MAINS AND SIDES Pork, brisket, collards, and slaw. | Photo by Albert Colman
A spate of new meat-centric barbecue spots in the area (first Buck’s, and more recently Elsmere BBQ and Salvage Barbecue) reflects a larger culinary trend: we obsessively seek to perfect the consumption of meat at the moment we are poised to move beyond it. Inexorable social forces will soon make vegetarians of us all. Some combination of yoga-inflected pseudo-Buddhist narcissism, Obamacare tax incentives, environmental responsibility, and actual ethical integrity will bring an end to the 10,000-year human experiment with meat. But it is the nature of oppressive systems to assert an essential kernel of rightness in the moments preceding their denouement.
So it is only our anxiety at the coming triumph of “meat is bad” that makes us cling to an alternative dichotomy of “bad meat” (factory farmed, carelessly prepared) versus “good meat” (locally sourced, lovingly prepared). If we are to pass through this era of good meat, then Elsmere BBQ is a fine place to do it. Elsmere offers all the trappings of good meat sans the anxious self-righteousness with which too many chefs serve it and talk about it.
Elsmere believes in good meat without being too insistent about it. In fact everything about Elsmere feels laid-back, from its out-of-the-way Cottage Road location, to its haphazard parking lot, to its kitschy mix of décors (currently with a Halloween theme). It’s a nice-looking space, especially when filled with a crowd as it was on several visits — somewhere between rustic (old wood) and industrial (polished concrete floors, metal tables). There is lots of bar and counter seating, some big booths, communal tables, and two-tops.
Meat is sold by the pound, as well as in a variety of plates and sandwiches. It all comes out of a huge smoker out back, or off the big wood grill in the kitchen. For the most part the meat seems smoked in a central Texas style, which means a spice rub, indirect heat (which prevents bitterness and over-smokiness), and sauces served on the side for dipping.
The results are quite good. The pulled pork has a touch of maple sweetness over a rich just-smoky flavor. The brisket has a peppery rub and earthy flavor that works especially well with the mustard-based barbecue sauce. The chicken was, unusually, the smokiest of the meats — utterly infused with the flavor of the wood. The danger of a long smoke without sauce is that things get a bit dry, and the chicken at Elsmere did lean a bit in that direction.
The two house sauces are terrific — one red-pepper-based and the other a thin peppery mustard-based sauce. They don’t try to bring a superficial smokiness to the meat after the fact, but rather cut through the meat’s smoky richness with sharp and sour flavors.
Among the sides, the best was the collards — tender but with some chew, and mildly spiced and vinegar-splashed so you can taste the green of the leaf. The slaw was all finely diced cabbage and tart vinegar — a welcome crunch and sharpness that cuts through all that rich tender meat. The cornbread is more light and airy than dense and crumbly, and the rather bland mac and cheese might be charitably described as kid-friendly.