their beers and with hardly enough time to take a couple gulps, our food came out. It was on like Donkey Kong.
Relatively nondescript plates were put in front of us. There was no garnish or fanciness – just a basket lined with paper and the food on top. They had a sizeable portion of meat flanked by warm cornbread wrapped in foil, a couple pickle slices, and small bowls of two sides. My wife’s Portabella sandwich was topped with a corn salsa. I was ready to dig in and took a couple bites of the pork immediately. It was tender and tasty with nice smoke flavor, but it was missing something. Then a light bulb directly above my cranium was lit from the energy produced by the hamster wheel in my head. The meat was missing sauce. It needed spice, spice baby!
By the time I was ready for sauce, my more intelligent friends at the table were already dumping some on their plates. The sauce options were Red Black Pepper BBQ and Golden Mustard BBQ. I waited until they were available, barely avoiding just grabbing them out of someone’s hand, and poured the mustard on the right side of my pork and the pepper on the left. Now the real test was on. I tried them in successive bites and they were both fantastic. This was a legit BBQ joint. The mustard sauce was my favorite with a great mustard flavor and a bit of vinegar bite with just the right amount of sweetness. The pepper sauce had a kick and also perfect sweetness. These were some of the best BBQ sauces I’d had in a while. It was BBQ heaven. Everyone agreed the sauces were outstanding though there was some debate about which one was the winner.
The sides were interesting. The cole slaw was free of mayonnaise and had a sharp vinegar taste which actually made it difficult for me to tell if the peppers in it were jalapenos or just bell peppers. It was tasty, but if you aren’t a big fan of vinegar, you’ll want to avoid it. The mac and cheese was good too, but very mild which was a bit of a surprise considering all the other food had such strong flavors. I would have preferred a stronger, sharper cheese flavor, but it was good nonetheless. My wife was very happy with her burger and loved the salsa on top. Everyone very much enjoyed their meals.
Portions were large as evidenced by the food we had left over. Even though we had some snacks before, there was definitely enough food for even a hungry, hungry hippo. For five of us, including three drinks, the bill came to just under 100 bucks before tip which wasn’t bad for the amount of food that came in the meal. The BBQ sauces were stand out superstars and took the meat from good to outstanding. I look forward to going back and trying the other meats. I’m sure they’ll all be good if the meat quality is consistent.
Now it’s official – the Portland area has a new BBQ restaurant that is ready to serve your BBQ needs. Go now so they stay in business. I want to make sure this one is around for a while. They deserve to be and I can only imagine everything will continue to get even better as they hit their stride. After all, they just opened.
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