Southern Maine got its first taste of Memphis-style BBQ nearly 30 years ago in the form of a tiny, understated shop located in South Portland’s Knightville neighborhood called Uncle Billy’s.
Helmed by a chef whose personality was larger than the restaurant itself and positioned right next to the recently demolished Griffin Club — the area’s most colorful watering hole at the time — Uncle Billy’s helped define a neighborhood culture through a communal love for smoked meats and lively conversation. Despite Chef/owner Jonathan “Johnny” St. Laurent becoming known as the “guru of barbeque” around town, Uncle Billy’s closed its doors in 1995, with St. Laurent going on to open a handful of less successful ventures in Portland and Yarmouth, eventually leading him to step away from the business.
Fast forward to 2018 — Billy’s back, and so is Johnny. Well, almost. St. Laurent is indeed reviving Uncle Billy’s Bar-B-Que, with plans to open later this summer at 166 Cumberland Ave. In the meantime, however, he and his team have set up shop at 539 Deering Ave. in the space most recently occupied by the ill-fated Abilene. It’s a “pop up,” yes, but one which Laurent plans to continue operating once Uncle Billy’s opens on Cumberland, albeit in a different capacity.
This is good news for folks living in the vicinity of Woodfords Corner, a tiny district that’s beginning to rival inner Washington Ave. as Portland’s most interesting aggregate of eating and drinking establishments. Uncle Billy’s in its current form doesn’t come off as thrown together or temporary in any sense; it feels lived in and well-seasoned. Customer-drawn napkin art and BBQ-themed tchotchkes line the walls, with warmly saturated blue and ride lighting giving the space a roadhouse-esque ambiance recalling Twin Peaks in its most dreamlike moments. It doesn’t feel like you’re in Maine, and for a concept which aims to transport the diner to Memphis for just a short while, this is a success.
Uncle Billy’s is serving a somewhat abbreviated version of the menu it will offer once the flagship shop opens on the peninsula. As “previews” go, the Deluxe Combo for 2 is a solid choice. Choose three meats, two sides and bring a friend. Don’t sleep on the ribs — smokey and lean with a tantalizing dry-rub that’ll stick with you for days — and give the tri-tip a shot, which is one of the hidden gems of smoked meats being served around town right now. Skip the fried chicken (under-seasoned and flimsy on this occasion) and opt instead for the pulled pork. As for sides? Baked beans, mac ’n’ cheese, and an extra side of one of Portland’s better coleslaws will get you to that happy place.
It’s tough to say right now how Uncle Billy’s will fare in 2018 and beyond, both in this location and the one St. Laurent is building out on Cumberland Ave. With Elsmere having just opened a second restaurant right down the street, a new food truck from Noble BBQ and Salvage still plugging along in the West End, Portlanders have a veritable sea of analogs to choose from in comparison to Uncle Billy’s first ride in 1989. If Johnny and his team can succeed at recreating a neighborhood vibe similar to what he became known for, however, everybody wins.