(12/14/12) (01/06/13) (06/09/13) (08/17/13) (09/21/13)
Buck's Naked started as a tiny barbecue shack on Route 1 in Freeport, then expanded to larger digs up the road (with an expanded menu that included steaks and internationally-inspired fare), then to a second location in Windham. I've often said that trying to be all things to all people rarely works—but I've also often said that Buck's Naked is the one example that defies that mantra. With its comfy seating, long bar, kid-friendly play area and family-friendly menu, you'd think the barbecue would get lost in the shuffle, but it doesn't. That's why I was glad to see Buck's Naked open its third outpost in late 2012 in downtown Portland, right down the street from Street and Company.
The space is a mix of industrial (think brick), country and whimsical (the owner's wife is an artist) with a choice of seating in huge comfy booths, huge varnished picnic tables, bar seats and couches.
The smoker is an Ole Hickory, viewable through a large window on Union Street.
I made a solo lunch visits on a weekday and a weekend, followed up with my young bride twice for Sunday lunches and recently tried an early weekend dinner with a friend.
This is one lengthy and diverse menu with many options for barbecue fans and phobes alike. Appetizers include seven kinds of wings, three different hot bowls (barbecue chili, gumbo, chowder), Buffalo sausage nuggets, brisket burnt ends, onion strings, sweet potato fries, fried pickles, Thai chili shrimp, seven different salads with and without meat or seafood, grilled lamb shish kababs and a starter of just ribs.
Barbecue features two kinds of pork ribs (babybacks and St Louis cut spares), beef ribs, "pit roasted" chicken, pulled chicken, chopped brisket, pulled pork and sausage. Ribs are available as half racks, full racks and in several prefab combination plates. Sandwiches include any of the boneless meats alone or in combinations of up to three, plus a Cuban, pan blackened chicken, sausage, catfish, steak and cheese, Brazilian shortrib, falafel, banh mi and a few different burgers.
Then there's three different steaks with five different toppings, plus a "Global Wanderings" section that includes Korean beef shortribs, grilled pork chops, citrus soy sesame salmon, a quesadilla, fish and chips and entree versions of the Thai shrimp, falafel and lamb shish kababs.
Wings: Some good sized wings on the Smoked Sampler (beef ribs, pork ribs, wings, $24.99) had crisp crusts, tender meat and just enough sauce (by request, as unsauced "naked" is standard). They're are smoked, and that wood/smoke flavor comes through, but I've found a little more of a grill flavor on the wings both here and at Freeport. Jerk, peach and blueberry flavors have all been good, and the wings have been good, though usually a reheat and not in that "great" category like at Binga's around the corner. I'd go there for smoked wings but stick with Buck's for smoked everything else.
A quick comment about the blueberry: it's not too fruity and not really even recognizeable as blueberry unless you knew it was there, but it's a unique and appealing flavor addition that blends well with the barbecue sauce and is a good match for the chicken.
The jerk is much more of a loose, thick paste than a sauce, coating the wings more like a parka than a windbreaker. Be warned that its composition and brown color can have a disturbing effect (I'll let you draw your own conclusion) (and draw it on toilet paper) if you're not in the right frame of mind. The Caribbean spices grab you as soon as the plate hits the table, and the flavor provides all of that tropicality plus some significant heat. This is a compelling treatment if you're looking to down some beers, but the chicken itself—which has some light pink tint and hint of smokiness—gets buried, both literally and figuratively (as well as ironically, given the name of the place).
Burnt ends: Think steak and think barbecue, and that's what these large hunks of smoky, rubby beef ($8.99) bring to the table. There's a good contrast of sturdy crust outside and more wilting, well lubricated strings inside, with the crunchy rub tying everything together. The fat is almost completely rendered, such that there's no discard necessary. Smoke is midrange. The horseradish dipping sauce adds a little pizzzaz and cuts the heaviness a bit, but the geaviness should simply be embraced. This is a great appetizer to share, because that heaviness increases after the first few chunks.
Onion rings: Light, crunchy and well seasoned, these rings hit the spot, but hit with equal heavines—mostkly from the seasoning.
St Louis Ribs: Ordered on the Smoked Sampler (beef ribs, pork ribs, wings, $24.99) and on
the Show Me Your Ribs combo (beef ribs, St Louis pork ribs, babyback
pork ribs, $26.99), these shined even on lunch visits. Size and thickness
were right about average. The surface thrusted an abundance of rub that
delivered both texture and flavor, and whose presence was also felt deep
within the meat. There was no question about the smoke, which was
equally profuse and pleasant (very fragrant, not at all foul). Doneness was
just right both times—neither too firm nor too mushy. Moistness was
there for sure but shy of full-on juicy. These ribs were tasty with or
without sauce and certainly didn't need it. It's really pretty simple:
if you like smoke and heavy rub, you'll like these ribs. On the one (sort-of) dinner visit, these ribs felt out-of-the-smoker fresh.
Note: The Smoked Sampler comes with babybacks as the pork rib representation, but you can swap it out for St Louis ribs if you get lucky. After three Smoked Samplers trying that, I'm two for three so far.
Babyback ribs: I skipped these on the first visit (swapped out for St Louis ribs on the Smoked Sampler), then tried them on the Show Me Your Ribs combo on the second visit and on the four-bone Rib Teaser ($8.99, no sides) on the third. Results were identical for size (slightly above average and thick), crustage (very thick), pink (present), rub (noticeable both cooked in and sprinkled on top), smoke (pleasantly assertive without being aggressive) and doneness (tender with a little snap, tearing off the bone rather than falling). The one variable was the moistness level, coming in borderline moist the first try and borderline dry the second. I never got the impression that these were old, just a little on the dry side. The flavor bounty was enough to overcome this for me, because they were right in my wheelhouse with that mostly savory, slightly sweet rub and lots of it, but for someone who gravitates toward a softer, sweeter, saucier prototype without that sandy finish, these might not work. I'd definitely get them again, but I'd definitely prioritize the St Louis ribs.
Beef ribs: After trying these on my first two visits and again on the fifth(Smoked Sampler and Show Me Your Ribs combos), I'm convinced that they're the barbecue item Buck's Naked does best. They're beef back ribs as opposed to beef short ribs, so while they're fairly meaty (like a lengthier pork spare rib), you can enjoy a few of them and still have room to tackle other selections. These hit all the stops. The crust has a thick crust that's crispy and loaded with dry rub both before and after cooking. Smoke is very evident. Tenderness is right on the money. Moistness is deceptive: at first glance they may look dry, but there's a nice juice release upon bite. Flavor comes through with a potent blend of smoke, rub and beef, with the flavor of fat mingling in. On the end pieces, there isn't as much meat and there's ore crust than interior, but the flavor is more heightened. I can't think of a better beef back rib within New England than the one here.
Brisket: While gazing through the window on Union Street to admire the smoker about an hour after we finished our meal, my young bride and I got invited in to meet the pitmaster, who gave us a peek inside. He also treated us to a ferw slices of brisket, which we hadn't tried yet. A sample under such conditions is not always representative, but I liked the tenderness, the light au jus treatment and the last minute flouish of rub.
Pulled pork sandwich: Tried on visit 4, this sandwich ($8.99 with one side) placed very large chunks of pork on a brown bag. The meat footprint was sizeable without much height, but that might have been just a visual effect by the bun bun that could double as a small beanbag chair. Bark was present but not crisp. Color was mostly pale. Moistness varied with each piece, running the gamut from very moist (steamy though) to very dry. Flavor was a serious drop off from the ribs and brisket, delivering minimal smoke and rub. This could easily be chicken, and sauce was less of an option and more of a requirement. Not bad, but nowhere the level of the other meats on offer.
Vietnamese Banh mi: Okay, first things first: this sandwich ($8.99 with one side) isn't going to win any prizes for banh mi authenticity. The housing is a soft sub roll and not French bread, so there's none of that textbook crackle, and to top it off they cut it canoe style— exactly how I hate at Subway. And (not that this is a problem other than authenticity) it's almost too meaty, altering that classic ratio of bread to filling. That said, the meaty part of the filling is pretty good: it looks like cheap cheesesteak style beef, but it's actually sliced beef shortrib, cut while still frozen, with good moisture and tenderness. The citrus-soy treatment leaves it a little salty for some, but supporting players traditional (carrot, cukes, jalapenos, cilantro), non-traditional (onion) and hybrid (spicy mayo) help alleviate that. When all is said and done, this is a nice try that I'd have every now and then to break up the monotony if I were a once a week regular, but I can't see making it a regular habit otherwise.
Meats summary: Ribs. Beef or pork, that's what to get here. Better yet, beef and pork ribs.
Four sauces are available on the table in squeeze bottles. You'd think the blueberry option would be too sweet, too tart or too weird to be more than an obligatory "Hey look, we're in Maine" novelty, but I rank it as the best of the four. It's less of an in-your-face blueberry flavor and more of an interesting thing going on in background that would keep you guessing for a bit if you didn't already know. I'm usually a fan of mustard sauces but this one was too "yellow" for my liking. The house sauce was a fairly standard but well executed mix of sweet and tangy with faint chipotle heat. A western North Carolina tomato-vinegar sauce was thicker than a typical Carolina red, but worked well with most of the meats.
Cole slaw: A little dry thanks to minimal inclusion of condiment but flavorful thanks to a dense infusion of seeds. My last one had more condiment but a broccoli flavor.
Rice: Tiny and firm white grains didn't have much going on other than a hint of tropicality.
Collard greens: Talk about green. These were cooked down to beyond tender and still retained their color. There was no bitterness retention to be had though, as the slippery brothy condiment ushered in a troika of butter, salt and meat fat from the nice inclusion of a few sausage slices.
Mac and cheese: If you like it thick, loose, creamy and mild, this'll fit the bill. Cheese is melted in (white) and grated on top chili style (orange).
Cornbread: Light, dry and forgettable.
The Bottom Line
With its silly looking mascot and family-friendly atmosphere, Buck's Naked might not have the same hipster cred that some of the sexy new barbecue joints in Portland do, but what matters more is taste and texture. For my money Buck's is still the best bet among all of them to deliver both in the same bite.
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