482 South Main St., Middletown, (860) 358-9828, closed Mondays; tainosmokehouse.com. Open now, under a "soft opening." Official grand opening scheduled for March 24.
The people behind Taino Smokehouse know a thing or two about building excitement. All you have to do is say BBQ or slow-smoked, and you've got me salivating, so that's not difficult. But this new eatery — so new that it's not "officially" had its grand opening yet — caught my attention when I first saw the sign and the name as they were renovating the tiny-tiny Middletown spot back in the fall. The restaurant was going into a little shoebox of a space on South Main Street, next to Ace Hardware. A pizza place used to reside there, which is true of about half the commercial real estate in Middletown.
Taino Smokehouse has built some slow-simmering excitement about its grand opening, which is set for March 24, in part by keeping below the radar. The name caught my attention, too. Was this some sort of Puerto Rican barbecue? Well, not exactly. Turns out it's slow-smoked barbecue (most for upwards of 10 hours), in the southern style, but with a marked Caribbean touch to some of the seasoning. The house barbecue sauce is herb-y, with a hint of Jamaican flavors. The restaurant has been operating under what they call a soft-opening for the past month or so. That means that they're tweaking the menu, trying out new dishes, perfecting things that work, taking anything that isn't spot-on out of the running. They're also trying to defer any critical attention until the kitchen is in top form.
Expect a new menu of the tried-and-true greatest hits in late March, but in the meantime, you can still pop by and sample some very good barbecue, steaks, wings, and southern-inspired sides of comfort food. Working with very little room, they've done admirable things with the space. There's none of that knee-jerk southern-caricature pig kitsch one sees at many BBQ places. No swine theme, or chicken wire or folk art depicting aged bluesmen in sight. Instead it's sleek and black and clean. There's an elaborate and cool mosaic of what I took to be a Taino tribesman on the floor. (The Taino were the original inhabitants of Puerto Rico, Cuba and elsewhere in the region.) There aren't more than a 10 tables, so expect the place to be packed at dinner time. A huge flatscreen TV hangs over the counter that offers a glimpse into the kitchen area. (Food TV was playing on the day I stopped in.)
Even though Taino Smokehouse is still focused on getting everything in ship shape, they're already off to a good start, with a smooth and friendly service that many older places never achieve, and a focused menu that offers plenty of variety but not a dizzying or overwhelming jumble. There are wings, fried shrimp, bbq sandwiches (pork, beef brisket or chicken), burgers, rib eyes, and barbecue dinners (including ribs) plus 10 sides, like collard greens, mac and cheese, baked beans, creamed spinach, fries, corn bread and more.
A meal there recently started with a bowl of house-made kettle chips (a nice touch). A brisket sandwich was served in a gently toasted brioche bun, with thick and juicy slabs of brisket layered in a heap, all slathered in the sweet, dark and slightly thick house sauce. (Fans of hot and spicy vinegar sauce on their BBQ might want to request that the sauce be served on the side.) An order of collard greens were nicely cooked — meaning, in my book, cooked for a long time, until tender and almost soft, with numerous cubes of smoky pork imparting additional flavor. Mac and cheese was creamy and gooey and cheesy. Pulled pork was pleasingly tasty, a balance of smoke and sweet and acid. Chicken wings with an Alabama sauce, were thoroughly saturated in a flood of the sweet and slightly nutty sauce. A hint of smoke in those made things interesting, too.
Over the past 15 years barbecue has become wildly popular in Connecticut, and pretty easy to find. It's not as pervasive as pizza, but it's getting there. And Middletown has continued to evolve into a restaurant destination, now with little surprises like Taino Smokehouse popping up away from the food-packed Main Street. Taino Smokehouse is worth a visit. Drop in now while they're tinkering with thing, and come back in late March when the restaurant officially announces its opening to the world.