(12/02/06) (08/24/08) (09/18/10)
In 2008 Buck's Naked BBQ moved from its small red shack with a semi-open kitchen to a giant log cabin about a mile north on Route 1. The newer, larger Buck's Naked looks impressive, with a lot of the finer touches you see in corporate run joints but done in a more subdued manner that seems more genuine. There's a larger bar area with stools and tables, many more booths arranged like an ice cube tray in a two-section dining room, a kids' play area, a semi-open kitchen and a downstairs "Juke Joint" that provides entertainment and additional seating during peak weekend hours. As their name implies, Buck's Naked serves the meats unsauced, with table sauces available if necessary.
The menu has expanded even more than the space, with the addition of beef ribs, steaks and many appetizers that had previously been specials at the old location. A lengthy list of appetizers includes seven kinds of wings, four different hot bowls (chili, gumbo, chowder, Caribbean black bean soup), Buffalo sausage nuggets, brisket burnt ends, fries, sweet potato fries, onion rings, fried prime rib, fried okra, fried pickles, taquetos and a starter of just ribs. Barbecue now features two kinds of pork ribs (babybacks and St Louis cut spares), beef ribs, "pit roasted" chicken, pulled chicken, jerk chicken, 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 chili sandwich, plus pulled pork sandwiches with jalapenos and melted cheese, with bacon and chipotle gravy, and with mango and jerk sauce. There are also tacos, burgers, a few hotdog creations and catfish. Then there's five different steaks with seven different sauces, fried chicken and fish and chips.
Three well-spaced visits (by years) hit Buck's on weekends for Saturday lunches at various times in the day, with one to the original location and two to the newer one. On my most recent visit I brought along a hearty eater to make a serious dent into a menu that had expanded even more than my waistline since my first visit.
Chili: I started with a cup of smoky chili ($3.99) to kick off the first visit Saturday lunch. It had three kinds of meat (brisket, pulled pork and pulled chicken) and two kinds of beans, along with thin strips of onions and peppers. The broth was a little tomatoey and very mild, so I added some Tabasco. Not bad.
Buffalo sausage nuggets: This battered, deep-fried exercise in excess expertly exceeds even the loosest fat threshold, so it's an appetizer ($7.99) that should only be ordered to share. Sure, it may be, bite-for-bite, the most fattening food in the world (fat in the sausage, fat in the batter, grease, fat in the butter in the sauce, fat in the cheese for dipping). But ithappens to be executed quite well, with a light smoke in the sausage, a good crispness in the shell and a hot, pungent sauce that stayed true to the Buffalo original. And it wasn't just a cover-up; the sausage had a fresh texture, good juiciness and a light heat of its own.
Burnt ends: With this appetizer ($7.99) I was expecting a plate of at least a dozen chunks smaller than 2" cubes. What arrived was a quartet of much larger "fillets" of beef. These had thick charring on the barky exterior, plenty of pink coloring and a texture that gave way with the slightest prodding of the fork. Flavor was intensely beefy with a hint of spice and not much smoke, though there was no doubt that these were smoked. Perhaps the burnt ends were finished on the grill to boost the char factor, because grill flavoring was at the forefront. So these wound up reminding me more of a specialized cut of steak than what I normally think of as burnt ends. But that's fine by me, because a) they were damn good, and b) I'm not one of those people prone to saying "Those aren't burnt ends" or "That's not barbecue" when someone else's specifics don't align with my assumptions. A thick and creamy horsradish dipping sauce availed a nice counterpoint to the beef, but even eaten "naked" the beef acquitted itself quite nicely.
Wings: A dozen wings ($12.99) were split among chile lime and jerk on visit 3, allowing a good sampling of wings with sauce (chile lime) and wings with more of a paste (jerk). Both wings had the advantages of hefty size and immediately obvious smokiness; neither wing type came through on crispness. The chile lime sauce had more lime than chile, confining the taste sensation to mostly sour. The jerk wings had so much of the verdant jerk paste (more of a swampy mud) heaped upon them that it dominated the mouthfeel. They had a light heat (lighter than expected) but a pleasantly strong all around flavor. Overall, I'd say the wings were satisfying though nothing special. Combining their size and smokiness with a little more finishing time and perhaps a different sauce might achieve higher heights next time, so I'd easily try them again.
Onion rings: A mixture of rings and strings, this order ($5.99) was crisp and extremely well seasoned with a slightly sweet rub. That horsradish dipping sauce worked better with the onion rings than with the burnt ends. Usually the rings at the bottom of the bowl wind up soggy, but not these.
Smoked Sampler: Intended more as an entree, the Smoked Sampler ($16.99 with two sides) was a makeshift appetizer on visit 2. This easily shareable platter has wings with choice of sauce, along with beef ribs and pork ribs, served "naked" (thick, savory rub applied before and after cooking). The wings were large, crisp and very lightly sauced. Both rib types had good size, good moistness (though a little short of downright juicy) and good flavor with a light but noticeable smoke component. Texture was very impressive for a late afternoon visit.
Babyback Ribs: Back in the early days at the original location, Buck's Naked offered only one kind of rib: babybacks. When I see that on a menu, an alarm goes off in my head: prepare for chain-style, boiled-and-broiled faux 'cue. With that in mind on my first visit, I ordered a combo with ribs and pulled pork, and was very pleasantly surprised when the platter arrived. The ribs were a half slab of some of the meatiest babybacks I've come across. There was a nice, thick crust from slow smoking with a good amount of embedded rub as well as a sprinkling of fresh rub, Memphis style. As I cut through the bark, juices burst through the exterior. When I flipped the cut rib around, I was greeted by a pink and meaty morsel. It had a little snap to it, with just the right tenderness, though lovers of super tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs may find these a little tough. I really liked the flavor: there was a good dose of that rub and two good doses of smoke, but the meat was still allowed to be the star of the show. That alarm in my head was silent now. When I reached the last of my ribs, I was a little sad, but I knew I'd be having more someday.
Smoked chicken: Included on the "Big Buck" combo plate (chicken, sausage, pulled pork, brisket, two sides, $15.99), this might have had the most impressive crusting of any of the meats, with a good flurry of rub on the dark brown crispy skin that would have been welcome on the wings. The meat wasn't as moist as I'd hoped, but certainly not dry, and a pleasing smokiness might have compensated. This might have also been the smokiest of any of the meats.
Beef ribs: Nearly identical two years apart, beef ribs were impressive on the Smoked Sampler and the first thing I dug into on the "Show Me Your Ribs" combo (beef ribs, St Louis cut pork ribs, babyback pork ribs, two sides, $22.99). Buck's offering has almost everything you want in a beef rib: good crust, abundant rub, some sweetness in the rub but mostly savory, tender meat, well lubricated from fatty juices, pink smoke ring. And the things I don't want in a beef rib were missing: no gross fat globs and no annoying membrane. The only thing missing that I wanted was smoke—it was there, just not as heavy as I like.
Sausage: A gargantuan link had more length and girth than any single sausage I've encountered. The edges were just barely crisp, but the inside had plenty of snap. This was a heavy sausage in taste too, with as much artery clogging fat as an Andouille but a little less heat.
Pork ribs: Both the St Louis cut spares (a relatively recent addition at Buck's) and the babybacks were meaty, well crusted and full of spice rub, much of which was applied as a condiment even after cooking. Smoke was again present but light. The appetizingly pink meat fell short of outright juicy but was easily moist or beyond. These were enjoyable with or without the sauces. Although of satisfactory tenderness, the ribs had a bit of a snap to them as well.
Pulled pork: The pile of pulled pork on the first visit's combo had large, brown chunks of meat. It was tender and smoky, just not as smoky as the ribs. The pork wasn't dry but not as moist as it could have been. With the next sample buried at the bottom of the third visit's "Big Buck" combo, the pulled pork nearly eluded me. Truth be told, shortly after the entrees arrived, I hit "the wall" for the first time in my 4-year barbecue eating journey. I remember having trouble distinguishing the pork from the brisket, as both appeared pulled. I remember that the pork was neither notably good nor notably bad, but in all honesty I couldn't tell you how smoky it was, how moist it was or how much flavor it packed. I was full and it was a total blur.
Brisket: Ditto. Along with the pork, brisket had the least impact of all the meats. I just can't remember why.
Fried chicken: A football-shaped breast had a thick coating of cornmeal batter that brought a little sweetness to the equation. Coincidently, it reminded me of the fried chicken batter I enjoyed so much in my youth decades ago at the Yorkway (York ME). Under the hard shell, the chicken was extremely tender and moist, with a faint smokiness (yes, this was smoked, then fried). Cream gravy was thick, warm and satisfying.
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 chiptle heat. A western North Carolina tomato-vinegar sauce was thicker than a typical Carolina red, but worked well with most ofther meats.
The cole slaw tasted homemade, with lots of herbs and a very thick, very creamy consistency that suggested sour cream. Baked beans were the typical New England variety, done well. I remember thinking the collard greens were undercooked and bland, but the details escape me. The one side that stands out is the potato salad, recommended by our server as the best side on the menu. This was wetter than I'm used to and served at room temperature, so the texture was much more giving than I like in a potato salad. I really liked the flavor though, a zesty blend of dill, spices and mayo. Coarse cornbread was very corny and a little dry.
Restaurants strive to appeal to families and children as well as the drinking crowd, and Buck's does a nice job at both ends of the spectrum. There's a playhouse and Brio trainset that are as much of a draw as the bar in the main level and the game/entertainment room downstairs that features an even larger bar, a couple of pool tables and comfy lounge chairs.
In retrospect, ordering four kinds of chicken (two types of wings plus smoked and fried chicken), four kinds of beef (burnt ends, brisket, beef ribs, sausage), three kinds of pork (babyback ribs, St Louis ribs, pulled pork), six sides and onion rings on that third visit wasn't the brightest idea. Not only was it too much food, it was too much information to keep track of. But despite a few "just okay" items (wings, sides) and my own loss of clarity (pork, brisket, sides), I can clearly say that Buck's Naked came through big time for the third straight visit.
Service was exeptionally friendly and professional on all three visits, nearly to the point of being a model for any restaurant to emulate.
The Bottom Line
The 'cue at Buck's Naked probably isn't going to blow you away, but it's solid enough that I'd probably call it the best I've had in Maine and one of the best in the region. What impresses me most about Buck's Naked is that they seemingly have it all: a menu that's creative and diverse, a dry rub style and sauces geared to different barbecue tastes, a killer space with a multi-demographic appeal, entertainment on weekends and exemplary service. I'm looking forward to visiting them more often than every other year.
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