RW's BBQ is the ultimate out-of-the-way barbecue oasis past a stretch of mostly chain restaurants along Route 202. The rusty offset smoker by the road is the attention getter, but the actual cooking is done in the fort-like restaurant's Ole Hickory smoker. There's plenty of wood out front, and if you don't notice that, you'll surely notice the smells of sweet wood smoke as you walk in. The digs are pretty basic, with a counter and four stools that don't get much use because there's table service. A few tables and a few more booths, and that's it. Lining the walls are autographed photos of music stars and numerous backstage press passes from the restaurant's owner and namesake Ron Wishna, whose other career is in music and television production.
The outdoor deck to the left of the building is more impressive, with plenty of room, picnic tables, an ice cream stand and a koi pond. At the rear is a 21-hole miniature golf course. Why the three extra holes? I don't know, I just went for the 'cue.
The barbecue menu at RW's includes pork spare ribs (choice of dry rubbed only or honey glazed), plus pulled pork, beef brisket, smoked chicken (dark quarters only), burnt ends and sausage. These can be had as platters or combinations of two and three meats. The boneless choices are also available in sandwiches, along with pulled chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs. Smoked wings are the only listed appetizer, but many of the sides double as appetizers, such as chili, homemade potato chips, hushpuppies, and cornbread.
Other than the glazed ribs, all meats are served unsauced with choice of sauce on the side. Platters come with cole slaw and one additional side. Cornbread isn't included but is available as a side.
I stopped in with a barbecue buddy on a late weekday afternoon, then returned solo 10 days later for a Saturday lunch. The first visit was deep into a New York City and Connecticut barbecue crawl; the second was earlier on a smaller scale Connecticut barbecue mission.
Wings: Kicking off the first visit nicely was a basket of wings ($7.95 for 10 pieces), smoked first, then flash fried and served with the selected sauce on the side. Crispness was ideal. Inner texture wasn't succulent but definitely moist. Smoke was light but noticeable; rub wasn't so noticeable. Somehow, despite that light smoke and lighter rub, these wings had some serious flavor. I'm tempted to call them "really chickeny" (which they were), but there's something extra in there I can't quite put my finger on, other than to keep taking more. Although I liked that they're unsauced, I'd be curious to see what happens when tossed in sauce just before serving.
Chili: This was ordered as a side on the first visit, but can be treated as an appetizer. It's a bean-free chili light on heat and strong on the stewed tomato flavor, with a scrap heap of smoky barbecue bits (including rib meat and sausage) thrown in.
Burnt ends: Technically ordered with one of the first visit's 2-meat platters ($18 with slaw and one side), the burnt ends capably bridged the gap between appetizer and main event. There were only four pieces in the basket, but these were much larger than your typical one inch cubes. I liked the thick, crispy surface crust and the feel of the potent rub that had a grab bag of sweet and mostly savory flavors, with salt singing loudest. Inside, the meat had an appealing pink hue that was a nice surprise given the drab coloring of the shell. Smokiness took a step up from the wings. Coming equally from natural beefiness, smoke and rub, the flavor was potent all the way into the center. The fattiness of the meat contributed to its high juiciness without overstepping its bounds.
Ribs: The ribs at RW's are full cut spares with good length and meaty rib tips past the chine. On both visits I tried the Memphis style (dry rub only) and the honey glazed varieties. Both were excellent.
I often complain about sauce being overused, obliterating the taste of the meat or hiding deficiencies in the meat. At RW's, the thin coating of honey glaze was a masterful accent, not a crutch. Applied before a light grill finish, it produced a warmer rib that was tender and fully juicy inside, while crisp on the exterior without any interfering char. I later learned that the finishing glaze is a different sauce from the Sweet sauce. Doneness was right on the money on the first visit and a little chewy on the follow-up. Smoke and rub were both moderate. Flavor also had some nice porkiness that stood up to the glaze.
The Memphis ribs had a pleasing crust with more detectable rub, though no extra rub added post-cooking as is sometimes associated with Memphis style. These had a doneness, smokiness and moistness similar to the honey glazed. I liked the Memphis, but in a surprise move I'll take the honey glazed, which I'd rank as one of my favorites.
Pulled pork: The first visit's pulled pork from a 2-meat platter featured a mountainous pile of long, delicate strings with a gentle texture that had the right bite-back as well. Bark was light and flavor was too, but the texture of the meat made it a more than enjoyable vessel for the various sauces.
Pulled pork sandwich: The second visit's pulled pork sandwich ($7.95 with slaw and pickle) seemed like a different brand of pork entirely, and it was an upgrade. Nearly as tender as the debut, the follow-up packed an equal mix of light and pink meat with a profusion of bark and an infusion of aromatic smoke. Rub didn't stand out on the surface, but it made itself known deeper down. There's an all-too-rare indescribable magic that happens when pork, smoke and rub collaborate in the right way, and it happened in this sandwich. Moistness was there too, even though the pork was served with no added sauce. The Carolina vinegar that accompanied the plate gave it a little boost, but as with the honey glaze on the ribs, it wasn't a needed crutch—flavor was fantastic au natural too. The roll fell apart in my hands before the halfway point.
Brisket: A couple of long slices on the second visit's 3-meat platter ($23) had decent thickness, dark crispy edges, hints of pink coloring further in and a wrinkly appearance that belied how moist the meat was. The brisket was tender, bordering on excessively so, but right on the money for most customers. The rub reminded me of a scaled down version of what was on the burnt ends: a little bit of everything, with salt at the forefront. I liked the overall flavor and texture, but thought there should have been a few more slices.
Chicken: I like that RW's only serves dark meat, because that's the part of the bird that smokes best and stays reliably moist. Separate thigh and leg pieces on the 3-meat platter had golden brown, wrinkly skin that was only on the edge of crispness. Underneath, the meat was pleasantly pink from the smoking process and gushing with clear juices. Tenderness was supreme, with the meat cleaving naturally and gliding off with each bite. The flavor was equally pleasant, though less inherently "chickeny" than the wings I enjoyed at RW's 10 days earlier. Smoke was there, but light. Rub was heavy on the skin but light deeper into the meat. Overall flavor satisfied though, and it didn't hurt that these were among the largest thigh and leg pieces I ever lifted.
Sauces at RW's are all homemade and above average. Not counting the Ridiculous (extra hot) sauce that I didn't try, there's a choice of four barbecues sauces available for inclusion with every platter. RW's Red, made with 19 ingredients, is a basic tomato-based sauce that's not ketchupy. More runny than thick, it has a nice balance of heat and sweet, with a little more emphasis on the sweet. Honey Sweet takes this first sauce and adds honey to sweeten it up further; I liken it to a kicked up duck sauce. Red Hot is a spicier version of the RW's Red, though it's still safe for children. The oddly named Memphis sauce is a Carolina red vinegar and pepper sauce.
Sides were a mixed bag, with some highs and lows. The disappointing thing about the cole slaw is that it's served in such a small container, but it's a high quality slaw with crunchy cabbage and a condiment that's simultaneously sweet, creamy and zippy. Collard greens were cooked well past wilting and still bitter despite an abundance of overly sweet sauce. Baked beans looked like the kind you get in a can, but the first bite provided a startling jolt of flavor, striking with strong smoke and a welcome balance of sweet, sour and heat. Homemade potato chips, piled generously in a large basket and hit just as generousy with a barbecue rub, were still a little warm and just thick enough to offer a little chew while retaining crispness.
I was impressed that even on the week of July 4, even on the hottest day of the year to that point, even during a dead time of around 3:00PM and even with the boss away, the food was still top notch.
The Bottom Line
After two impressive visits, RW's quickly established itself as one of my favorite Connecticut barbecue joints and quite possibly the best of that group. A little more assertiveness and consistency in the smoke and rub departments would go a long way toward claiming not only the Connecticut crown, but also a spot among my favorites for the entire region. RW's isn't the easiest joint to reach from Boston or New York City, but there's a big payoff when you do. If the family-friendly combo of ice cream, mini golf and picnic tables overlooking a koi pond doesn't grab you, the barbecue probably will.
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