BBQ Joints of Maine

On the lookout for the signs, sauce, and smoke of barbecue in Maine—a southerner’s pursuit in New England. This is going to be messy, hopefully. 

I didn’t expect to find barbecue here. Not the ribs and pulled pork of the South, where I grew up and know to pull into barbecue shacks and parlors when the smoke’s rising—to order a plate of the peppery-vinegar barbecue with sides like coleslaw, fried okra, and mac and cheese. My favorite Carolinas’ barbecue stops are in rural and remote places. These are typically open “barbecue hours,” only a couple days a week for the smoked butts or coveted “whole-hog” barbecue, along with homemade sides, and pitchers full of ice and tea that’s as sweet and dark as Maine maple syrup.

About a decade ago, the state of Maine itself began drawing me in with its sturdy, proud buildings (and people), the rural roads, and the rocky coast. Food-wise, Maine offers so much that’s delicious, you could almost forget about barbecue. That is, unless you’ve ever tasted pork that’s cooked slowly all through the night over wood coals. Location, tradition, and the cooking style of the pitmaster, are all part of the experience. However you describe it—tender, stringy, fatty (in the best ways), chopped, smoky—you simply can’t get over that kind of eating.

Destination barbecue

I crave barbecue and go looking for it sometimes. Other times, a barbecue place suddenly appears on the horizon like a mirage—or that’s how it feels when I’m driving in Maine and come across a BBQ sign or telltale smoke. That’s how it happened when a blizzard was blowing on a February Friday last year in Presque Isle. Looking across a Mardens parking lot, I had to squint and re-focus when I thought I saw the red and blue of a Texas state flag in that white, wind-whipped scene. On second look, it’s a French Acadian flag above the Rib Truck. (This far north, we’re just a few miles from Canada.) Cars and trucks are pulling up one by one to roll down a window or hop out and pay for orders. Soon my own gloved hand is wrapped around a steaming “Pulled Pork Parfait,” a to-go cup filled with baked beans and pulled pork that’s drizzled in barbecue sauce. Layering the three ingredients together is smoky brilliance.

Another sight I’ll never forget is the first view I had several years ago of the vintage, tangerine-orange trailer in Bethel that’s now Smokin’ Good BBQ (formerly BBQ Bob’s). Similarly, Spring Creek Bar-B-Q in Monson (on ME-15 on the way to Greenville) has a hand-painted sign, looks like a mix between a country store and a cabin, and is known for authentic, smoky pit barbecue and sides like Texas toast and deviled eggs. Then on a warm summer night on Mt. Desert Island, the scene looks like a backyard cookout around the sheds, truck-length wood smoker, and outdoor tables at Mainely Meat BBQ (at Atlantic Brewing Co.).

Each of these chance sightings and stops caught me off-guard at the time. Yet wood-fired cooking in Maine shouldn’t be surprising. Consider the yard-spanning stacks of firewood outside of homes and businesses, and traditions of cooking over campfires in the Maine woods. Fire and smoke are everywhere, from bread and pizza ovens to sugar shacks. (Maybe this is a stretch, but sometimes when I see the roofline of a maple sugaring shed, it looks like the vented rooftops of old-fashioned barbecue smokehouses in the Carolinas.) I’ve been fascinated to see remnants of Maine’s own deep history of smokehouses in places like Lubec, where the floorboards and timbers of pier buildings from the lost herring industry still hold the char and smell of decades of smoke.

In the South, people talk about “100-mile barbecue,” places that are so special and good, you’d drive 100 miles just to eat there. Last summer, we tried a Maine version—going to mostly small-town places over 100 miles north of Portland—but you’ve likely noticed that Portland, too, has barbecue. It can take less than 10 minutes from the Portland International Jetport to get to one of the newcomers, Salvage BBQ on Congress Street. I’ve made that beeline drive more than once to share the “Meat Coma” tray of pork ribs, brisket, and chopped pork, along with that quintessential Southern staple, collard greens.

Winterport blues

If Winterport was a sleepy Penobscot River town a few years ago, 4Points BBQ and Blues House appears to be changing that. These days, the colonial-style building fills with the sounds of live blues being played on weekend afternoons and nights. You know you’re getting close when you see the line of cars and Harley Davidsons parked along Route 1A. One of those bikes belongs to owner John Ramirez, who moved to Maine from Oklahoma, and quickly clarifies that his hometown was just a few miles from Texas. He contends that there “weren’t a whole lot of barbecue options in New England” when he opened in 2009. Ever since, he’s been refining the offerings, using local apple wood for cooking “for a milder smoky taste,” round aluminum pizza pans for serving, and adding outdoor seating and a stage for blues bands and concerts.

Customers in this south-of-Bangor town of about 1,400 residents are particular, he says, and there was a learning curve on both sides. Ramirez tells the story of a local customer who returned an order of pork ribs, “because he didn’t know there would be bones in it.” About twice a week, the pit crew cooks up a whole hog, along with Andouille sausage, Texas beef, and Maine-raised turkey. When Southern-recipe sides like fried okra and hoppin’ John (peas and rice) didn’t sell well, he pulled them from the menu. Then in response to local requests, Ramirez added a Maine version to his house-made sauces, which originally were a nod to what he deems the four geographical points of barbecue—Texas, Memphis, Kansas City, and Carolina. In that squeeze-bottle line-up, there’s now a “Maine XXX” variety, with more heat and kick from habanero pepper than you might be expecting. (When I tried them all, it was my favorite.)

Orland River ribs

North of Bucksport on Route 1, the hand-written signs are up again: “Smoked ribs TODAY.” I get an excited twitch in my stomach. We turn, and follow ME-175 (Castine Road) to the old Orland Market near the bridge over the Orland River. This is a special occasion. The market’s open year-round, but owner Kimberly Smith typically fires up the smoker only from April to October, and even then it’s smoking just a couple days a week. When she posts the signs, people drive in from miles around to the town of about 2,000 people. (I know to watch for that sign. We’ve been in before for the pork short ribs that really do fall from the bone.)

“Over eight or nine years, we’ve developed a following,” Smith says, including one man from Castine who always calls ahead to order a full rack to take home. On an August day last summer, Smith, suntanned and wearing a long sundress, has a dozen racks on foil-wrapped trays in the smoker that’s situated next to a woodpile behind the three-story, mid-1800s grocery that’s painted a butter-yellow with grass-green trim. The market specializes in comfort foods, and she was inspired to add ribs to the menu based on memories of the food and flavors she tried when she once lived in North Carolina. Smith has honed the labor-intense techniques she still uses—including a rub of seasoning, a marinade with an apple juice base, and a blend of sauces (hot, spicy, and sweet). After a full day in the smoker fueled with apple wood logs, the ribs are tender and caramelized on the ends, “the best part,” according to Smith. She wraps portions until they sell out, often with foam take-out trays of house-made slaw, a cornbread muffin, and baked beans. Oh, and maybe a fat slice of Smith’s just-made chocolate Nutter Butter cake.

Belfast goes South

Go past the iron drum smoker out front and through the screen door at the Pig Out, and you’ll never hear a sweeter Southern accent than that of Georgia-born Stephanie Guerry, one of the owners, or her daughter, Candace Godwin. Sure, I know I’m just a few dozen yards from the chilly saltwater and wharves in Belfast, but this time the sights, sounds, and smells are truly disorienting. It’s like I’ve walked into a super-charged version of the South—from the chalkboard signs to the menu of pulled pork, chicken, and brisket. The dry-rub ribs arrive sticky and blackened (rolls of paper towels on every table), and the “Smokin’ BBQ beans” include good old Southern butter beans.

Stephanie and her husband, Ted Guerry, opened the restaurant in 2012 and that’s his voice you hear between the recorded rock, country, and blues music that’s playing. The soundtrack comes from segments of his weekly “Southern Connections” show on the local community radio station, WERU-FM. Ted is serious about barbecue, starting with the wood. In a nod to Maine traditions, he’s got a teetering stack of split alder to burn in the smoker—he decided to use it after learning it’s a preferred smoking wood of Native Americans. For sauces, the squeeze bottles on each table are even more geographically intricate, including house-made varieties of Texas Southwest Hot, South Carolina Mustard, New England Mild, Tennessee Sweet Hickory, and North Carolina Vinegar. Besides making plates of barbecue, Ted likes to get into conversations with customers, often telling stories from his growing up years in woods and swamps around the Suwannee River in northern Florida. Meanwhile, Stephanie’s in charge of making the desserts, and she uses Southern magazines and friends’ recommendations to come up with each week’s selections, including plenty of pecan pie, a version of key lime pie in a mason jar, and slices of whiskey sheet cake drizzled with chocolate and pecans. The Southern feel and hospitality is at its height during weekly summertime “Gig at the Pig” nights. That’s when Godwin, a student at the University of Maine, brings her electric keyboard or cobalt blue acoustic guitar (or both) and plays and sings a mini-concert in the wood-paneled dining room that happens to have the outline of a pig drawn on the red-painted floor. If it’s a busy night, the blonde-haired singer will stop in between songs to pour a round of sweet teas to customers, and then it’s back to another song by the Kings of Leon, Janis Joplin, or Patsy Cline.

Summertime on ‘cue

The summer went on like that last year. We tried the pulled pork sandwich plate and sat on the front porch of Pete’s Pig in Belgrade Lakes one afternoon—in a rare twist, the owner, Peter Clark, actually is from Maine and was inspired by tasting barbecue around the South. On another day, we stopped in for pulled pork on a just-baked bun at the Mill Stream Deli, Bakery and BBQ in Blue Hill. That’s where Michigan transplant Tim Bingham fires up the smoker with local fruit woods in the rear yard behind the 1840s storefront, and Linda Phillips (from a five-generation Mt. Desert family) bakes everything from lemon-ginger scones to savory pastries with kale. The couple enjoys history and community, and there may not be another barbecue place in the country where you can drop ice cubes into your cup of sweet tea using a silver antique ice bucket and tongs.

Regional differences blend and blur. Stack the alder or apple wood, fire up the smoker by the bay or behind the 1800s general store, add some music, and you’ve got something comfortable and familiar, but new. To that I say: keep bringing it on, y’all.

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