Though Connecticut isn’t known for having its own signature barbecue style, dozens of pitmasters have been bringing traditional Southern cooking to the state for decades, with creative variations. The rise of barbecue television shows like “BBQ Pitmasters,” “Eat Sleep BBQ,” and “BBQ Pit Wars” has signaled a demand for low- and slow-cooked meats in every corner of the country.
Five years after opening a small smokehouse in Windsor, Bear’s Smokehouse has helped spread Kansas City-style barbecue around the state. With three brick and mortar locations, partnerships with UConn and the Hartford Yard Goats, a food truck and a catering business, Bear’s has turned Nutmeggers into dedicated consumers of its sweet and tangy barbecue.
Sauces include Kansas City Sweet, Texas Pepper, Hot Sriracha and Ghostly Ghost Pepper. Bear’s extensive menu features a variety of combo platters, sandwiches and the beloved “mac attack” — macaroni and cheese topped with the meat of your choice. The cafeteria-style line moves quickly, as some customers veer off to a make-shift breakdown lane to decide what to order.
Against the country rock and blues background music, you hear boisterous conversations among business people on a power lunch, and paper towels being ripped from the roll placed on each table. Wooden signs that read “Bear Crossing” and “#bearsBBQ” hang on brick walls, and a grizzly bear takes the place of the nation’s 50 stars on a wood-cut American flag.
This Kansas-City inspired spot still manages to gently nod to some of Connecticut’s beloved establishments. Grown men, college students and families with kids complete their fast-casual dining experience with Southern classics like peach cobbler and apple pie, NoRa cupcakes or an ice cream cone filled with any of the 10 flavors from UConn’s Dairy Bar.
“The menu is pretty much exactly the same as when we started,” says owner James Varano. “We had naysayers when we first opened that said no one would eat catfish and we’d go out of business in a week — now, we sell about 100 pounds of catfish a week.” Live blues, jazz, and soul music are daily accents at this Southern kitchen across from Bushnell Park. Traditional Creole-style dishes like blackened catfish, spicy gumbo, the New Orleans Po’boy, and jambalaya highlight deep Louisiana influences on the menu. Have a bit more of a sweet tooth? Try the St. Louis-style pork ribs, burnt ends tossed in BBQ sauce, or chicken & waffles with a Tabasco maple drizzle.
Varano, a former bar owner, traveled extensively around the South to learn Southern cooking, while also collecting memorabilia like license plates, street signs, jazz posts and vinyl sleeves, which are hung behind the bar. Black-Eyed Sally’s is a blend of Southern culture and cuisine with the casual backdrop of barbecue.
Despite a lack of authentic barbecue in the state when he opened, Varano says he aimed to be more than just a rib house. The Southern-cut dry ribs emulate Memphis-style cooking, and the trending chicken and waffles takes a top spot as one of Black Eyed Sally’s most popular items on the menu. Varano says that dish has a history rooted in music. “In Harlem, they have all those great soul food restaurants...At the end of the night, the band members never knew if they wanted dinner or breakfast because it was 3 a.m. and somehow, they said, give me waffles and fried chicken.”
Little Mark’s Big BBQ
Located along Talcottville Road in Vernon, Little Mark’s Big BBQ is almost a “blink and you miss it” kind of restaurant. Owner George Giotsas doesn’t mind — “The best barbecue restaurants, especially in the South, are those hole-in-the-wall spots.” Little Mark’s motto boldly advises you to visit “for mouth waterin’, butt kickin’ BBQ.” At last year’s Hartford Rib-Off, Little Mark’s was awarded “Best Brisket”; this past March, Giotsas won “Best Meatballs” at the New York Restaurant Show.
Signature dishes include 1.75-pound baby back ribs, succulent burnt ends, macaroni and cheese, and an outrageous 50/50 burger half ground beef and half ground bacon. Feeling particularly adventurous? Try the gator tails (fried Louisiana alligator meat), maple bacon corn cakes, and 8-ounce burgers topped with brisket or pulled pork. Everything is made in house, including nine sauces. “I’m the only one who makes the sauce,” Giotsas says. “I don’t even have the recipes written down. My wife tells me we’re in trouble if something ever happens to me.”
Giotas has traveled to barbecue hot spots across the South, strategically timing his trips based on where and when the New York Jets were playing away games. “I work so much in the summer that the only time I have to go away is the fall and winter. I’ve been to games in Kansas City, Nashville, North Carolina, and I’ve been doing that since the ‘90s. I’ll talk to the locals there, ask to go in the kitchens and just to see what they’re doing.”
Giotsas, who has owned Little Mark’s since 1995, says that right now the barbecue craze in the North is at an all-time high. “Ten years ago, in Home Depot, you couldn’t even find a smoker, and now there’s like a whole aisle of them.”
Smokin’ With Chris
“Barbecue is America’s food,” says owner Chris Conlon. A former West Hartford firefighter, Conlon has been the owner and pitmaster of Smokin’ with Chris since 2006. He uses a variety of hickory, red oak, sugar maple and cherrywood to give his barbecue a distinct, smoky flavor.
Barbecue essentials like pulled pork sandwiches, brisket, burnt ends and spicy baked macaroni and cheese are specialties. Conlon insists that the sides are just as important — “hugely important” — as the meats. “We’re not doing anything fancy, we’re just doing low and slow greens.” Try the collard greens, sautéed with onion, vinegar, sugar and red pepper flakes.
Everything on the menu — from meats to sides to sauces— is made in house. The “Chris’s Barbecue” sauce is a red sauce with an orange ginger base, evoking Conlon’s days of Asian-style cooking. JR’s Sauce is an award-winning sauce named after the man who built Smokin’ with Chris’ rigs and Conlon’s first smoker. If you prefer your BBQ with a bit of a kick, try the Carolina-style sauce, a vinegar and mustard base with red pepper.
“I make our food so that you can have any of it naked. We do put a rub on our baby back ribs. But other than that, the flavor in everything is pure, raw smoke. The sauces just compliment that flavor — to me, the meats should never be slathered in sauce.”
This year, Conlon plans to make some important renovations to the 150-year-old building, which has been a restaurant/bar since it was built, he says. “But this year is the first time it will become handicap-accessible. Every owner that has been here has left their mark, and that’s the mark I want to leave.”
Middletown and soon in Meriden
Founded by Chris Szewczyk in 2012, Middletown’s Taino Smokehouse introduces a variety of BBQ styles to Connecticut. Van Hurd, executive chef and pitmaster, cooks its barbecue low and slow over wood-fired smokers for approximately 12 to 18 hours every night.
Rather than adapting one specific style of barbecue, Taino nods to various techniques and flavors from barbecue across the South. The offerings run the gamut from familiar side dishes like BBQ baked beans and cornbread to regional specialties like Texas Smokehouse Chili and collard greens with ham hock. Pork ribs are made St. Louis style (sweet and saucy) and “snacks” like wings, boneless bites and shrimp can be marinated in flavors from Alabama white sauce to a Cajun dry rub. Taino also boasts a large takeout and catering business. In addition to barbecue, the menu also features Asian-inspired dishes like spicy smoked drunken noodles and BBQ egg rolls.
The space itself is intimate, with only seven tables inside and a larger outdoor patio. The name Taino comes from the group of indigenous people who inhabited islands in the Caribbean and were the first native people Christopher Columbus encountered. Images of Native Americans are printed on T-shirts and replicas of artifacts hang on the tomato red walls.
The Firehouse Smoker
Connecticut College graduate George DeVita parked his food truck, The Firehouse Smoker, at breweries across the state throughout 2017. This past April, DeVita opened his first restaurant.
“I knew I wanted to have a restaurant that felt like people were coming to hang out at my house and in my backyard,” he says. An assortment of private and community tables, all with a clear view into the kitchen, fill the inside space. A custom painted mural of every version of Texas’s state flag reflects the roots of DeVita’s inspiration.
The menu may be small but the food is intentional, high-quality, and affordable (nothing costs more than $15). DeVita’s award-winning brisket gets a generous rub of salt and pepper before being cooked at a low temperature for up to 20 hours. From the meats to the décor to the type of wood used in his smoker (oak), DeVita aims to be as authentic to Central Texas-style as possible. The Texas sausage is flown in weekly from Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas; pork is supplied by New England’s Walden Hill, and white bread is baked by local pastry chef Gabi Schneiter.
A large deer head is mounted on a wall in the front of the restaurant. DeVita salvaged it from his uncle’s basement, and believes it reflects his zero-waste mission. “We compost as much as possible. We use mason jars and metal trays to avoid the trash that would come from using paper goods and Styrofoam. We try to have zero-impact — it’ll never be perfect but we do our best.”
The limited menu, handwritten on butcher’s paper, reflects DeVita’s refusal to compromise. “The most important thing is staying true to who we are, which is Central Texas barbecue. It’s nothing more and nothing less.”
The Cook and the Bear
In an unexpected pairing between Millwright’s Executive Chef Tyler Anderson and Bear’s Smokehouse founder Jamie McDonald, The Cook and The Bear serves elevated barbecue to a young, hip crowd. In just under a year, The Cook and the Bear has developed a strong following of boozy brunchers and barbecue fanatics alike. Surprisingly, the menu is 50 percent vegetarian, which makes a barbecue-focused spot accessible to carnivores and herbivores alike. Layered desserts like banana pudding and panna cotta are served in mason jars and created by Millwright’s pastry chef, Kristin Eddy.
Coveted chicken and waffles with blackberry jam and herb butter make their way onto the All-Day menu. Familiar smoked meats like pulled pork, pork spare ribs, chicken and beef brisket are placed alongside unexpected items like beets, sweet potato, kielbasa and pastrami. For “snacks,” charcoal roasted asparagus gets a Southern twist with white barbecue sauce, and dates get a meaty finish with a chorizo stuffing and bacon wrapping. Already popular pulled pork sandwiches get the Anderson treatment with a Carolina tarragon mustard slaw. While a polished bar, a private reserve of bourbon and a location in Blue Back Square don’t exactly scream casual roadside spot synonymous with barbecue, when your meal comes out on quarter sheet tray with butcher’s paper, you’ll immediately be transported to the South.
Gideon’s Barbecue is so simple that for a moment, you made be fooled into thinking it’s effortless. Any pitmaster knows, however, that it takes years to perfect barbecue. Founded by Kurt Wildman five years ago, Gideon’s provides a succulent barbecue experience in a casual setting. Pulled pork sandwiches, samplers of smoked meats and essential sides like collard greens and mac and cheese are placed on red and white checkered tablecloths. This Glastonbury spot on New London Turnpike is popular with residents for both its in-house dining experience and catering.
Simple sides like potato salad, sweet mashed potatoes, corn bread, cole slaw and bayou baked beans are all-American classics. Gideon’s “picnic dinners” — smoked sausage, smoked turkey, St. Louis ribs and mac-n-cheese pulled pork — are standard, yet just as tender and juicy as you hope. Kids will be happy with staples like grilled cheese and chicken tenders, and less picky eaters may dare to try pulled pork sliders.
* Billy’s Southern Style BBQ, Bethel
Owners Bill and Dionne Craig grew up in Georgia and Missouri, respectively, and have been successfully winning converts to their slow-cooked, tenderized meats. Four sauces — Original, White, Mustard and Vinegar — are made from recipes that have been passed down for three generations.
* The Stand, Branford
Gas-station food is never the most appealing roadside option, but Eamon Roche and Greg Nobile have managed to turn this converted auto shop into a friendly shoreline barbecue joint focused on connecting with the local community.
* Drumstick BBQ, Bridgeport
Fifty years of steady business attest to the strong local following of this Bridgeport barbecue spot known for its crisp, juicy fried chicken.
* Walrus + Carpenter, Bridgeport
This family-owned, modern gastropub has made craft beers and Southern-inspired smoked cuisine accessible to the Black Rock neighborhood of Bridgeport.
* The Cue, Danbury
When you think barbecue, upscale and contemporary probably aren’t the first two words that come to mind. With 20 years of professional culinary experience, Chef Joseph Yorio has managed to make elevated smoked meat a success in less than two years.
* Chester’s Barbecue, Groton and Clinton
Owner Chester Dugas’ travels across Kansas City, St. Louis and Omaha inspired the variety of regional barbecue featured on his menu.
* Chow, Clinton
This hip, hidden gem down the street from Clinton Crossing Premium Outlets serves local brews, craft pizzas and barbecue-themed small plates. What more do you need?
* Bull & Swine, New Haven
Bull & Swine has established itself as a destination barbecue spot in a city known for rival pizza joints. The team here serves a wide array of barbecue ranging from Texas to the Carolinas, with a side of Southern hospitality.
* Ricky D’s Rib Shack, New Haven
Ricky Evans was bored with corporate America when he decided to follow his passion — grilling. What began as a food truck parked on Chapel Street eventually launched into a brick and mortar restaurant.
* The Cookhouse, New Milford
Inside an old red barn off Route 222, you will find casual country food like buttermilk biscuits and mac ’n’ cheese, Deep South favorites like fried chicken and andouille sausage, and barbecue staples such as beef brisket, burnt ends and pulled pork.
* Bobby Q’s Cue and Co, Norwalk
Located in the heart of downtown Norwalk, Bobby Q’s has a rustic decor with a wooden cutout of an American flag-themed guitar, metal stars and string lights. Try the barbecue-inspired burgers, flatbreads, sandwiches and sides, as well as an extensive list of bourbon.
* Sugar and Smoke, Putnam
This quaint smokehouse features a small menu of pork belly, veggie or brisket chili, pulled chicken and smoked salmon salad.
* Wire Mill Saloon and Barbecue, Redding
A graduate of Johnson and Wales Culinary School and native Georgian, owner and chef Gino Marsili has mastered the art of barbecue at this laid-back country spot. Meats are smoked over a blend of apple, cherry and oak wood in a custom-built, commercial-grade smoker.
* Hoodoo Brown Barbecue, Ridgefield
Cody Sperry brought Central-Texas style barbecue to Fairfield County in 2015. All of the meat is smoked for nearly 14 hours before being served with sides like Texas Ranch Potato Salad, Pit Beans and Cajun Corn on the Cob.
* Dinosaur BBQ, Stamford
This small chain with locations in New York and Connecticut has been operating as a biker bar and family restaurant since 1988. The Stamford location was born in 2012 and has intriguing combinations of smoked meats and bar food like BBQ chili nachos, Dino poutine and Creole deviled eggs.
* The Boatyard at Smokey Joe’s, Stamford
A unusual medley of barbecue and seafood is offered at this innovative spot on the Darien/Stamford border.
* Vinny’s Backyard, Stamford
This all-American, family-friendly spot known for its specialty pizza and wings has an equally indulgent roster of barbecue favorites like Cajun chicken, baby back ribs, BBQ shrimp and pulled pork sandwiches.
* Pig Rig BBQ, Wallingford
Army veteran Daniel Lanigan owned two different food trucks before opening Pig Rig BBQ in a strip mall on Yale Avenue in Wallingford. Must-have items include “Cowboy Beans” and hickory-smoked macaroni and cheese topped with pulled pork and bacon.
* Uncle Willie’s, West Haven and Seymour
Since 1995, Uncle Willie’s has been serving the West Haven community with an array of wood-smoked barbecue that nods to both the South and Midwest. House-made sauces include Memphis Classic Sweet, Carolina Mustard, Wichita Falls Hot and Lexington Vinegar.
* Zach and Lou’s Barbecue, Torrington
Of course, you can get standard barbecue fare at this recently opened spot, but the highlight is a BBQ Sundae. Layers of two meats, cole slaw and BBQ beans will satisfy every saucy craving for under $10.
* DrewbaQ CQ Food Truck & Smoke Shack, Trumbull/Fairfield County
Located on Main Street along the Trumbull/Monroe border, owner Drew Kaplan serves Fairfield County freshly smoked barbecue straight from a Southern Pride smoker. Classic southern desserts like lemon squares, pecan pie, and bread pudding are a sweet finish to hearty meat specials and sandwiches.
* Farmboys Smokin’ BBQ, Fairfield County
Apple and hickory wood are used to Farmboys Smokin’ BBQ the most flavorful meats possible. Farmboys is available for on-site catering and events across Fairfield County.
* Meat Truck, New Haven
Pulled pork, burgers and sandwiches, ribs, and wings are served out of this converted Fed-Ex truck in The Elm City.