A brisket sandwich, with pickles and slaw, is among the options at Salvage BBQ on Congress Street.
The style of service at Salvage BBQ — you order at the counter, grab a seat, and wait for a tray to arrive — intends to mimic common practice at southern meat joints. But here in Maine, seated in Salvage’s huge space at a picnic table you share with some strangers, the experience calls to mind nothing so much as Maine’s own characteristic form of native dining. Salvage is like a lobster shack without the wind, water, sunburn, or seafood. As the oceans turn against us, fish disappear, and weather generally weirdens, Salvage might suggest a plausible strategy to salvage the distinctive experience of casual dining in Maine.
Many aspects of Salvage will make the transition rather easy. You don’t need to give up the sun altogether, since on recent long evenings the light pours in rather elegantly through huge windows on the western wall. The whoosh of children rushing around creates the semblance of a breeze. And the restraint with which Salvage smokes and spices their meat gives it something of the inoffensive appeal that makes clam-shack style seafood a common source of family meal consensus.
In this sense Salvage gives you a Goldilocks experience with regard to the three prominent barbeque spots in town. Elsmere’s meat is so suffused with smoke that it ought to carry a trigger warning for recovering cigarette addicts. Buck’s deliberately eschews rubs and sauces, favoring post-hoc sauce adornment. Salvage finds a middle ground. Smoky flavor is present but restrained, and a variety of spice rubs infuse the meat without bullying it.
The best manifestation of this balance is the brisket. The fatty version is crazy tender given the cut of meat, with a nice black and salty — but still tender — seared exterior. You can opt for a leaner cut of the brisket, which lets the same subtle smoke and seasoning emerge in a rendition that gives you a bit more texture to chew. I preferred it.
The pork ribs are admirably juicy and tender, without a particularly strong flavor from smoke or spice. They invite you to slather on one of the bottled sauces that populate each table. Some aggressive cross-table poaching and trading might be necessary to get your hands on the most appealing of these: a mustard-vinegar sauce in the South Carolina style. The rest of the pork is served chopped into mouthwatering chunks of various sizes, rather than pulled. With just a hint of vinegar, and mild seasoning, it too invites some experimenting with the sauces.
At Salvage you can take your cornmeal in the form of dense half-pucks of baked cornbread, or fried up in dollops as hushpuppies. Each has a pleasant just corn-sweet flavor, but the hushpuppy’s mix of textures give them a little more interest. The collard greens mix some sweet with a vinegar sour, and have stewed long enough to leave just a hint of fiber to chew on. The crunchy coleslaw could not be simpler, with just a dash of pepper to animate it. Pinto beans, served in thin gravy with some tomato meatiness to it, were more dynamic.