By Steve Alcazari
12:40 PM EDT, June 26, 2013
55 Palisado Ave. (Rte. 159), Windsor, (860) 580-9664, bearsbbq.com
Do competitive eaters make for good cooks? You could look at it two ways. On the one hand, these guys (generally dudes) have to cram so much grub down their gullets that the whole idea of savoring food's subtle flavors would seem to be at odds with their mode of eating. And, on the other hand, these are the super-human competitors — freaks? — who gorge on so many stacks of hot dogs and god knows what else that, when it comes time for them to eat in a non-competitive non-record-breaking fashion, perhaps they have a more cultivated appreciation for what's good?
Jamie "The Bear" McDonald is the "Bear" of Bear's Smokehouse, the newly opened BBQ joint in Windsor. You can catch him behind the counter there, slicing brisket or tinkering with new sauce concoctions. If you start chatting with McDonald about Q, he might mention that he's a competitive eater. As it happens, he's a world champion competitive eater, having broken records for wolfing down things like pancakes and apple pies and other goodies elsewhere. The dude looks more like a competitive bodybuilder than a professional overeater. Somehow he's figured out how to transform all of those carbs and calories and fats into muscle. And McDonald is also from Kansas City, Missouri, the epicenter of one strain of barbecue wisdom. Slow-smoking and tangy sauces are practically a birthright for KC-ers. So he comes by his barbecue credentials — eating it and making it — honestly.
Bear's is sort of attached to Bart's Drive-In, a fun retro semi-open-air place for ice cream and lots of other treats. With the arrival of Bear's in early June, the spot is even more of a destination for chowhounds. I can imagine lines of hungry bikers queueing up as summer comes on strong and the urge sets in to chomp down on some warm-weather food in between stretches cruising Connecticut's open roads.
Barbecue culture sure has changed in Connecticut and in the northeast in general over the last 15 years. It's not hard to recall the days when one didn't expect to find decent BBQ in these parts, but still fans were willing to trek 30 or 40 miles in order to get a taste of the stuff. Now it seems like every city and sizable town has someone smoking away at pork shoulders and briskets, perfuming the air with the whiff of smoldering hardwood and spice rubs.
Bear's is a welcome addition to the barbecue scene in the state. Their focus on Kansas City-style barbecue means there's more of a preference for sweet and thick sauces, but Bear's doesn't overdo it on that end, and most dishes can be ordered with the sauce on the side, for those who are a little more conservative with their sticky-goo application. In keeping with KC's we'll-smoke-anything ethos, you'll find smoked turkey breast and keilbasa on the menu at Bear's, in addition to the standard brisket, pulled pork, baby back ribs, and burnt ends, a Kansas City specialty, which are basically the slightly gnarly ends of a cooked brisket, where a lot of the flavor resides, you might say. (Plates come with two sides and range from $11 to $17 or so, depending on the meat. Combo platters are a little more.)
One decidedly non-standard item on the menu is Paw Paw's Poutine ($9). French-Canadians in the region might be familiar with poutine as the Quebecois "delicacy" of french fries topped with cheese curds and gravy. It's an acquired taste, but one that invites lots of post-modern riffs, deconstructions and re-imaginings. That was what this was. Bear's tops their fries with pulled pork, pimento cheese and barbecue sauce. (I could have used a little more pimento cheese on my serving, but overall it was a fun twist. And in the end one is probably thankful to have this instead of actual poutine.) Another left-field appetizer are the Moink Balls, which are meatballs wrapped in bacon and tossed in BBQ sauce.
My barbecue was very good — nicely smoky, without approaching the oversmoked point at which flavors get buried. The pulled pork still retained some body (as opposed to being a mushy mess) and a satisfying vinegary tang came through. The ribs were easy to eat, tender and flavorful. Brisket had plenty of character and was not dry. And there was a nice peppery crust on the meat, nothing too shy, but also nothing too heavy handed resulting in that bottom-of-the-bag-of-chips effect one sometimes comes across. I found my mild and hot barbecue sauces to both have a pleasing little bump of heat to them, with what looked like a surprise presence of mustard seeds as well. Vegetarians might be faced with a challenge: the sides don't include anything like collard greens or green beans. And the tasty smoked baked BBQ beans are tasty and smoky in part because they are studded with big hunks of smoked pork. There is cole slaw and mac and cheese for the meat-averse, though. And salads are on the coming-soon list.
Giving a meal at Bear's a cute little New England send-off, there's a cider-donut bread-pudding dessert ($3) that is sweet and nicely balanced between flavors and cinnamon and apple. Bear's does catering, but there's no by-the-pound option on the menu, for anyone looking to get into competition-level amounts of barbecue eating. But if the muscular dude behind the counter challenges you to a BBQ eating showdown, think twice before you agree to it, no matter how much you like the stuff. The website announces that Bear's serves fresh-smoked barbecue everyday, until they run out of food. But with "Bear" McDonald behind the counter, you might want to get there early, in case he gets hungry.
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