We have a few strategies we employ, on days after we’ve had a big night out, having one round too many. As soon as we can get our ears to stop ringing and get our brains stuffed back up our nostrils, the healing can begin. Sometimes, it’s a bag of Doritos. Or a bowl of ice on the belly. Or a greasy paper bag full of fried mozarella sticks. And on particularly bad days, where your stomach churns, your head hurts, and your eyes burn, there’s nothing you can do but fill every bit of space in your stomach (that isn’t already holding whiskey) with meat. Barbecued meat.
Maine, however, doesn’t exactly carry a reputation for being the barbecue capital of the world. With a few exceptions, great barbecue is hard to come by. Barbecue in Maine tends toward Memphis-style sweet stickiness, with tons of sauce and smoke, natural or otherwise. Even then, there’s some distance involved; you’re probably going to end up losing an afternoon driving out to Shaw’s Ridge Farm, when the barbecue craving hits. And “driving” and “blind hangovers” don’t exactly go hand-in-hand.
It was in this frame of mind, then, that we visited The SoPo, just over the Casco Bay Bridge in South Portland. The SoPo occupies the space formerly called “Beale Street Barbecue,” somewhat of an institution in Maine, that still operates a location in Bath. Offering a full suite of barbecue staples, as well as an extensive sandwich list, The SoPo prints its mission statement on menus and on their website:
It is time for Maine to own its own [BB]Q. We pay homage to the tradition of fine BBQ established in the South, and we honor the fact that BBQ used to be a “Southern” thing, but we believe it is time to let go of the regional constraints in what we have come to know as BBQ. Maine barbeque is expansive, creative, explosive, and liberated from territorial concepts.
The building is a little unusual. Park in the front, and you feel like you’re entering through the back, through big, high school gymnasium-style steel doors. Where you would expect a host stand, there is instead a sign directing you through the restaurant to the “back” (or is it front?) of the room, where you will find the hostess, who will then double back, leading you back through the restaurant, past the half-open kitchen, to your table. The restaurant is brightly lit, and oddly modern in its style. Instead of big wood beams, iron, or, I don’t know, wagon wheels, lots of somewhat out-of-place modern touches prevail. Carpeting, rice paper lampshades, and textured tabletops are the dominate features, here, and the sensation isn’t unlike eating in an airport, or in a bowling alley that forgot to put in bowling lanes.
None of that matters, though, if the barbecue is amazing, and with the kinds of missives quoted above sprinkled liberally throughout the restaurant, we were prepared for some pretty serious “Maine ‘Q.” We ordered a plate of Buffalo Wings ($6.99), and the “BBQ Sampler,” a $26.99 mountain of a meal combining pulled pork, cornbread, a half slab of ribs, 1/4 chicken, one smoked sausage, macaroni and cheese, and coleslaw.
Everything was served on one plate, which was satisfying. There were no illusions about the colossal amount of food we were about to eat. We were pleased to find that all of the barbecue, smoked on-site, is served “dry,” with a big bottle of barbecue sauce to add as you see fit. There were some hits and misses, for sure. The pulled pork was excellent, with some satisfying crispy bits. A hit of the barbecue sauce revealed a nice balance between smoky and sweet, without knocking your teeth out with sugar. The cornbread was also a winner, if a little on the sweet side. I loved the crunchy, caramelized edges, and ate the entire slice with a smile. The chicken was moist and delicious, with a nice smoky finish, and the sausage was surprisingly complex, with a wonderful snap to the casing and a flavorful maple-dijon dipping sauce.
The pork ribs were far less successful. They had a suspiciously smoky flavor, that seemed almost unnatural. They reminded me of a turkey we once bought for Thanksgiving in Mexico, that was dyed red, injected with smoke flavoring, and tasted exactly like a hot dog. My dad and I spent an hour wandering the streets that night, trying to find a stray dog to feed the carcass to, only to find that even starving Mexican street dogs knew not to eat chemically flavored meat.
The entire experience ended up being fairly underwhelming. “Maine ‘Q” was what was advertised, and it’s what we got. It certainly wasn’t the worst barbecue from recent memory, served by an energetic, caring staff, in a family-friendly setting. But as Jillian and I sat in the car afterward, digesting silently, we knew we wouldn’t ever feel the urge to come back. In this case, we might have chosen our hangover-fighting strategy incorrectly. Skipping dinner and heading straight for a soft-serve cone at Red’s Dairy Freeze seems, in retrospect, like the better move. Fortunately, I’m sure we’ll have another opportunity to test that strategy.