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Flaggstead Smokehouse is a cozy coffee shop that's been converted into a Texas style barbecue joint. What makes it Texas style? The owners are from the San Antonio area, the rub is simple, the meats are served unsauced and the star of the show is beef, not pork. Service is over-the-counter. The dining area consists of three small rooms (one a converted porch) and an outdoor deck built around the wide trunk of a shady tree. There's no bar but beer is available.
The super streamlined menu stays mostly true to Texas tradition, focusing on beef in the form of sliced brisket, chopped brisket and short ribs (weekend special), with no pulled pork available. Pork ribs are a concession and kielbasa is a curiosity.
Ordering was once difficult but is now a breeze with single meat platters and 2- and 3- meat combos (all with sides) that can be populated with pork ribs, brisket, sausage and chicken. Ribs are also sold by the rack and half rack; chicken is sold by the half bird; sandwiches include any meat that doesn't have a bone.
When they run out, they run out. That can be frustrating to some customers (and it took me three visits before they had pork ribs available), but I'll take that tradeoff anyday to ramp up the quality and freshness. On the weekend, Flaggstead offers specials such as Texas beef ribs and out-of-the-ordinary sandwiches.
I stopped in for weekend visits with friends on a Friday evening, a Saturday evening, four weekend afternoons and a weeknight. On the earliest visits the crowds resulting from recent press coverage made ordering difficult. The volume has subsided a bit since then, but there's always brisk business.
There are no appetizers as such, but the sausage makes a good makeshift one, and I'm a big fan of dividing a sandwich four ways for an instant amuse.
The occasional bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed jalapenos special, tried twice, is a crispy, creamy, hot and spicy treat that's as much about the texture as it is the flavor, with all of the ingredients well executed and piping hot.
Brisket: This is the hallmark of any Texas barbecue joint, so at Flaggstead Smokehouse it's no surprise that the sliced brisket is one of the more popular items. Served unsauced, it's cut in long, thick (about 1/2") slices that usually leaves a little fat, but it's mostly confined to the edges and the portion is generous enough that you don't feel shortchanged. Bark level varies depending on the cut, but there's usually a decent amount of it, although it's usually not crispy. The moist meat is tender enough that it tears easily when pulled, while still offering a little resistance to the bite. Although I've been told no changes have been made, my earliest experiences with the brisket had a lot less flavor than what's going on now. The interior has a little spiciness to it that stands up nicely to the heavy beefy flavor, as if it's been injected or marinaded ever so slightly. The exterior has a light smokiness, but seasonings are extremely light.
Ribs: These were much anticipated, especially since they were not available for purchase on my first two visits. Those earliest visits came on the heels of three positive local newspaper reviews for Flaggstead Smokehouse, so demand was higher than the volume of product. On my third visit, the worth-the-wait ribs, also served unsauced, presented unusual cross-hatching incisions that emphasized a formidable bark. An appealing reddish hue suggested repeated bastings, but the flavor made me think it was just rub, smoke and time. Texture was just about perfect, with a light crunch on the outside and a gushing juiciness inside. There was a slightly hammy quality to the meat, which had a similarly pink color throughout. Flavor was more porky than hammy, but with far less smoke or rub in the profile than I was expecting. Several repeat visits have yielded similar results: nice bark, good texture, good doneness (maybe a couple of borderline overdone ones in the mix), consistently moist meat and a pleasantly porky flavor. The smoke levels are increasing, but more rub and more smoke would elevate these ribs from good to very good.
Chicken: Only ordered a few times, the smoked chicken seems to make up for the other meats in its use of rub. On some early visits, the skin was crisp and peppery; the most recent chicken sample was tamer on both fronts. Inside, the meat's always been moist, with smoke and overall flavor levels sometimes light, sometimes full-bodied.
Beef shortrib: Available as a weekend night special, this meaty boneful drew perfect scores for appearance and texture, but might have been too subtle for my taste, as I found it very mild in the flavor department.
Chopped brisket sandwich: I'd call the chopped brisket sandwich the signature item at Flaggstead Smokehouse. The repeatably fresh roll it's served on is a well chosen complement to beef: soft, powdery and pillowy. The filling does it justice, with a tall stack of chunks that are more moist and more barky than the sliced brisket. There's also a higher fat content, but I think it's integrated enough into the whole that it does much more good (flavor, moisture) than harm, and it's not so alarming to the bite. This sandwich is also one of the few items served sauced. Although the sauce is fairly sweet and generic, it's used more as an enhancer than a rescuer, because the meat is what stands at the forefront. You can request it unsauced, and that's how I prefer it, but the chopped brisket sandwich is a winner either way.
Smoked sausage: A long, mild kielbasa had slice indentations every few inches or so. I like the crisp, crackly skin outside and much-softer-than-expected consistency inside, which are another example of very good texture trumping merely good flavor. It's a nice contrast, with good moistness too, but I wonder how much juicier it would be if served as whole or half links instead of nearly-sliced chunks.
Sides are a mixed bag but mostly average to slightly above average. Cole slaw is extra creamy and loaded with a backdrop of Miracle Whip or something very similar. Potato salad is more balanced, with more restrained use of condiment and perhaps some hard boiled egg. Baked beans are puffy and sludgy but much more flavorful than they look, with hints of cumin. Cornbread, available as plain or jalapeno mini loaves, is a nice compromise between the bready and cakey varieties, leaning more toward the latter. Both the plain and the jalapeno were good, with the jalapeno carrying a little more heat than I was expecting.
Sauces, though competent enough, are a weak point here. On my first visit, there was a single Kansas City style (brown, sweet) sauce that made no effort to disguise the fact that it was Cattleman's. On later visits, a sweet and spicy golden mustard-based sauce (also Cattleman's) was available. Barbecue sauces are now available on the tables in squeeze bottles, with a couple of Tabasco sauces rounding out the condiments.
The Bottom Line
The place is cozy, the people are friendly and the barbecue is fresh. Flavors are subtle here, but the barbecue textures and juiciness are usually spot on. All things considered, Flaggstead is easily one of Connecticut's better barbecue joints.
Trinity Tripod review of Flaggstead Texas Smokehouse
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