Review Date: 06/25/15
(09/21/13) (10/19/13) (11/06/13) (01/03/15) (05/24/15)
Elsemere BBQ and Wood Grill, plunked into a mostly residential neighborhood across the Casco Bay Bridge in South Portland, has tight and diverse seating, with booths, tables, outdoor tables, big stools at the neon-lit bar and more bar seats facing the signature wood grill.
There's a patio out front for outdoor dining in warmer months. Street parking is fairly easy, and there's also a convenient parking lot around the corner just in case.
Core barbecue items include pork ribs (St Louis cut), pulled pork, brisket, chicken and sausage. You can get these on single meat platters, or a 2-, 3- or 5-meat combo; the boneless ones can be had on sandwiches. Appetizers feature smoked wings and smoked sausage. There's much to explore beyond barbecue and much to satisfy the needs of that barbecue dissenter or vegetarian in your group, with chili, nachos, flatbreads, oysters, mahi mahi tacos, a burger, a salmon sandwich, a catfish plate, a grilled mushroom sandwich, a black bean burger and two salads.
I visited Elsmere five times over a two year period, but with no real frequency. Three came in 2013, two in 2015, with a huge gap in between. All five times I was joined by either old barbecue fans or young bride.
Wings: A sizeable order ($12 for a pound) tried on the first visit yielded sizeably plump wings whose black-pepper-studded skins burst open in places. Two flaws here: the skins could have been a lot crisper and the doneness was a little shy of done. That said, these wings were still very enjoyable thanks to the intense flavor of the rub (strong, coarse black pepper rather than just chile heat) and a smoky, chickeny, almost gamey interior. Moistness was nice too. Tried again in 2015, the wings brought perfect doneness but lost all of the flavor.
Sausage: A length link is smoked, grilled, then sliced into bite-sized pieces for easy snacking and easier sharing. I like that the grill flavor is more of an accent than a dominating presence, with the smokiness and woody flavors just as noticeable. Bypassing the slicing might preserve more juiciness, but the links were moist and snappy on two tries. A warmed mustard dipping sauce provides a suitable complement.
I am a stickler for repetition, so on all but one visit I went to the 3-meat combo ($24 with 2 sides and cornbread) for the best survey of meats to judge consistency.
Ribs: The quarter rack of St Louis cut on the 3-meat combo brought average size and well-above-average rub quantity on the crusty surface. Smoke was moderate; rub and pork flavor were off the charts, making these ribs delicious. Texture didn't quite keep pace: although the meat tore and pulled off the bone easily, it was a bit chewy and dry. Overall, still satisfying thanks to the flavor component.
Three subsequent visits have mostly flipped this duality on its head, emphasizing texture over flavor. The crusts have been there all three times. The underlying meat has been perfectly tender twice and overtender once. The moistness has been fine all three times without ever quantum leaping up to full-on juicy. Flavor is vaguely smoky and slightly rubby, but without the ferocity that takes barbecue from pleasant to compelling.
Brisket: Some mid-thickness slices on visit 1 had plenty of give, good tenderness, flowing juices and a near melt-in-your-mouth quality without falling apart. Flavor wasn't lacking but light in beefiness and smoke. Rub was noticeable on the edges but less so at the interior.
A brisket sandwich on the third visit packed similar slices with less moisture but a lightly smoky flavor. These were mimicked by the slices on a combo from the fourth visit.
The fifth visit saw the best compromise between texture and flavor. Instead of slices, the brisket arrived as a bunch of pieces—seemingly from natural breakage rather than chopping. These had a borderline dry interior but the periphery delivered a profusion of bark with great moistness and a slightly caramelly give from the proper amounts of residual and liquified fat therein. Rub also surfaced prominently for the first time, bringing a refreshing saltiness that helped bring out that beef flavor.
Pork: Tried on four of the visits, the pork has been almost uniformly moist and tender with a restrained smokiness. The most recent visit ramped down the moistness a bit but ramped up the bark, which had been fairly abundant already. Smoke was still on the light side but more noticeable.
Three barbecue sauces on the table in plastic squeeze bottles bring familiar flavors. The Kansas City style molasses sauce adds some heat to the equation. The mustard sauce is tangy, slightly sweet with a bite. The fiery sauce is tomato based with balancing heat.
Beans: Big, puffy and plain, these beans lacked oomph but not originality. Definitely not out of a can.
Cole Slaw: Crisp and fairly plain.
Collard Greens: Cooked well past wilting and into mushy territory, the greens rebounded with assertive flavor from both vinegar and a variety of spices.
Macaroni and Cheese: Sitting twice at the counter facing the kitchen, I twice noticed the extra care of the staff took to ensure that the portions of mac and cheese always rose well above the rim of the bowl. Their rendition is standard elbows with a creamy cheese sauce lightly applied. There's some sharpness and grit in there, making it an adult version. There's more generosity of cheese in recent servings than the tighter early version.
Cornbread: It's always included on the combo plate wrapped in foil like a hobo pack, and usually warm as well. Cakey and somewhat bland.
Service has been up and down, ranging from distant and disinterested to fully engaged and as friendly as it gets.
I like the stools by the wood grill the best. Not only do you get dinner and a show, you get to interact with the cooks and another outlet for any request.
Having opened at roughly the same time, Elsmere and Salvage BBQ (Portland ME) draw inevitable comparisons, so I'll weigh in briefly and diplomatically. Salvage has perhaps more highs, undeniably more lows, more flavor surges and more textural disasters. Elsmere chugs along without the peaks and valleys, perhaps never wowing but never disappointing.
The Bottom Line
Unexciting but competent barbecue with generally reliable textures, reliably mild flavors, full service, easy parking, menu flexibility and no hipster pretense.
Yelp reviews of Elsmere BBQ & Wood Grill
Zomato reviews of Elsmere BBQ & Wood Grill
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