In the South and along the Mississippi, feuds with shootin’ irons have begun over rival claims of who has the best barbecue in the land, state, county, parish or town. Connecticut may be more civilized, but the competition for best barbecue is no less fierce on this side of the Appalachians as it is along the Big Muddy. Barbecue comes in many forms and Connecticut has them all, from dry-rub to drowned in “Pig Perfume” and from traditional molasses to unusual white sauces. Here are five very, very good – and very, very different – places all worthy in their own right of the title best barbecue in Connecticut.
When Pigs Fly
29 W Main St
Sharon, CT 06069
When Pigs Fly is so small that there are only two stools by the window for patrons to dine inside. The patio, with its few plastic lawn chairs, does not offer much more to the sit-down crowd. This is dry-rub Southern barbecue on the fly – a takeout place for Smoked Beer Can Chicken (basted with a signature and unique white barbecue sauce) and a solid selection of brisket, turkey and pork slow cooked in a big black smoker fed with hardwoods. Atlanta-born, Culinary Institute of America graduate Bennet Chinn works hard to stay true to his roots, and that includes serving up family recipes like Shoepeg Corn Pudding, Iron Skillet Baked Beans and the magnificent Cheddar and Jalapeño Drop Biscuits. Those prone to heartburn from jalapeño or barbecue need not worry – Sharon Hospital is but a few hundred feet away.
The Landing Zone Grill
525 Burlington Road
Harwinton, CT 06791
One man’s dive is another’s paradise – especially when it comes to barbecue. Marooned at the end of the decommissioned Johnnycake Airport in Harwinton is the aptly-named The Landing Zone. It is known almost as much for its eclectic combo of movie posters and aircraft memorabilia as it is for the ribs and wings. This is Cajun barbecue transported to Connecticut, complete with Po’ Boys, Catfish, Frog Legs and Alligator Tenders. And no, these are not just chicken plates dressed up; they are the real, “white tail filet” of southern swamp gators. Just as the alligator is real, so is owner and cook Joe Furnar, who graduated first in his class from the Connecticut Culinary Institute 18 years ago. Furnari takes pride in doing things real, honest and green. Many of the vegetables and herbs he uses are grown in his own garden, and most of the rest are local and organic. Furnari knows what makes barbecue authentic and fun. His place may not be elegant or trendy, but it is downright finger-licking delicious.
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The Hilltop BBQ and Steakhouse
12 Ray Palmer Road
Moodus, CT 06469
Across the river from Haddam and north of East Haddam sits The Hilltop BBQ and Steakhouse. One meal there, however, and diners will swear the river is not the Connecticut but the Mississippi, as this is St. Louis and Memphis barbecue at its finest. The former is very smoky, and the latter is “for those that don’t like the smoke,” as the menu notes. The less-smoky “Memphis” menu isn’t large, but hits all of the bases for that region’s barbecue. Dishes include including Cornmeal and Jalapeño Encrusted Catfish, Collard Greens and Rattlesnake Baked Beans. No, there is no rattlesnake in them, explains the perky hostess, Katrina. They are “house prepared” with “a little kick,” and, as she is quick to add, “really, really tasty!” Chicken, pulled pork and other barbecue standards are also available, but the combination Sampler Platter is the only way to go. At $23.95 it may seem a bit pricey, but rare is the diner who doesn’t ask for a doggie bag; even a die-hard barbecue fanatic would be hard pressed to finish alone in one sitting.
Dagwood’s Kansas City BBQ
453 Montauk Ave
New London, CT 06320
Sauceless pulled pork? Can any barbecue place serve such a dish and still call itself barbecue? Dagwood’s does, and rightly so. In fact, the pulled pork is Dagwood’s house specialty. But for the purists, there is plenty of “Pig Perfume” (as the sauce is called) to go around. A vat of that comes in handy with the ribs, which are served not by the rack or half-rack, but quite literally by the slab. They are meant to serve three, and Dagwood’s is not kidding around. The slabs of ribs are enormous. Dagwood’s has one of the shortest menus of any top barbecue place, but does each item spectacularly. Also offered is an assortment of monster cookies for those who have had the willpower to save a little room for dessert.
Black-Eyed Sally’s BBQ and Blues
350 Asylum St
Hartford, CT 06103
Monday night is Jazz Jam Night at Black-Eyed Sally’s – a clue to the authenticity of its “BBQ and Blues” name. The Burnt Endz sandwich with beef swimming in sauce is a big seller here, as is the Po’ Boy with varied combinations of blackened catfish, crawfish, oysters and andouille sausage. Sally’s Pig Out, with its many types of pork and sides of both red beans and rice and smoked-cheddar grits, is a belly-buster – and one best shared with a friend. “Judges Choice” Chili and “Fall-off the Bone,” Memphis-style ribs are excellent, and the Damn Good Chicken is all that and a bag o’chips (the twice-fried, salt and vinegar variety they serve here, that is).
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Mark G. McLaughlin is a professional and prolific writer with a proven publishing record in a wide variety of fields. An historian, novelist, freelance journalist, ghost-writer, book reviewer, magazine editor, web and magazine columnist, Mark has more than 30 years of experience, most notably but not exclusively in the fields of international relations and history specifically military history. His work can be found at Examiner.com.