(07/13/13) (07/20/13) (08/24/13)
Bear's Smokehouse shares space with Beanery Bistro in a large counter operation that occupies the right half of the Bart's Drive In building. You place your order at the counter, mozy leftward cafeteria style past the Beanery ordering area, then pick up your order and pay at a communal cash register. If you use a credit card, they pass it through a window into Bart's—which introduces the intriguing and confirmed possibility of onion rings and hot dogs as extra sides.
Seating is a mix of suburban casual and classic coffee house, with an assortment of comfy benches, tables and chairs, booths and lounge chairs. The focal point of the room is a mural of Bart's as it looked decades ago, with vintage cars in the foreground. There's a fenced-in smoker (looks like a Southern Pride) to the left of the building, a few picnic tables to the right of the building and a few more on the grass near the Farmington River.
The owner is Jamie McDonald,
who's made a name for himself as a bodybuilder and a competitive eater. He routinely wins competitions for speed and quantity eating (such as downing eleven and a half fully loaded Red Robin burgers in ten minutes), so look for his many eating trophies on display within the restaurant.
The Bear's website brashly calls itself "The Best Barbecue in Connecticut" and displays some good looking food.
This is one of the deeper barbecue menus, especially for a joint that doesn't stray too far from
barbecue. Meats include babyback ribs, pulled pork, brisket, burnt ends, kielbasa, turkey and MOINK Balls (smoked, bacon-wrapped beef meatballs) (moo plus oink, get it?).
You can also buy any of the sandwiches or baked goods from the Beanery Bistro, or seafood, burgers and dogs from Bart's, and put it on the same bill.
I visited Bear's three times within their first three months, all on Saturdays: one lunch solo and a lunch and dinner with two different barbecue accomplices. I emphasized duplication of selections over breadth to get a feel for consistency and improvement.
Wings: Tried on the second visit as an appetizer ($5 for six, $9 for 12) and the third visit as part of a 3-meat combo ($17 with two sides and cornbread), the smoked-then-fried wings succeeded both sauced and unsauced. That sauced try was unintentional, as unsauced was requested and they arrived the opposite, but the sauce (same as the barbecue sauce selections) did not obscure the flavor of the chicken or hinder the crispiness of the exterior. Smoke was noticeable but very mild both times. The unsauced rendition was superior thanks to a very bumpy crust made up mostly of rub. I have no idea what's in there, but I like that it's subtle yet captivating, working to enhance the chickeny flavor rather than trying to triumph over it. I'd get these wings again. They're not quite a contender for my smoked wings pantheon, but definitely in that next tier.
Ribs: All three times I tried the ribs, they came on a three meat combo ($17),
unsauced by request. Here they're babybacks, and smallish ones at that—a stark
contrast to the bodacious spares depicted on the Bear's Smokehouse
said, there were still some things to like. The crust was very well
formed and crunchy all three times, with very obvious rub presence that flavored the
ribs fully from bark to bone. There might have been some cloves in
there, along with much herbality. Doneness was perfect if you
like falling off the bone (a single
bite easily pulls it all off), but noticeably over if you don't. Moistness was
decent the first time, a little spotty the second time and good the third time. Back to
flavor: while I really liked the porky-rubby tandem, I didn't get any
smokiness. Overall, these ribs have been very enjoyable
despite the flaws, but still have much room for improvement (presenting ribs more along the lines of those appealing website photos would be
step 1). It's a good start; with a little tweaking these ribs could be great.
Pulled pork: As tall as it was wide, the first visit's pulled pork pile posited a proper portion. Bark was noticeable though light; color was also light, like chicken. Flavor was kinda chickeny too, but not smoked chicken. Moistness was decent, but again, smoke was in short (if any) supply, and rub was minimal too. What made this pork still work (somewhat) was doneness that was perfect, providing just enough resistance to go along with the tenderness that was soft without being soggy. I regret not trying it as a sandwich: the shiny domed rolls I saw on neighbors' trays looked good.
Brisket: By far the weakest link on two different tries (visits two and three), the brisket both times came up short in smoke, rub, overall flavor and moisture. A little on the pot roasty side too. There's no getting around it: this brisket was well below average—twice.
Burnt Ends: It's always nice to see burnt ends on a menu, and when I do it's a lock that I'm going to try them. I tried them on the first two visits, finding different results. On the first try the toasted pumpernickel croutons disguised as burnt ends were very small, very black and very dry looking. One bite, and they were dry tasting too, but they were not without flavor. Smoke and rub both made their strongest showings, with less of the former and more of the latter, with cumin (I think) a key player in the very unique flavor profile. This first batch really needed a dip in the sauce on just about every bite, but the potential was obvious. Make 'em bigger and good things will happen. One thing I noticed was that all six sides of every burnt end piece had a rubby crust, which means they were cut to their final size prior to the final smoke. Keeping the briskets in larger chunks and cutting those down at the end would help retain more moisture. The second visit saw improvement in this regard. The burnt ends were larger and therefore more moist, to the point where most were juicy, and flavor remained potent on the crusty surface.
Thick, ketchupy-molassesy Kansas City sauces very similar to each other offer variations in sweetness and heat. The hottest of the three uses Sriracha.
Mac and cheese: Loose. Creamy. Bland. Ho-hum.
Beans: Tried all three times, the baked beans here seem like a slightly doctored canned version, but when the doctor on duty is Dr. McBriskety, the beans at least approach Dr. McDreamy. I'd like a little heat to counter the sweet and a little more firmness to the bean (if, on the odd chance, it's not out of a can), but on the meaty second and third tries, these were an above average doctored rendition.
Cole slaw: This one was definitely homemade and one of the best, at least for my palate. It had everything I look for in a slaw: crunchy cabbage, seeped-in flavor that didn't compromise said crunch, a proliferation of seeds on top and a condiment with both oomph and the balance of creamy, tart and spicy.
Cornbread: A diminutive sample (about 1" by 1" by 3") compensated with unmatched density, coarse texture and strong flavor that was cakey without being sugary. If someone on the street handed me a piece of this and asked me what it was, none of my first five guesses would be cornbread, but I really liked it. Think of it as more of a firm date nut bread (minus the dates and nuts) or carrot cake (minus the carrot). A small cup of softened honey butter further sweetens the deal.
There are some obvious disconnects between the more photogenic batches grabbing my attention on the website and what's served in the restaurant.
Service has been very friendly.
The Bottom Line
I like the setting, the heart, the effort and the unique flavors at Bear's, but calling itself the best barbecue in Connecticut is more than a little premature, especially with those flavors being so inconsistent. Although the results have been mixed, occasional flashes suggest this place could mature to the point where that claim might be taken seriously someday. I'm hoping that someday comes; right now Bear's is a work in progress.
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