Maine chefs offering ‘no fuss, no muss’ barbecue

Posted Oct. 15, 2013, at 10:25 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 15, 2013, at 1:16 p.m.

PORTLAND, MAINE — Heat, smoke and time.

The holy trinity of barbecue is the daily drill at Jay Villani’s new enterprise, Salvage BBQ. In a back lot behind his cavernous Congress Street restaurant, the chef monitors brisket like a sculptor with hot iron.

“It’s not Yankee barbecue,” Villani said after a long day at the smoker. “We stick to tradition. It’s a return to roots.”

Though his roots don’t stretch past the Mason Dixon line, the New Yorker has made a name for himself in Portland’s culinary scene with Sonny’s Restaurant and Local 188. Now he adds a casual barbecue joint to his trifecta. This primitive, American fare — defined as meat cooked outdoors on a rack over open fire — appeals to Villani because it’s “no fuss, no muss.”

But to get brisket so you can cut it with a plastic spoon takes some fuss.

Up at 4 a.m. to stoke the flames that will tenderize this tough cut of beef after 11-13 hours, Vilani said he was ready for a beer.

As part owner of Bunker Brewing Co., he has 16 options, from his East Bayside nano brewery to Allagash, to Sheepscot Valley Brewing Company’s Pemaquid Ale to quench his thirst at the bar. Salvage also pours 12 different bourbons, “brown water,” as Villani calls it because each is as cowboy as the cuisine.

This, Villani’s third restaurant, is a tad risky.

First, the neighborhood. St. John Valley is a few blocks from Longfellow Square in the opposite direction from the action.

Next, the scene. Chopped pork and collard greens served clam shack style in a city of James Beard finalists — also referred to as “The Food Oscars.”

Or is this his genius?

Steps from Hadlock Field, Maine Medical Center and the Inn at St. John, Salvage BBQ has a captive audience.

Plus, “there are no other places to put a restaurant,” Villani said.

Also, after years of white tablecloth service and sommeliers, diners likely are ready to let their hair down. Food shows such as “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” and “BBQ Pitmasters” have had an effect on the backyard barbecuer, who wants to dine on smoked swine when he powers down his grill, too.

“It’s fun and simple. Wood, fire and heat … basic survival food,” said Villani.

Beef brisket ($17 a pound) is served sliced on a plate or chopped on homemade bread ($9) and topped with pickles and slaw. Beef back ribs, smoked for up to four hours ($17 or $27, half or full rack) are lightly seasoned, because Villani says “less is more” in his kitchen. Sides such as mac and cheese, collard greens and coleslaw are sold in single, pint or quart servings ($2, $6 or $10).

It’s like a picnic, whether you eat in or out. If you stay, you’ll rub elbows with young, transplanted Portland families, who treat this place like a playground for adults.

“It’s a celebratory food. The basics — beer and barbecue,” said Villani.

As much as it would appear Villani, who opened Local 188 in Longfellow Square when it was a no-man’s, land has the touch, he admits he couldn’t do it without his crews.

Chef Josh Craigue, sliding ribs into Salvage’s indoor smoker on a recent Friday afternoon, took a minute to explain.

“We are getting the basics down and then will add a Maine touch. That’s what we are excited about,” said Craigue. “We have the an opportunity to put Maine on the map as a barbecue destination.”

And they are not alone.

At Elsmere BBQ and Wood Grill in South Portland, Adam Powers and Jeremy Rush are doing their part to spread the rib religion to the burbs. Their smoker, dubbed Mama, is every bit Villani’s equal. Besides brisket and rack after rack of ribs, the Texas-made monstrosity smokes homemade sausages and chicken, which are turned into sandwiches or platters ($10-$23).

Elsmere, which opened in late summer, brings an experimental edge to its menu. Barbecue oysters from Basket Island are grilled until the shells opens and are served with sauces such as bourbon-lemon-garlic butter ($3 each).

“We wanted to tie in the barbecue culture with Maine,” said Powers.

Flatbread pizza topped with pulled chicken or house sausages ($8), a smoked salmon barbecued sandwich ($13) and a 1940s neon sign anchoring the bar give this renovated dry cleaner a warm, retro vibe that South Portland lacked.

Despite the neighborhood feel, barbecue attracts, “renegades, crazy people,” said Powers.

And the barbecue trend is found further north in Bangor, too. Whistling Pig Smokehouse is scheduled to open Friday on Main Street. Restaurateur Chris Jones, of Miguel’s Mexican Restaurant in the Bangor Mall area, chose barbecue for a reason.

“If you go on the Food Network, there are two or three different barbecue shows on and they are getting good ratings,” said Jones. “It’s a growing sector in the U.S. market.”

The distinction between slapping a steak on the grill and cooking meat for hours over a flame is no longer a trade secret.

“People are understanding the difference now. True barbecue is pit-fired or smoked,” said Jones, who cooks ribs three ways: St. Louis, baby back, and beef.

The latter is “an eight-pound rack, something that you’d see on the Flintstones,” he said. “It’s huge.”

Opening near the Cross Insurance Center, Whistling Pig is expected to draw conventioneers, concertgoers and urban cowboys for its brisket — “the prime rib of barbecue.”

If you plan on going Friday when they open at 4 p.m., go early and hungry.

“I’ve turned down 30-40 people knocking on my door already,” Jones said Monday.

Kathleen Pierce can be reached at and on Twitter at @PierceNews.