Wilson County Barbecue, Portland, Maine

For our first dinner in Portland, we went to Wilson County Barbecue with our Senior South Portland Correspondents, Jon and Nancy Breul. I wrote a preliminary post about it here. It was started by folks from Wilson County in Eastern North Carolina, home of Parker’s and, more recently, Marty’s, heir to the Bill’s faction there. Despite some local backsliding, there’s a rich barbecue tradition in Wilson County, and I was eager to try some Eastern North Carolina barbecue.

It’s a big place in what was once a Department of Public Works warehouse in an area now home to microbreweries and the like. It’s a big space, with ample seating inside and out. They have a heroic craft beer selection (among which I will single out Orono Tubular IPA for special mention), a full bar, and fancy lighting.

Now, this is not Wilson County ambience, but this is Portland and it’s “in an up and coming neighborhood.” Still, you can feel Wilson County in their bones. Among their Specialty Cocktails is “Maker’s Mark and Water.” More to the point, they cook whole hogs directly over wood coals and baptize it with a good vinegar pepper sauce. Here are John Shelton Reed and Linda with Wilson County Barbecue owner and Wilson County native, Spencer Brantley.

And here’s an action shot.

The burn box is that brick structure on the upper right behind the bucket. This is a place for working, not for show.

You order at the counter and they alert you when you food is ready. I did the ordering while the Nancys held a table and Jon sorted through the seemingly infinite beer offerings at one of the drink ordering stations. (That’s him in the red ball cap.) For myself, I ordered a pork plate with collards and creamed corn (the daily side).

Nancy T. wanted barbecued chicken with slaw and nothing else except for a blueberry and peach cobbler (part of her blueberry project) for dessert. I ordered those and some Brunswick stew as her second side, because I wanted some.

In keeping with our shared names Nancy B. also had chicken and Jon had pork. And they both had hushpuppies, some which apparently wandered over to my tray, and some buttermilk pie.

The chicken was delicious, with a nice smoky flavor, and free of dryness. The collards were the sort of good honest collards, unmarred by sugar and graced with side meat, that are so hard to find these days. The Brunswick stew was excellent, thick with meat and vegetables and well seasoned. You can’t do better with either in Wilson County, North Carolina. Oh, and we had an order of fried okra that was excellent. The okra were left whole, and came with a nice tangy dipping sauce. Another hit.

The corn was just okay, and the hushpuppies had a good flavor but close to zero crunch. They were, however, great vehicles for the pot likker. Maybe it was the cool weather. The cobbler was good, while the buttermilk pie was non-traditional, more like a cheesecake (I am not a cheesecake fan). The Breuls loved it, as will all cheesecake fans.

But what about the pork, you are asking. The pork was quite good. It had a very good flavor, that cooked-over-wood flavor, and Wilson County uses an excellent Eastern North Carolina sauce. John Shelton Reed, the Godfather of barbecue, forwarded to me an email he’d sent to Dan Levine back in July while I was eating in South Carolina.

This place is the real deal. Spencer Brantley, the owner, knows what he’s doing and is doing it right. (Details on request.)      He deserves True ‘Cue certification if anyone does. I don’t just say that because he owns Holy Smoke and treated me like a celebrity.     True, he charges Yankee prices and has fried chicken and baby back ribs (both very good) on the menu for the faint of heart, but the main-event hogmeat is very, very good — and not just by New England standards. He even has sweet tea.      I was wrong to be cynical about this operation.    By the way, if you look at the left-hand window in the second picture you’ll see part of a “Hot Biscuits Now” neon sign that he had made by the guy who makes the Krispy Kreme ones.

I agree with all of that. This is good pork barbecue cooked as barbecue should be cooked. All of my Maine Correspondents agree that it’s easily the best around. It serves True Cue while much of North Carolina is backsliding to gas cooking, and the pork tastes very good. The collards, the Brunswick stew, the key Specialty Cocktail, are all that you could want of a barbecue place, and that Orono Tubular IPA exemplifies the best of the thoughtful adoption of local traditions.

If you find yourself in Maine or one the neighboring states, you owe it to yourself to head straight to Wilson County Barbecue for a great meal.

***

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2 thoughts on “Wilson County Barbecue, Portland, Maine

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