Review Date: 08/23/17
Visit Dates: (07/20/13) (xx/xx/14) (09/14/16) (05/10/17)
Sitting at the edge of a small strip mall whose only other occupant is a hardware store, Taino Smokehouse looks like a converted over-the-counter shop (pizza, perhaps) that squeezes full service dining into a small space (fewer than ten tables) but compensates with outdoor picnic tables and a fenced-in beer garden behind the building. Taino is named after the tribe of Native Americans who are widely credited with having invented the art of barbecue. There's an additional location in Spring Valley NY and another—with a more upscale dining concept—on the way in Meriden CT.
Barbecue meats include pork spare ribs, pulled pork, lean and fatty brisket, smoked chicken, smoked wings, pulled chicken, smoked sausage and smoked corned beef. These are available on platters with two sides (plus cornbread for an extra buck), as sandwiches, and by the pound (quarter pound minimum, better deals for larger amounts). Those platters don't offer a customizable 2- or 3-meat combo, but they do offer preconfigured combos of up to five meats. With the by-the-pound option, you can probably still configure the combo you want by adding on. Additionally, you can get burgers, fried chicken, ribeye steak, and appetizers like bacon pops, smokehouse chili, BBQ egg rolls and fried pickles.
I seem to have hit Taino Smokehouse roughly once a year since the time they opened, arriving with friends for weekend lunches a few times and weekday dinners a couple of others.
Disclosure: The photo of the owner from the first visit was taken only after I had eaten. None of the meals were served with knowledge that they'd be reviewed.
Disclosure: I lost the photos from the second visit.
Wings: The first visit impressed with wings that hit all the stops—good crispness, good tenderness, good moisture, chickeny flavor and smoky flavor—and well enough to land on the 2013 PigTrip Wings List. A follow-up visit encountered blander product that wasn't as fresh. A half dozen smoked wings with Jerk sauce ($7) tried in 2016 presented large flats and drums with the abundantly thick sauce coating them entirely. Fortunately, the sauce had a strong, aromatic flavor with heat that complemented the whole rather than trying to dominate. Unfortunately, the sauce did obliterate any chance of crispness, although I suspect that chance of crispness was lost long before the sauce was even applied. Inside, the pink tinted chicken was quite tender, juicy and bursting with strong chicken flavor that refused to be similarly dominated. Smokiness was hard to gauge. The 2017 visit went with a half dozen coated by a sweet chile sauce; this brough more sweet than heat, nudging the natural chicken flavor along in similar complementary fashion. Crispness made a comeback.
Bacon Pops: It's nearly impossible to resist ordering a bacon appetizer when your party has the numbers (3) and the demographics (all fully pork-accepting carnivores), so this dish ($8) was a natural for the 2016 visit's first round. A plate full of knuckle-sized bacon chunks with twice the thickness of bacon strips had the benefits of modest smoke flavor, stronger cure flavor and good crispness. On the downside, each nugget was close to 50% fat, requiring some careful biting and discard. Even though this affected the yield, there was enough quantity and quality that I'd get it again.
Chicken: Tried on the first visit, the chicken delivered good size, decent moisture and a slightly hammy flavor.
Ribs: The first try of Taino's ribs was on the second weekend lunch visit (photos unavailable). The size and flavor showed some promise, but the texture, moisture and freshness were all disappointing.
In 2016, a very meaty half rack on the Three Pigs platter (ribs, pulled pork, sausage, two sides, $27) showed a thick crust, a light saucing and thick, extremely soft meat that, though stringier, had the look and feel of a moist pork chop. Flavor brought light smoke, lighter rub and very faint porkiness. Doneness was at least flirting with the "over" end of the spectrum, though the meat still clung to the bone until bitten off.
The 2017 visit was similar only in that the ribs were overdone, but with a different symptom: rubbery texture. Flavor was much improved this time, showcasing deep penetrating rub and improved porkiness. Overall, Taino's ribs have been right around average or slightly below.
Pulled Pork: A generous pile of shreds, many with bark and the topmost ones with a splashing of sauce, took up much of the 2016 visit's Three Pigs platter. For me it was the best meat of the six we tried that night, thanks to texture (the right bounce, sufficient moisture, good inside/outside contrast) and a porkier flavor than the ribs. I'm more of a vinegar guy, and would order it without saucing next time, but the darker, sweeter sauce wasn't too much of a problem here. I could still taste the meat. Smoke and rub were again light.
In 2017, the pulled pork arrived with less sauce (a plus), less flavor (a minus), and much less bounce (a minus, replacing bounce with mush).
Sausage: Though included with the Three Pigs platter, a sizable full link got relegated to a separate plate on the 2016 visit, with an enjoyably dark, sweet and spicy mustard sauce beneath it. Mustard most likely was also used in flavoring the sausage itself, as each snappy bite brought forth moist crumbles of sweet and aromatic meat. This sausage was satisfying both on its own and dipped back into the thick mustard sauce that had more kick than most. On the 2017 visit, the mustard arrived in a small container for dipping; the sausage itself was similarly crumbly (in a good way) and enjoyable. Uniqueness and quality make this one of the better sausage offerings in the Northeast.
Brisket: One of the nice things about the Taino menu is barbecue meats available by the pound, so ordering a quarter pound ($6) was the perfect way to complement the Three Pigs platter. You can choose between lean and fatty; in 2016 we chose the latter. What we forgot to specify, though, was no sauce, so the long slices of brisket arrived generously drizzled with the stuff. Still viewable were the blackened exterior and the red tinted inner meat that looked more monotone than a smoke ring, as if cured. Even under the sauce, the brisket had good moisture, which was a plus. Texture was a bit spongy, with fat making itself felt in every bite, making it difficult to really take a bite with gusto. Smoke and rub were both light. In the end, what arrived as some fantastic looking brisket wound up being mediocre.
In 2017, we didn't specify lean or fatty; what arrived was lean to a fault: borderline dry and past the borderline of pot roasty. The edges had ribbons of fat, moistness and flavor, but the bulk of each slice came up short on all counts. That makes them 0-for-2 in the brisket category, so the Three Pigs platter is probably the way to go.
Cole Slaw: Thin sliced cabbage with a creamy, zippy condiment and plenty of celery seeds provided a worthy foil for the meats. That condiment was a little light on the most recent visit.
Collard Greens: Large leaves still had plenty of crunch and a faintly sweet broth.
Mac and cheese: Heated in a ramekin to get the top black and blistered, Taino's version covers soft elbows in a voluminous, runny cheese sauce that's a tick above mild on the sharpness scale.
Cornbread: For an extra dollar, you can add cornbread to your platter. Whether this strikes you as a no-brainer bargain or an insult, you have grounds for your position. My position is that the cornbread itself is tremendous. Even though it's in muffin format, the cornbread is fluffy, fine, sweet without being too cakey, and drenched in honey butter that makes the whole thing go down easily. It was a highlight of the meal on successive visits.
If it's available, try to sit in the large fenced-in area behind the building. It's a nice escape from the dining room that offers much more space and serenity.
A nice feature for gluttons and bargain hunters is the Sunday night "auctions" to move product before the Monday off day. The packages vary depending on what's available; check out Taino's Facebook account to stay informed.
The service is usually friendly.
I like the accessibility of the menu that allows easy add-ons.
The Bottom Line
I haven't had anything awful (though brisket came close) and I haven't had anything great. Some of the 'cue has been good (wings and sausage were very good), but I see Taino Smokehouse as right around the middle of the pack or slightly above, with the potential for better things down the road.
Yelp reviews of Taino Smokehouse
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