Black-eyed Sally’s is right in bustling downtown Hartford, but it’s not too hard to find parking on the street or in a nearby lot (there’s one across the street and another in back). As soon as you walk in, you can’t help but look around at the décor that includes funky artwork and graffiti going all the way up the walls to their high ceiling. Most of the art is likenesses of rock and blues legends like Elvis, Ray Charles, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Elmore James and Stevie Ray Vaughn. There are three distinct dining areas, a small bar in the back with a TV, and a stage where music is performed frequently. Black-eyed Sally’s has outdoor seating in the warmer months.
Is Black-eyed Sally’s a barbecue joint? Sort of. The fairly extensive menu stakes turf in the worlds of Southern, Cajun, BBQ and pub food.
Barbecue items include St Louis ribs by the full or half rack (half or quarter at lunch), burnt ends, chicken, smoked turkey (sandwich only), pulled pork, brisket and sausage. There's a Pig-Out platter (ribs, pork, sausage, fixed sides) that's called the Piglet platter at lunch. They also offer 3- and 4-meat combos where you configure the meats and sides.
Southern seafood dishes include fried calamari and crawfish, catfish fingers, fried oysters, shrimp and grits, blackened catfish, fried catfish, four different po' boys and jambalaya.
Other appetizers include wings, gumbo, fried okra and pickles, deviled eggs and sweet potato fries. There's also fried chicken, mac and cheese entrees with meat thrown in, a couple of burgers and six different salads.
I revisited for a Saturday lunch about eight years after visting for a Saturday dinner.
Pulled Pork Sliders: Tried on the first visit and no longer available, these were three mini sub rolls (about 3 inches long) stuffed with unsauced pulled pork that was still pretty moist as is. Not much flavor, but still decent, and elevated to good with the two hot sauces.
Gumbo: A small serving ($4.95) brought big flavor with a slow starting but steadfastly escalating heat in a thick and slightly gluey broth. Long strips of chicken and slices of sausage comprised the proteins and contributed the unmistakable smokiness that I hoped were a harbinger of things to come. Okra and green pepper were the leading vegetables. While I can't say that the gumbo tasted or felt prepared just minutes earlier and ladled out of a huge pot (out of a fridge and reheated seemed more likely, especially considering the Saturday lunch timing), it was still enjoyable. I almost reached for the hot sauce out of habit, but this gumbo tasted fine on its own.
Burnt ends: A more composed presentation the second time around ($9.95 as an appetizer) brought seven cubes of beef (an inch and a quarter on each side, give or take), flanked by a pile of cole slaw and a half slice of Texas toast. Each cube was as well coated as you can get without being overcoated, delivering sweetness to counter the mild smoke, and some caramelization for a textural contribution beyond just moisture. To those who say any sauce on a burnt end is overcoating, I hear you, but there are many ways to do it and this one did its thing while still letting the beef do the talking, albeit softly. Beefiness and tenderness were both evident. Fat was in there too, but not enough to be a distraction. Rub was less evident, and while the meat was inherently moist, the juices normally associated with well cooked burnt ends weren't there.
As I said in my first review, the burnt ends "were decent, and I give them props for being cubes rather than shreds like most people do in the Northeast, but they didn’t have the fatty decadence I was hoping for."
Smoke spoke loudest, though there's a chance it came from the sauce and the grill factor—which was just as (if not more) prominent. This ultimately wound up being just okay, and was probably the only item I did not consider a bargain on that Saturday lunch visit.
Ribs: St Louis cut pork ribs, tried initially on a Combo platter (any three meats,
two sides and cornbread, $19.95), were a very meaty 1/3 rack that had nice retraction of the meat at the bones and a decent crust. The juices flowed when I separated the bones, though I saw no smoke ring. They were cooked to perfect tenderness, with a little bite to them. I didn’t taste much smoke or other real flavor, but they were pretty good.
Fast forward eight years to the second visit’s Piglet Platter (lunch only, ribs, pulled pork, grilled sausage, two sides and cornbread, $12.95)—you wouldn’t expect me not to order this, would you? This was a quarter rack of big-boned St Louis style ribs, covered but not drowned in their house barbecue sauce. Bark and bone retraction were slight, the rub flavor slighter and the smoke slightest of them all, but these ribs were not without merit. Doneness was about right, maybe slightly over. Moistness was there aside from the sauce, through more in the steamy vein than juicy. Meatiness was there and fat was not. Based on the menu and the taste of the items that preceded it, I’d guess the ribs were smoked (not that they’d have to be at a joint that’s more Southern than barbecue). While I wouldn’t be running back any time soon for these ribs, they were more doable than what you’d get at the chains.
Sausage: The way the Piglet Platter was arranged, it was tough to tell where the sausage-studded red beans and rice left off and where the sausage itself began, but these were knuckle-length half slices with the feel and flavor off hotdogs, heightened by some grill time. Not a bad complementary player, but there are other things on the menu I’d choose over this.
Pulled pork: Probably the best of the three meats on the second visit’s Piglet Platter, the pulled pork represented another generous portion—and that’s saying a lot given the friendly pricing. If it was sauced, it was only slightly so, and with a different choice entirely, but I’m guessing this was au natural, still with decent moisture, and juiciness more than steam this time. Also on the plus side were attractive color, welcome bark, nice strings and chunks, and a texture that was neither stiff nor mushy. Flavor was on a different side, but not exactly a negative—there just wasn't that much of it that I could taste. With two similar showings, it’s the meat closest to a sure thing, but probably best ordered in a sandwich.
Chicken: If you care about my poultry on a combo from eight years ago, here's what I said then: "The chicken was moist inside and a little rubbery outside, but overall okay." Ah, to be young, succinct and vague.
Black-eyed Sally’s used to supply four attactively labeled sauces on the table: two barbecue sauces and two hot sauces. Now they're down to one barbecue sauce (fairly generic) and one commercial hot sauce.
Red Beans and Rice: A flavor packed side also packed in a generous portion, these had bits of sausage in them. Either that or the sausage ordered on the combo got scattered. Either way, I liked the flavor and the thickness (though again a bit gluey).
Collard Greens: The highlight of the second visit succeeded on both the cooking (just-past-wilting texture) and flavor (steeped-in spices and meat influence). I could make a meal out of a couple orders of this.
Cornbread: It wasn’t until I got home that I realized they did not give me the cornbread that’s included on the Piglet Platter.
Twice Fried Vinegar Chips: The big hit of the first visit brought fried potato slices whose thickness (nearly ¼”) gave them just the right amount of crunch along with some chewiness. I wish they had more vinegar, but these were very, very good.
One server did an admirable job manning a half dozen or so tables on that Saturday lunch.
The Bottom Line
If I’m compiling a list of Connecticut’s best barbecue joints, Black Eyed Sally’s isn’t one of the first (or first dozen) that comes to mind. But as a Southern-focused restaurant with a cool vibe, live entertainment, generous portions and easy parking, it’s one that would probably still get its share of visits if my job were in downtown Hartford.
Yelp reviews of Black-eyed Sally's
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