(08/27/14) (09/01/14) (11/22/14) (02/21/15) (03/01/15) (04/29/15) (05/09/15)
The Hartford location of Bear's Smokehouse is the mid 2014 expansion of their original smokehouse in Windsor that shared space with a cafe. Funding this larger second unit was the prize money won by owner Jamie "The Bear" McDonald in a contest run by GoDaddy: he pitched his business plan to Danica Patrick while riding shotgun in her race car as it roared around the track at frighteningly high speeds. Months after opening Hartford, Bear's departed the cramped Windsor digs for a new, full-fledged location elsewhere in the same town. Both locations are cafeteria style, where you order at the counter, add meats, sides and desserts to your tray and pay at the end. For hot, made-to-order items like wings and fries, take a numbered stand and they'll bring the food out to you when it's ready.
You'll often see pit crew members prepping ribs or other meats at the smoker, set out in the dining area for display. It's a Cookshack, but it's massive, not the more typical dishwasher-sized model.
The restaurant's name comes from McDonald's exploits as a bodybuilder and world class competitive eater (287 wings in a half hour, anyone?). Customers can even challenge the Bear in an eating contest right at the restaurant: get a team of three, ante up $100, and if your trio can eat more of any Bear's menu item in ten minutes than McDonald singlehandedly, your team wins $1000.
The Bear's website claims "The Best Barbecue in Connecticut."
Smoked barbecue selections include wings, babyback ribs, deep fried ribs, pulled pork, brisket, burnt ends, turkey breast, sausage, kielbasa and MOINK Balls (smoked, bacon-wrapped beef meatballs). The boneless meats can all be had on sandwiches, on two- and three-meat combos and by the pound. On Mondays, MOINK Balls are discounted and on Wednesdays, wings are discounted. On weekends, beef ribs sometimes make an appearance as a special. During many of my visits the most spotted item in the dining room was the "Mac Attack," a humongous pile of mac and cheese with a selected pulled meat on top. The "Bear Attack" adds cornbread. Barbecue meat and cheese also get duty as a topping for baked potatoes and fries.
I visited Bear's Hartford seven times over a nine month span, joined by four different friends and Young Bride. All but the most recent Saturday night visit were for lunches, with two on a Wednesday, two on a Saturday, one on a Sunday and one on a holiday Monday. As with Bear's Windsor and many recent reviews elsewhere, I emphasized duplication of selections over breadth to get a feel for consistency and improvement.
I know what many of you are thinking, and it's exactly what I would be thinking: Damn, that's a lot of visits for one review. But just as a real judge doesn't take the same amount of time to render a verdict as those lame weekday afternoon TV judges do, sometimes it takes a while for me to decide. And with Bear's I still haven't fully decided. There are many grounds for concern, but there's a lot to like. Or stated another way, it's the ultimate mixed bag, but a mixed bag with great potential. It's because of that potential—and some glowing reviews elsewhere—that I gave Bear's a few more visits in hopes of realizing that potential. If that ruffles some feathers because other joints didn't get as many visits, so be it.
Wings: Smoked and flash fried, Bear's wings made the 2014 PigTrip Wings List on the strength of a Wednesday visit (50 cents per wing, all day) that August that saw a near-perfect hexfecta of color, crispness, smokiness, chickeniness, moistness and freshness. That visit also yielded a PigTrip photo that Bear's has used (with permission) ever since. But ever since? The wings have been up and down, always good but never again great. Usually they attain most of those desirable qualities, but they're sometimes not crisp, sometimes not moist, sometimes not as flavorful and sometimes not as fresh. The most recent batch, also on a Wednesday when wing sales are high and freshness is optimal, was a return to form on the other fronts, but the overcrisped flappers came in slightly dry. With the warm barbecue sauce added, they were still solid but not a match for that legendary serving a few seasons earlier.
Ribs: Bear's offers mid-sized babybacks, served from the holding cabinet typically after being removed from foil. The result is a little steamy, but the porkiness and rub usually emerge intact. I prefer them without sauce.
Flavorwise, these ribs are beyond reproach. They even remind me of a competition entry in that regard, with the same universally appealing mix of sweet and light heat with faint traces of complementary smoke. More importantly, that flavor is potent all the way from bark to bone. Texture is the main weakness; it's primarily been as steamy as you'd guess, and sometimes there's some age or unexpected chalkiness in there too. On two occasions, one gentle bite tore all of the rib meat off in a single steamy flap that I call a meat canoe. But other times the surface tore quite nicely, revealing juicy and very pink meat beneath. On a recent visit another problem surfaced, literally on the surface: the dense rub that achieved the wonderful flavor had been transformed via steaming into an unpleasant sludge. The most recent visit rebounded, delivering a crustier shell with a moist interior and a proper bite.
Portion varies greatly: ordered on a 3-meat combo ($17.99), the rib component ranges from three bones (with one lacking meat on the edge) to five full bones.
As constituted, I'd call the babybacks good. But if they can bring the texture to the same high level as the flavor and get some predictability to the portion (I'd settle for three ribs if they're three full ribs), Bear's could really have something special here.
Pulled pork: This meat is a wildcard. Tried on a 3-meat combo a few times, it's been textbook moist and tender (visit 4) but also as stringy and dry as shoelaces (visit 6). Color is always good; flavor is lightly porky and very lightly smoky. The portion is usually very good. On visit 7, the pulled pork on a 3-meat combo was just as dry as the previous lunch visit. On its own, trying to swallow it was like trying to swallow a fistful of hard boiled egg yolks. Talk about an eating challenge. Dipped into the barbecue sauce, which I recommend requesting on the side in a cup, the pork was much more doable.
Brisket: The potential's been there since the very first try, but I've only wound up with held-over, pot roasty brisket with remnants of flavor but a very steamy, rubbery consistency on some visits and a dry, rubbery consistency on others. My most recent try—interestingly, on the sixth visit when the entire joint was packed and the line was about 20 deep, ideal for freshness—came out of a paper bundle, probably steaming away for a while, but the unrendered fat remained and the meat beside it was dry. Later on that same visit, I went for a second trip through the line to get wings as "dessert" and saw a fresh brisket being sliced. I wished my portion had come from that one instead—my point being that the potential is still there, but the timing has to be right.
For the final visit, which was also the one night visit, I most wanted to give brisket another try. But I called an audible after seeing it look pale and pot roasty on other customers' trays and the cutting board. I've come to grips with the notion that maybe brisket just isn't their thing.
Burnt Ends: Probably the most sought entity in barbecue and the fastest to run out at places that provide it, this is the meat that Bear's does best. They've continued the progression from the earliest Windsor days, going with loose and hefty cubes of double smoked brisket from the fattiest part of the cut. They go a long way toward making up the brisket quality deficit.
On a weekend lunch visit, the burnt ends looked more like brownies with the same color and mostly rigid texture, only more savory with a profusion of spices on the surface. Although lacking the wobble, they were just tender enough; after a little exploration I found a few pieces with good moisture and appealing pink color on the cross section. Flavor was pleasantly beefy, with only light smoke but heavy influence from the complex rub that reminds me a little of Shake and Bake and a little of Indian food (I later learned there's curry powder in there) but much more potent.
On the last visit the burnt ends truly hit their stride. The exteriors didn't have any crunch, but these ends were fully wobbly and fully juicy, leaking beef nectar all over the butcher paper with no provocation. Flavor again had that elevated Shake and Bake feel and strong beef presence with lighter smoke.
Sausage: A firm and lengthy uncut link on the first visit came in light on moisture but heavy on flavor.
What a difference a week makes. On visit 3, the sausage was a Texas cheddar variey with bold flavor, creaminess in the warm, oozing cheese and a nice snap even with the slicing. Eight days later, a cheeseless, snapless sausage was a dull gray with duller flavor and only token moisture.
The sauce has come a long way from the Windsor days and is a pleasure when used as a dip and not a topping. Kansas City and Texas sauces both are tomato based and molassesy sweet, with some heat in the Texas for balance. Both have an ideal viscosity that clings to the meat without requiring too much volume. In the cafeteria line the sauces are ladled out of hot pans, so they're pleasantly warm. Ask for a cup of it on the side for dipping; it's much better than the room temperature stuff on the tables in squeeze bottles.
The sides are much more of a sure thing here.
Cole Slaw: This refreshing concoction is sweet, creamy and tangy all at the same time, like a pumped-up version of KFC's, with more freshness and better ingredients. A sprinkling of celery seed on top adds a nice textural contrast.
Collard Greens: Long stems and large leaves get cooked until fully tender but shy of wilting. The flavorful broth is thin but full bodied, tangy and spicy. Flecks of turkey add some visual balance, but the flavor is already quite satisfying.
Mac and Cheese: Spiral pasta in a near-liquid cheese bath. creamy, velvety, mild but delicious and one of the better mac and cheeses for sure.
Baked Beans: The sweetness of the sauce (that probably includes good use of their barbecue sauce) is way out in front, but there are a few different types of beans and very generous meat inclusion.
Fries: Hand-cut, skin-on, usually cooked to order and very potatoey, with coarse grain salt liberally flung on top. Ordered four times, they've been superb twice, superb otherwise but incredibly oversalted once and good but overdone once. Not a bad track record. When at their best, they're stop-you-in-your-tracks great.
Cornbread: No longer included on the combo platters as in the early Windsor days, cornbread blocks stuffed into wax bags sit along the end of the cafeteria line for impulse add-on purchasing ($1.49). Some have have scoffed at the wax paper bags packaging (near the end of the cafeteria line), but I look at that as a plus: you can place it on top of another food item without corn bread crumbs getting in that or meat and sauce getting all over your cornbread. As for the cornbread itself, the recipe has also changed from those early Windsor days; it's still cakey, but less of a datenut bread offshoot and more of a cornbread-spongecake-vanilla hybrid. Honey butter is a nice boost on those days when consistency leans toward semi-dry and brittle.
There's a parking garage across the street, but street parking can be a challenge, especially with the neighboring lot available only to not-so-neighborly neighbor Arch Street Tavern. If you can't find anything on Arch Street, take a left on Prospect, another quick left on Sheldon, and you should find plenty of spots on the other side of the highway—just a short walk to Bear's.
The cafeteria line was a weakness at first: mistakes, confusion and question answering slowed the pace down to such an extent that some of your food could get cold and/or dry by the time you made it to the cash register.
On an early visit, complete apathy failed to resolve an issue with an incorrect sausage serving that looked nothing like the spectacular rendition I enjoyed on the previous visit. Was it kielbasa? Sausage? Did I get the wrong item? The wrong sausage? Anyone? Not only did nobody care enough to make it right, nobody could even tell me what I got.
Now the line staff seems much more organized. On my last two visits I counted ten people behind the counter, pumping customers through the line with purpose and good cheer.
The Bottom Line
The sides are dependably excellent and the meats are a roulette wheel of possibilities with a better payout if you like your 'cue sauced. I'm still waiting for Bear's to live up to the acclaim I've read about and the potential I've sensed on every visit. They do some things well and I see higher heights down the road, but so far Bear's has been more of a tease.
My 2014 review of the original Bear's Smokehouse Windsor
New York Times review of Bear's Smokehouse Hartford
Yelp reviews of Bear's Smokehouse Hartford
Urbanspoon reviews of Bear's Smokehouse Hartford
Tabelog reviews of Bear's Smokehouse Hartford
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