I was standing at my kitchen island with Mr. Lucky. It was about 7 p.m. A Tuesday, I think.
“Gmmph, mmm, hoo boy,” my foodie friend declared, trying in vain to use actual words while a hunk of saucy pork gracefully slid off its bone and onto his white shirt.
Have you dug into a tray of local barbecue lately? If not, then it’s time to get your head out of the pizza oven and into the BBQ pit. Our barbecue scene is thriving; a casual poll conducted on Facebook yielded passionate opinions and commentary, some of which are included here, Zagat/Greek Chorus style. And though I couldn’t write about every joint in New Haven County – there are several excellent places, I assure you – the following four restaurants, each quite different from the next, should inspire you to get down with some fine neighborhood ’cue this summer.
Ricky D’S Rib Shack
Roll up your sleeves and throw your table manners out the window: Ricky D’s is here, with meats so irresistible that dinnertime turns into a caveman party. Bones flying, lots of grunting, sauce everywhere. What started as a hobby for Ricky D. Evans, a refugee from corporate America, has evolved into an entrepreneur’s dream that includes a food truck, a 32-seat restaurant in Science Park and his own bottled sauces and spices.
Ricky’s offers a full menu of barbecue favorites, including pulled pork, smoked turkey, chopped chicken and wings, plus a less-usual Caesar salad option. There are combination platters, platters of meat-topped fries and plenty of sides, but the do-not-miss offerings are Ricky’s pork ribs and beef brisket. The full-size spare ribs, explains the master, are spice-rubbed and smoked for four hours over hickory wood, which helps explain their astonishing layers of flavor. As for the divine beef brisket, it is spiced and smoked for 14 to 16 hours. In each case, the meats are massaged with Ricky D’s Kansa-Lina spices and finished with Kansa-Lina barbecue sauce. Just as you suspected, the sauce combines a vinegar-based Carolina-style sauce with the sweeter, full-bodied Kansas City style. The result is a wow.
Facebook commentators gave Ricky’s D’s many enthusiastic thumbs-up, calling it “consistently good” and a “family fave,” and noting the warm hospitality of Ricky and his “niiiice” staff. One Southerner puts it at the top of her local barbecue list; as for the news that Ricky might soon introduce Cana-Lina, a sauce containing medical marijuana, one FB wag quipped, “Now, THAT’S what I call a barbecue joint!”
The Stand Roadside BBQ & Market
The Stand is bursting with personality. Located in a repurposed Mobil gas station, complete with that iconic flying horse, it is as much a destination for socializing, family fun, fresh produce, Nashville-inspired signage and live music as it is for smoked meats. Eating there is very much an adventure, starting with its cafeteria-style system, in which customers grab a tray and choose from an almost-overwhelming selection of meats, sides and sauces. These might be served on a platter, in a bowl, in a sandwich, or as a “feast,” i.e., the $65 “Famous Barn Yard Feast” that feeds four.
Locally sourced ingredients are featured, which is why you’ll find a BBQ sauce made with apples from Guilford’s Bishop’s Orchards, beef from Salt Marsh Farms (also in Guilford) and veggies grown in The Stand’s on-site gardens. (Yes, the menu has vegetarian options.) The Peppercorn Beef Brisket, smoked overnight, was the hands-down favorite at a recent meal there, delighting our group with its just-right texture and complex flavors. The St. Louis Ribs resembled baby backs, but there was nothing small about the taste: dry-rubbed, smoked and braised, these ribs didn’t need sauce – which is just how some purists think barbecue should be.
The menu is ambitious and creative, and boundaries are pushed, especially when it comes to the sides. A few of them are bewildering to me, but for all I know, dishes like barley salad and cold black beans might be cult favorites. In any case, the sides change daily, so adventurers will always have plenty of options to explore.
In warm weather, the party spills outside, adding to the “great American roadside stand” feel that The Stand so successfully captures.
Some Facebook shout-outs: “Love The Stand! Best ever BBQ and a great community vibe.” “Hands-down the best barbecue I’ve had in Southern Connecticut.” “Better bbq than any I’ve had in Texas, Kansas City or anywhere else.” “I give it 9 stars out of 10.”
Bull & Swine New Haven Barbecue
This rustic hideaway on East Rock’s increasingly delicious State Street is kinda sexy, kinda spare, and all about the sauces. These are in plastic bottles, lined up like sentries on the restaurant’s rough-hewn wooden tables, each tagged with a known barbecue region. I went there on a drizzly night with a wildly opinionated friend; we had barely removed our coats before she seized on the sauces and tasted all of them – a squirt on each finger – and immediately declared that the two best sauces were called “Bull & Swine,” and “New Haven.” Turns out, her snap judgment played out, and by the end of the meal, we agreed: Our favorites were the two flavors representing our own Elm City.
As for the meats, it is clear that Bull & Swine has a gift for brisket. The generous, juicy slices, accompanied by a flourish of artisanal pickles, had an exceptionally pleasing grain and texture. The St. Louis Spare Ribs, served on a slice of white bread (as is the practice down south), were tidy and simply prepared, brined with a nice dry rub. Although a bit on the puny side – especially compared to the giant slabs favored by other pit masters – they proved to be a fine vehicle for those sauces, and had plenty of flavor on their own. Pro tip for city folk: Bull & Swine serves nitro cocktails on tap and small bites such as deviled eggs and buttermilk hushpuppies, which it makes it a great spot for night-time snacks and quaffs.
On Facebook, Bull & Swine was praised for its smoked meatloaf, mac and cheese, pulled pork and cornbread; one BBQ connoisseur called its brisket sandwich “pretty close to perfect.” Said another, “Great people, great food,” while one devotee gushed, “Everything is beyond delicious.”
Uncle Willie’s was where I first learned how good local barbecue could be. That was back in the 1990s, in Waterbury; I was at a reception where I was supposed to be charming and articulate. Instead, I was rendered dumb by a rib – its deep-smoke flavor, its melt-off-the-bone texture – and suddenly, all I could talk about was barbecue.
Uncle Willie’s is still going strong, and as delicious as ever. Today, it is situated in a light-filled, asymmetrical building, where it is great fun to take a seat in the second-floor loft and watch Route 1 go by. (Note: The music is carefully curated and just right for American feasting – think Blind Faith and Buddy Guy. Thank you for that, Willie!) The menu is a meat-lover’s dream; beyond the dinosaur-sized Kansas City ribs and the thin-sliced beef brisket that we piled on our tray, it offers baby back ribs, Texas beef short ribs, pork belly, burnt ends, smoked sausage and more. (We’re going back to try the Southern Fried Catfish.)
Regional sauces abound. We chose Mississippi Fifty-Fifty, a combination of Memphis Sweet and Wichita Falls Hot, which delivered a satisfying one-two punch. We also liked the Wichita Hot option on its own, and savored the Carolina Mustard sauce. Among the sides, it was the crunchy Delta Queen Cole Slaw, with ribbons of red onions and peppers and a sprinkle of celery seeds that wore the crown. Filled to stuffing point, sitting among the happy mess at our table, we imagined that any hungry traveler, exiting from I-95 and taking a chance on a curious roadside hut in West Haven, would leave convinced that Connecticut should, indeed, be famous for its barbecue.
Facebook emotions ran high for this place. One thumbster called its Carolina sauce “the stuff of dreams,” and confessed that she smothers both the brisket and the mac and cheese with it. Another agreed: “Their sauce is the boss!” A hard-core bbq man put it at the top of his list, while one homesick respondent pined for her true barbecue “looooove.” A super-fan had the last word: “Uncle Willie’s. That is all.”
photography by NICK CAITO.