Smokin’ Sausage Showdown VI

Hot Dog Heaven

photo/Chris Busby

Welcome back, barbeque fans, to another Smokin’ Sausage Showdown, the annual backyard battle in which local butchers go butt to butt in the eternal quest for porky glory!

After five Showdowns, we decided to shake things up this year. Frankly, there’s no point in awarding yet another medal to the kings of the Sweet Italian and Hot Italian classes. Dickie Colucci, past proprietor of the eponymous Munjoy Hill corner store now known as Hilltop Superette, and Chet Knights and his son, Chris, of the West End’s Fresh Approach neighborhood market and butcher shop, smoke the competition year after year with their coarsely ground and finely seasoned Italians. They have ascended to the Maine Sausage Hall of Fame.

That leaves the Wildcard category, where the next generation of sausage artists are producing some very creative combinations. In the first of the two rounds of competition, two relative newcomers, The Thirsty Pig and Other Side Delicatessen, leapt to the head of the pack, but an old hog purveyor with a new lease on life made a mad dash in the final stretch. Let’s recap the results of this heat…

The Other Side is a Portland deli with locations in East Deering and the West End. We chose a rabbit sausage from their case last year, and though its flavor was sublime, there isn’t enough fat on a rabbit to produce a juicy link after over two hours on the gridiron. (For both rounds this year, we smoked the competitors for about two hours and 20 minutes, using maple wood without coals, at a temperature that hovered around 250 degrees for the first hour and 220 after that.) This year we picked The Other Side’s báhn mì, a pork-based sausage inspired by the popular Vietnamese sandwiches. Flavored with cilantro, pickled veggies, and chicken liver pâté, this báhn mì sausage is a masterpiece. Buns are banned from this competition, and for good reason: if you serve this sausage on a crusty baguette like those used for the sandwiches, neighbors will swarm your grill like the meat freaks in those old Johnsonville Brats commercials.

The Thirsty Pig is a restaurant and bar on Exchange Street, in the Old Port, that also retails its links from a small freezer. In addition to sweet and hot Italians, they offer a rotating selection of less traditional styles. Their Thai chili link won top honors in the Wildcard category last year, so we had high hopes for this season’s entrant, a General Tso’s chicken sausage. Pat’s Meat Market won the Wildcard category in Smokin’ Sausage Showdown III with a Sicilian-style chicken sausage, proving that poultry can, on occasion, beat porcine competitors in this class. And the bird almost did it again. The General Tso’s had a coarse grind, great snap to the skin, and a hoisin sweetness that perfectly reflected the flavor of the popular Chinese dish. A creative cook could work wonders using this sausage as part of a more elaborate entrée.

Moran’s Market, a family-owned store on outer Forest Avenue in Portland, was a late entrant in the first Smokin’ Sausage Showdown, back in 2007. Its hot Italian was declared “a triumph of sausage-making,” but the sweet Italian and salty Montreal-style links fell short. A fire destroyed the business in 2016, snapping what had been 60 years of continuous operation, and longtime owner Bernie Larsen, the hardworking heart of the market, passed away earlier this year at the age of 88. But his legacy lives on in many ways, not the least of which is the sweet jalapeno sausage that won the first heat of this Showdown. Coarsely ground and expertly packed, you can tell this link was made by an experienced butcher. The sweet jalapeno is a fresh take on a familiar style —the pepper’s burn arrives late, delivering enough spiciness to get your attention without hogging your whole palate.

In the second heat, four chicken sausages from Pat’s Meat Market, the neighborhood butcher and sandwich shop on Portland’s Stevens Avenue, took on a pair of porkers from Great East Butcher Co., which opened on Payne Road, in Scarborough, in 2014, after a regional franchise called The Meat House went through the financial grinder.

Like rabbit, chicken is also too lean to excel in such smoky conditions, but all the bird-based sausages from Pat’s impressed the judges. The BBQ cheddar benefitted from a sweet sauce and the Greek chicken link won praise for its combination of feta, spinach and sun-dried tomato. The top two were the chicken parmesan, which had a very cheese-forward flavor, and the cordon bleu, with its flecks of ham and hints of Swiss.

Great East, which is located in the soulless chain-store wasteland near the Maine Mall, had a mixed record in Smokin’ Sausage Showdown IV, in 2015. Its sweet Italian earned a respectable B-, but its hot Italian and garlic-and-cheese links were D’s. Something has clearly changed for the better. A handwritten sign in the window announced that house-made sausages “are back!” and the young woman behind the counter proudly said the links are so popular that they’re cranking them out twice a week these days. When it comes to sausage, freshness is crucial.

The garlic cheddar link from Great East was good, but its flavor was too subtle to make it a standout in this competition. The loaded steak bomb sausage, however, blew our minds. Packed with peppers and onions and cheese, plus black pepper and fennel, it had a coarse grind like the best Italians and skin with a crispy snap. An A+ sausage for execution and creativity, the Great East “Bomb” wins the Wildcard Showdown this year, followed by Moran’s sweet jalapeno and The Other Side’s báhn mì, with The Thirsty Pig’s General Tso link pecking at its heels.

Hot Dog Heaven

Between Sausage Showdown rounds this year, we had a side competition in a new category: hot dogs. Many butchers consider this lowly style of sausage unworthy of the effort required to grind it, and are content to cede the huge frankfurter market to the industrial producers whose un-filmable factories are the stuff of nightmares.

But here’s the secret: If you can find franks made by local butchers you know and trust, chances are they’ll be fantastic.

We found two locally made varieties this year. The uncured franks from Wee Bit Farm in Hancock County, available at the Portland Food Co-op, were a revelation. (And they’re pre-cooked, so a few minutes on the grill before it cooled sufficiently for smoking were all we needed to safely enjoy them.) I come from a land where hot dogs hang from the sky (Manhattan), so I know a good dog when I eat one. Wee Bit’s franks had a slightly coarse grind and their natural casing provided a satisfying snap with every bite. These tube steaks are head and shoulders above the lips-and-assholes product sold by America’s meat mafia. To borrow a certain state’s slogan, this is the way hot dogs should be.

Fresh Approach’s house-made hot dogs are not pre-cooked, they’re considerably larger than Wee Bit’s, and a snob might argue that they’re really more like proper sausages than hot dogs (they certainly look like sausages before they’re cooked). But we’re not snobs, and this juicy link, with its glazed/caramelized casing, was every bit as delicious as Wee Bit’s, so we’ll happily call this side match-up a draw.