Northern comfort

And OK food at Uncle Billy's Resto-Bar
By BRIAN DUFF  |  July 11, 2007
FOCUSED REFLECTIONS: Emulating Canadian organization.

Uncle Billy’s Resto-Bar | 653 Congress St, Portland | 207.761.5930 | Cash only
While it is Mexican immigration that will get all the attention in the coming election, I hope some candidate is willing to attend to the cultural threat posed to Mainers by our long border with Canada. As everyone knows, Canada completely lacks core values. They have several official languages. They own many guns, but lack the gumption to actually shoot each other. They allow 18-year-olds to drink, and hardly ever send them abroad to be crippled by improvised explosive devices. Their bacon is pitifully ham-like and their free healthcare makes growing old predictable and boring. On any map of Maine, Canada looks ready to swallow us.

For many years now, in several locations, Uncle Billy’s Resto-Bar has allowed Mainers to swallow back. Uncle Billy’s is like Canada itself in that the drinks are cheap, the food is pretty good, and to the extent that it is French it is more French-crazy than French-classy. On a more fundamental level it is Canadian in that it refuses to cling to a particular organizing idea. But while this lack of rigidity is frightening in a nation-state, it is quite palatable at Uncle Billy’s.

It helps that Uncle Billy’s, while eclectic, is not quite so haphazard as your typical Canadian resto-bar. Up north, the menu at this sort of casual eatery will often veer wildly from sashimi to diner food to California-light to Thai. Uncle Billy’s limits its culinary influences largely to the southern US and Quebec, though in terms of décor it throws in a little southwest and a little old-fashioned porn. But rarely does a new place, even an old place in a new location, have such genuine atmosphere. The new spot is a cozy square of mostly yellow and red with dashes of black velvet on the walls. The servers seem deeply comfortable in their surroundings, and when a two-piece blues band set up quickly and quietly in the front window, they seemed like they had done it a hundred times.

The new downtown location seems right for Uncle Billy’s, especially since I am not sure the food is quite good enough to justify a drive. While some of what we tried was very good, other dishes disappointed. The barbecue at Uncle Billy’s could be cooked longer and at lower heat. This was especially the case with the pulled pork. The meat did not have the tender-stringy, falling-apart quality that is the ideal. The texture was more like a pork chop (a pretty juicy one) that had been chopped up and slathered in a smoky tangy sauce. There was still a good bit of gelatinous fat that would have been rendered away with longer exposure to heat. The ribs were a good bit better, as was the big serving of fried chicken. Not exactly crispy, the breading had a nice spice that held up to the gravy that coated the meat.

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