Tucked quietly in the nondescript Dolphin Plaza on Route 1, Sea Smoke is an over-the-counter joint that might have been a pizzeria in a past life. There's an open kitchen, about a half dozen picnic tables and a single flat screen TV. The atmosphere isn't much, but the parking is free, the refrigerator has a variety of cold beers and the aromas leave no doubt that the meats are smoked. As for the details, the smoker is a Cookshack and the wood is mostly local maple, with peachwood also used for the ribs.
A fairly compact barbecue menu has both babyback and St Louis cut pork spare ribs, pulled pork, brisket, smoked chicken and smoked sausage. A variety of combo plates allows up to four meats, and the boneless ones can be ordered by the pound. Chicken, pork and brisket are also available as sandwiches on Texas toast.
Beyond barbecue, there's burgers (including a bacon/cheddar stuffed one), hot dogs (including a pulled pork and slaw dog) and salads (with or without smoked meat on top). There's also Brunswick stew and chili to warm you up.
I stopped in for a late weekday lunch with a barbecue buddy as part of a Portland crawl.
Aside from the chili, Brunswick stew and (gasp) salads, there are no appetizers as such. If you're looking for something to get you started, I'd recommend a quarter or half pound of the smoked sausage.
Ribs: A generous half dozen individually cut ribs were sculpted into an artful pile on the Half Rack and 1 Meat Combo ($18.99 with two sides and cornbread). Each rib was a smallish trimmed St Louis spare with a light slather of sauce grilled in to provide a little crispness without finishing too wet. Texture and flavor were both interesting, striking me as pork meatloaf on a bone. They were definitely smoked (just right), definitely moist (just right), definitely soft (too far past just right) and definitely flavorful (a whole grab bag of flavors that were atypical but well done). All things considered, I'd call these a decent effort for a 2:00PM reheat, definitely a little above average with the potential to be better on another day.
Pulled pork: An equally generous pile of pulled pork was equally interesting. Served as mostly huge chunks of inner meat, it had almost no bark but an appealing pink color, easy-to-spot moistness and apparent freshness. This was some seriously jiggly meat, wobbling precariously like porky jello. Flavor was vaguely pleasant but very light smokewise and otherwise. Tenderness, despite all that wiggling, came in right on the money and not overdone at all. Still, there was something about the slippery texture and large, muscly chunks that was a bit offputting.
Brisket: Served on the 2-meat combo ($18.99 with two sides and cornbread), the brisket was cut super thin like deli meat (scare #1) and reheated flat on the grill (scare #2). That fear was for naught, because the brisket wound up being surprisingly good. Tenderness was a non-issue due to the thinness of the slice, but I could tell this was properly smoked and would be tender even twice as thick. The edges had some slightly crispy bark, the interior had a nice smoke ring and the whole slice had little bits of black pepper and decent moisture. Flavor was nicely smoky, though there was a hint of a lighter fluid taste. Overall, another solid effort—and yes, another interesting one too—that wasn't wow-worthy, but not bad at all.
Sausage: Also included on the 2-meat combo, the sausage presented a couple dozen sliced cross sections about a half inch thick. Usually slices are disappointing because the juices get lost. This time the juiciness gave way to mere subtle moistness, but that was a minor issue, and the only one at that. Its snap was still evident and its casing dark and crisp. Smokiness was high, pork flavor was plentiful, spices also stood out and a light maple flavor made the whole thing work. I figured there must have been some maple syrup integrated into the sausage by the maker or added to the surface by the pitmaster right before smoking, but according to one of the owners it's the maplewood that does the trick.
This is a strength. Three sauces in squeeze bottles are available on the picnic tables. There's the tomato-based sweet, the golden "Carolina" sweet/spicy mustard and the "Spicy" chile infused sauce. All were much more robust than the typical slightly-doctored sauces offered at most barbecue joints. All of them—even the sweet—had more heat than expected and many visible little bits of black pepper and other spices in the mix.
Cole slaw: This was a nice rendition with not much liquid condiment, but it wasn't dry and certainly not lacking in flavor. Black pepper, seeds (probably celery) and crispness carried the day.
Collard greens: Large leaves were cooked just short of wilting and had just enough condiment to take away the butterness, but were fairly plain.
Mac and cheese: Thick, rich and creamy, the mac looked better than it tasted. There was nothing really wrong with it, but there just wasn't any flavor.
Beans: This was another good one, with bright colored beans that still had some snap, little bits of vegetables and a refreshingly complex sweetness that was a huge step above your everyday molasses-ketchup-mustard offshoot.
Cornbread: Muffins of cornbread tasted homemade and were reasonably fresh, but didn't present anything special.
The Bottom Line
As can probably be surmised from the item-by-item descriptions, nothing was great, nothing sucked and just about everything was not only pretty good, but done in an interesting, outside-the-norm fashion. Sea Smoke is one of those places that has the potential to grow on you, so I hope they get a chance to do so, especially given their location and their chief competition.
If you're thinking of having barbecue in Scarborough, there might be another place that's more, um, famous (hint hint), but Sea Smoke—low of atmosphere though they may be—is the more worthy choice.
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