This story begins with a garden. Not a very successful garden, according to Charlie Ely, the self-taught chef and owner of Portland’s Locally Sauced, but a wild, unruly backyard overrun with peppers.

When he wasn’t cultivating his plot, Ely worked as an accountant. “I hated what I was doing,” he said. “But I love to cook, so I started making hot sauces with the peppers. And at first, the sauces were mostly vinegar and were really terrible! But eventually I came up with three decent sauces, and they just kept getting better.”

Those three original concoctions – blueberry-chipotle BBQ, citrus serrano and mango habanero – form the skeleton on which the rest of Locally Sauced’s menu hangs. Nearly the entire menu, which he and his wife, owner and general manager Aimee Ely, describe as “burrito BBQ fusion,” is meant to be paired in some way with at least one of the restaurant’s homemade sauces.

Sometimes dishes serve as nothing more than a delivery method for sauce. Take the Saucy Fries ($15), an enormous mound of house-cut Maine potatoes doused in savory cheddar-asiago sauce, the sweet/smoky blueberry sauce and two muscularly garlic-forward toppings: Dress-Up Ketchup and a thick garlic aioli. The unlikely blend of sauces is not unpleasant, although the fries themselves go rapidly from crispy to unappetizingly soggy as they sit at the table.

It’s easy to picture this dish working better as an on-the-go treat that never has time to go limp, something Locally Sauced might serve out of the food cart that kick-started the business back in 2013. “When we first started, it was the smallest commercial kitchen in all of Maine, just a pull-behind cart that we’d tow everywhere,” Aimee Ely said.

“So small!” Charlie Ely agreed. “We could only do so much in there. We wanted to get really good at one thing, so for the first four years, we only did burritos. No sides, no drinks. Nothing else.”

Whether you visit the 20-seat, subway-tiled Thompson’s Point storefront the couple opened this May or their still-operational mobile kitchen, you’ll find at least one burrito (all $14) on offer. Locally Sauced’s are unorthodox, loosely wrapped bundles filled primarily with protein, perky pico de gallo and refried beans. They have more in common with fajitas than the rice-heavy gut-bombs you might find at a chain restaurant.

And that works in their favor, tilting the balance of ingredients away from fillers, toward the dish’s star components, like strips of still-pink grilled flank steak or yielding roasted chicken – both great matches for the red hot sauce, which is, as Charlie Ely described it to me, “not Maine hot, but real hot.” Sour cream tamps down some of that heat, with house-made flour tortillas contributing a bit of their own neutralizing power. It’s Locally Sauced’s first and, arguably, best dish.

The delightfully messy chicken drumsticks are three for $8 or six for $15.

Others have more limited virtues. Take the sticky, delightfully messy drumsticks (three for $8 or six for $15). The kitchen dry-rubs raw chicken legs in a blend of chili powders, braises, then toasts them in the oven to crisp up and caramelize the skin. Blueberry-chipotle BBQ sauce (made entirely with fruit from the extended Ely clan’s own farm, Bradbury Mountain Berry Farm in Pownal) works best on the drumsticks, imparting a gooey, sweet burn to the chicken, whereas the Carolina-style is too mustardy and tart.

The Kramalama, named for the taproom manager at neighboring Bissell Brothers brewery, is more of a lost cause, despite the inclusion of whole kernels of fresh corn and plenty of fragrant cilantro. Ostensibly a “street-style enchilada” that is first cooked on the flattop grill then rolled in a layer of hard-seared (read: burned) cheese, it is nearly impossible to eat without getting covered in nuclear-grade green chili sauce and coleslaw. The dish also turns limp and soggy very quickly. I adore that Charlie Ely likens eating one to “being hugged by a Cheez-It,” but to me, it felt more like an unwelcome smooch from a slobbery aunt who had just polished off a box of crackers.

Soft tacos ($5 or three for $12) were better, especially the hake, battered in rice flour and Bissell Brothers beer and paired with malty beer-enriched mustard. The yeasty double-whammy added complexity to an otherwise pretty flat range of flavors, something both the braised chicken and pulled pork tacos could have used, even after an extra dollop of the balmy mango-habanero sauce. None of the tacos was bad, but did prompt one of my dinner guests to wonder aloud “if they’re really worth the calories.” I wasn’t sure myself.

The pulled pork sandwich, prepared from languorously slow-smoked shoulder meat served on a simple hamburger bun, was much better. Each bite pulsed softly with cumin, black pepper and brown sugar, and was, without any doubt, worth the calories.

So too, the cornbread ($3), a moist, yet still crumbly version of the classic barbecue accompaniment that manages to straddle both Northern and Southern traditions. According to Charlie Ely, that’s because Locally Sauced’s version represents an amalgamation of several recipes. He’s also not shy to admit that “at least one of them was actually for a cake.” Hence the sweetness, which it delivers in exactly the right amount to counteract the heat from – what else? – freckles of fresh, grassy jalapeño. At Locally Sauced, it’s still all about the peppers.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times.

Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.