(09/21/13) (10/19/13) (11/06/13) (12/28/13) (01/25/14)
Salvage BBQ, located across the street from a medical center and around the corner from where the Portland Seadogs play, has so many of the edgy elements associated with hipster barbecue that it looks like it could have dropped in from Brooklyn—and that's a compliment. I love the space: the former Portland Architectural Salvage building (hence the name) is wide open with rows of communal picnic tables in the back and retro lounge sofas and space age tables up front. The restaurant is the brainchild of Portland restaurateur Jay Villani (Local 188, Sonny's).
You view the day's offerings on a huge blackboard menu, wait in line, order from the counter clerk as if in a market, pay ahead of time, grab a numbered wooden block (a recent addition) to take to your table, and get your drinks at the long bar. They'll bring the 'cue out to you (looking for that numbered block) when it's ready.
Study the menu, order/pay at the counter, and they bring it to you.
The early going was a little confusing for some, requiring a hostess to let people know they had to order at the counter rather than just sitting down and expecting service. Others got a little annoyed by the early setup where you ordered from one clerk, then had to go around the corner and pay another, then had to endure the shouting of customers' names and trial-and-error searching the runners did to deliver the right food to the right tables. People seem to have the routine down now.
Gotta love the signage on the brick wall and the free parking out back.
The blackboard menu near the ordering counter displays the day's options. Pork ribs are available as full racks, half racks, quarter racks and as a quarter rack on the Meat Coma tray ($27) that includes chili, pulled pork, brisket and two sides. Pulled pork can also be had by the pound ($16), on a sandwich ($8) and on the Cow + Pig tray ($21 for pork, brisket, two sides). Ditto brisket ($19/lb, $9 sandwich), though it's important to know that by the pound you get a choice of fatty or lean, and on a sandwich it's chopped brisket only. Sausage is available by the link ($6) and on a Chicken and Sausage tray ($21). Chicken can also be had by the full ($20) or half bird ($12). Sides are included with the trays only and available a la carte in three sizes.
Beef ribs were offered early on but apparently have been discarded.
The by-the-pound options offer the most flexibility, but the prices add up much more quickly. The combos offer more value, especially if you want sides and extra especially if you like one of the preconfigured groupings: chicken and sausage, brisket and pork, or the Meat Coma with ribs, brisket, pork and chili. If you want ribs and sausage, or chicken and pork, or brisket and chili, there is no value. Oh, I know what you're thinking, but the sign says—in a chalk font larger than all others—NO SUBSTITUTIONS. Because the trays are preconfigured and there are no substitutions, it helps to have a game plan going in.
I visited Salvage for three consecutive dinner visits followed by a two recent lunch visits, accompanied by reinforcements to allow ample ordering.
I'll apologize ahead of time for the verbose visit-by-visit run-downs of the core meats. They've changed so drastically that doing it any other way doesn't paint the whole picture.
Hush puppies: Munchkin-sized balls ($ small) of cornmeal batter are crispy outside and dense inside, with a mostly savory corn flavor and only minimal seasoning. The smooth red pepper jelly sauce offers some sweetness, some light heat and an antidote to the dryness and blandness along the way.
Chili: This chunky concoction ($4 cup) feels as much like a stew as a chili (and even more so on the earlier visits), but it's a good one. The meats are emphasized and the beans are de-emphasized, with cameos from red and green peppers and large cloves of garlic. The slow building, lingering heat has been there all along, but the most recent bowl ramped up the flavor with a more potent and well rounded spice selection in addition to the chile pepper component. Its inclusion on the Meat Coma combo makes it an easy item to get nearly every time, but I think I would anyway. For my money, it's the best thing in the place, and if it's as good all the time as it was on my last visit, it's on my chili list.
Sausage: My very first bite at Salvage was the sausage, ordered as a single link ($6) but arriving as a bunch of slices instead, each one a monotone bologna gray and each one somehow slimy and dry at the same time. Flavor was interesting. The meat had a gaminess that was a slight plus for me and a minus for my guest. Smoke was light, heat was more noticeable and sweetness found its way in there too—I guessed honey or maple, but it's brown sugar. Juiciness was absent. The casing not only didn't get crisp but was annoyingly tough. Most of the slices remained in the boat uneaten.
No mere punishment, that first visit's near inedible sausage was also a deterrent against ordering it on the next two visits, but on visit 4 curiosity prevailed. This time the sausage arrived as a whole uncut link rather than a pile of slices. And this time the sausage had a nicely crisped casing, a soft, fresh texture within and juices that gushed upon slice or bite. Flavor was strictly savory this time, without the undercurrent of sweetness. Gaminess returned, as did the consistency that was chunked rather than ground. I often judge a barbecue item by “binning” it into one of three classes: top third, middle third or bottom third. The first visit’s sausage would easily be among the bottom third and the recent one would make top third.
Bacon: Introduced in January 2014, this app or add-on ($5) fearures two thick slices comprised of 2/3 meat and 1/3 fat, served up crispy, hot, sizzly, wet with fat and sprinkled with black pepper. The bacon tasted very slightly spicy but not really porky and with little if any cure flavor (not that it's a requirement). But interesting for sure and an item to keep an eye on.
The general presentation is quite appealing. Everything is served on a metal tray lined with butcher paper. Boats and cups keep separation between the various meats and sides. Bread, chopped onion and house made pickles complement the meats and come in handy for DIY sandwiches.
Brisket: One of the quirks of the menu is that there are no substitutions allowed. Since the brisket sandwich is described as consisting of chopped brisket, I asked on visit 1 if I could make a quasi substitution—sliced instead of chopped—and was (politely) rebuffed. So I called an audible and switched the order to a half pound of sliced ($17/lb, now $19). I was so thrilled to avoid the chopped that I forgot to make the distinction between fatty and lean on the brisket, so they gave me lean by default. And boy did they default: this was some dry, gray meat, sliced super thin deli style. A pleasant mix of beefiness, sweetness and all-around body ensured that flavor held up its end of the bargain, lack of smoke notwithstanding, but lack of moisture, color and texture did this brisket in. Just as with the sausage, most of the slices sat uneaten.
Learning my lesson, we went with the Meat Coma on visit 2, requesting fatty brisket. And that it was, though the moisture felt and tasted about half steamy, half juicy. Color improved somewhat, and the texture had progressed from elephant skin last time to bouncy this time. A profusion of unrendered fat lined the perimeter. Flavor took a step back: smoke remained undetectable while rub and beef flavors went AWOL.
Visit 3 took a quantum leap in quality. This time I ordered the brisket as a quarter pound of fatty, and instead of arriving steamy moist, it was legitimately juicy. And it had more color. With more of the fat rendered. And less bounce, more give, more suppleness. Flavor made a comeback, though less from smoke (still low) or beefiness (a little better) and more from the seasoning-after-slicing that accumulated salt and pepper onto the cross section surfaces. Sure, it would be better on the bark and cooked in, but this was an effective technique.
By the visit 4 lunch serving, the quantity of brisket on the Meat Coma combo had shrunk a llittle, technically 1/3 pound but seemingly less. On this visit we requested fatty, so texture was soft and well lubed from fat, both rendered and not. Edges had bark, though soft rather than crunchy, and with none of the rub spectacle of the previous promising visit. Pink color was noticeable in spots. Flavor was all beef. Muted lingering effects of rub were there, if not the feel, but smoke was not noticeable at all. I wouldn't call it pot roasty, as it was legitimately moist instead of steamy or altered with jus, but flavor was really lacking.
Visit 5, also at lunch, went without requesting fatty or lean, so it was the lean that arrived by default. Three lengthy slices from the flat had similar edges, much more pink and some visible and more tasteable post production tricks that upped the flavor significantly. I wouldn't stake my life on it, but I'm pretty sure jus was used this time, not that there's anything wrong with it. Sprinkles of salt and pepper again appeared on the cross sections of every slice. The meat itself also had slightly improved flavor from the pre-cook rub that wasn't so noticeable on the perimeter. Under the jus, the brisket was just a little dry, but not problematically so.
Long story short: right now, Salvage brisket is somewhere around average (toward the lower end), though not reliably so. Considering the bleak earlier examples (with the first one far below average), there's at least hope for further improvement.
Ribs: It’s very, very rare that I visit a barbecue joint for the first time and don’t get the ribs. In those instances it’s usually because I’m alone, or eating at lunch and need to get back to work. But at dinnertime with another hungry mouth alongside? Unthinkable, but it happened. After enduring the less-than-stellar sausage and brisket on that maiden voyage, we made sure to look around to the other tables before committing to a half rack (quarter racks were not yet an option). What we saw wasn’t pretty—small, dry-looking and monotone gray—and I knew I’d be back, so I thought it best to wait for another day and reallocate the resources elsewhere.
Visit 2 brought the first rib tasting. The St Louis cut spare ribs were as small (maybe 4 inches) as what I saw previously, but the reddish tint was a little more appealing. Steamy moisture surrounded the meat as it slid very easily from the bone in a canoe-like hunk with a bone-shaped groove down the middle. Rub, smoke and overall flavor levels were extremely low, not living up to the promising visual.
As if struck by an epiphany, the kitchen on visit 3 took some of the same techniques that improved the brisket that night and applied them to the ribs. Tenderness was off from the previous visit, but the moisture seemed to be emanating from the natural fat content of the ribs and not the chamber they were housed in prior to service. Rub presence rose dramatically, seemingly applied both before and after smoking. At long last there was flavor. Okay, so maybe it was Shake ‘n’ Bake flavor, but it was at least a good start. Adding the still-missing smoke/wood component might have continued the progression, but by this time I realized they’re not after a smoky product even though the product is undoubtedly smoked. Overall, these ribs were in the ballpark of average—a steep rise from the below average first effort.
Visit 4 kept the same basic approach but lost a little something on the execution. Moisture flipped the switch from juicy back to steamy. Overall flavor was muted and overall quality was back below average.
I was ready to give up, then visit 5’s ribs delivered the best batch of the bunch. These were significantly thicker of meat and crusty bark, noticeably enhanced by a short stint under high heat. The contrast of the crunchy outer shell and inner tenderness—that wasn’t overtender—was a pleasant surprise. The clean bite didn’t unleash any juices, but the rib was certainly moist. Rub made a comeback, and with a slightly more barbecue profile. So after all this Dow Jonesing, the ribs are at a point where I’m still not jonesing for them, but they’re at least respectable—assuming that the next batch doesn’t take another dip.
Pulled Pork: The first visit's quarter pound ($14/lb, now $16/lb) had the the same dry, gray appearance as the brisket, but it wasn't too bad. While hardly bursting with (or even trickling) juices, this pork managed to avoid being completely dry and simultaneously delivered some nice pork flavor with smoke's first appearance of the night. A little of the table vinegar barbecue sauce gave it the nudge it needed to fully clear the moisture hurdle and brought out the smokiness too. With the sauce this pork was doable.
The pulled pork is probably the most consistent meat Salvage has; visit 2 had very similar results. Visit 3 netted the respectable pulled pork sandwich (see below) whose roll was the star of the show.
Visit 4 not only revisited the pulled pork sandwich (had to have that fantastic roll again) but also returned to the Meat Coma, so the pork came two ways. The meat in the sandwich was larger of chunk and much fresher tasting (arguably cooked that day) than what was in the boat. The stand-alone pieces appeared to be cut while still cold; even if not, the barely-above-room-temperature pork was a brutally obvious reheat. I don't expect meat out of the smoker every time and especially at lunchtime, but I like the reheat to at least attempt the illusion. This felt (slightly stiff, no moisture) and tasted (faded porkiness) like leftovers. On the plus side, smoke was still prominent. It reminded me of smoked whitefish, only less tender.
The fifth try at the pulled pork—also a lunch visit—brought back the flaky shreds of the first two visits, along with the familiar faint flavor.
Pulled Pork Sandwich: Tried twice, the pulled pork sandwich ($8 a la carte) is a showcase for the fresh house baked roll that's lightly buttered and grilled and outstanding enough to make you forget about the pork, but the pork is pretty forgettable on its own. There's not much flavor in the meat to begin with, so it's not the roll (pliable, light, perfect) but rather the condiments (slaw, pickled onions, pickles) that do the overwhelming even though the pork portion is fine and served in larger chunks than on platters. On both occasions I couldn't even tell I was eating a barbecue sandwich: porkiness, smoke and rub were all muted. That said, as just a sandwich, I liked it. If they sold the rolls on their own, I just might buy some.
Potato salad: Cubes of potatoes. Mayo. Not much else.
Collard greens: Another simple treatment kept the condiment restrained and the bitterness unbridled. Good texture the first time, overcooked and overmashed the second time.
Mac and cheese: This is one of the main attractions, delivering a very adult take on the kid's classic. The cheese is white, plentiful, creamy and slightly sharp. A dusting of crumbs on top adds some textural contrast. A side of this with a sandwich and/or chili is definitely the way to go.
Beans: Big beans, not too soggy, heavy on the sauce but no flavor.
Cole slaw: The only constant here is the celery seed, which is plentiful. Sometimes it feels like they just made it and the flavors haven't set; sometimes it's very flavorful. Sometimers it's so light of condiment that it feels dry; sometimes it has more than enough. Sometimes it's all savory; sometimes it's ever so slightly sweet. Generally, it's been pretty good.
Cornbread: A corn muffin ($1.00) cut in half with the inner halves buttered and grilled checks in as one of the best items the joint has produced and one of the best examples of cornbread in the region. If you're torn between the hushpuppies and this, trust me: get this.
Two sauces grace the table in plastic squeeze bottles. The tomato-based one is very close to ketchup (more brown, slightly more spicy); the vinegar-based one is mostly tart.
Maybe I'm wrong and everyone else is right, but I look at the overwhelmingly positive Yelp reviews with a combination of shock and disbelief. It's tough to even find a 3 amidst the sea of 4s and 5s— which would be astounding even for a joint that's solid, but for a joint that's served mostly gray, mostly flavorless meat with hardly a killer sauce to cover it up, it's downright astounding. It's not so much the high scores but lack of low ones that defies explanation.
I'm not a Portlander, so I wouldn't know, but it seems like there's much support for this place—possibly based on a reservoir of goodwill built up by past successes at Villani's other ventures. Some media types and bloggers swear by the place even though their photos don't look much different from mine. I guess if you hope hard enough for something to be great, you start to actually believe it.
On my most recent visit I overheard two customers who bumped into each other unplanned. One said to the other, "To be honest, I wasn't very impressed when they first opened, but I really liked what I had today." Substitute 'somewhat liked' for 'really liked' (I'm not opposed to substitutions) and I'm in agreement. The chili and cornbread rocked; the rest of the meats were at least decent.
The Bottom Line
There are two ways of looking at the progress. Glass-half-full types will marvel at how far the pendulum has swung. Glass-half-empty types will caution that the pendulum started so far back that it still needs to swing a lot further. Count me in both camps.
Blueberry Files review of Salvage BBQ
Maine Sunday Telegram review of Salvage BBQ
Maine Magazine review of Salvage BBQ
Yelp reviews of Salvage BBQ
Urbanspoon reviews of Salvage BBQ
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