On a southern stretch of New London’s Bank Street, Chester’s BBQ occupies a little brick shack jutting out to the sidewalk, like a model train building dropped too close to the tracks. This architecture lends barbecue credibility even before you open the doors and bask in the aromas of smoke and meat. Inside, the joint is even tinier, with only three small tables. There’s not enough room for the Coke cooler, so it’s kept behind the ordering counter. On the wall to your right behind the potato chip stand is the chalkboard menu, whose many erasures indicate changes in the available stock. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what’s on the board, because you can put together any combo you want and probably wind up paying less than you thought. [now located in Groton]
The pitmaster is Chet Dugas, a Connecticut native who practiced his craft in the Midwest before setting up shop here. His motto: “Barbecue is not the sauce, it’s what the sauce goes on.” I like that. Ask him what the house specialty is and he’ll say it’s the brisket.
The barbecue-only menu has a decided Texas slant, but there’s a little bit of everything: pork spare ribs, pork babybacks, beef ribs, beef brisket, burnt ends of beef, pulled pork, barbecued chicken, smoked turkey and “red hots” (sausage). For appetizers, Chester's has chicken wings and chili. Flexibility is paramount: chicken is available by the half, by the quarter or as whole birds; sandwiches are available with or without a side; pulled pork is available Memphis style (sweet) or Carolina style (vinegar); all boneless meats are available on a platter, on a sandwich or by the pound. Just don’t come looking for a salad, because—unlike most joints these days—they don’t have them here.
My first visit was for a late Saturday lunch with a friend. We started with the burnt ends ($6.00 platter)—thick cubes of beef cut straight from the point, the fattiest part of the brisket. Slow smoked to melt the fat into the meat, these were slightly crisp on the outside, silky on the inside, sitting in a pool of their own juices, with just a little BBQ sauce thrown in for good measure. The beef flavor was dominant, with noticeable smoke and a light rub to give it a slight boost. This was an excellent start.
We tried the sliced brisket ($6.25 platter, $8.99 per pound) for comparison, finding it crisp at the edges, with a layer of fat near the perimeter. The meat was tender and moist, though somewhat plain tasting and not as juicy as the burnt ends.
We moved on to beef ribs ($7.50 half rack platter) and pork spare ribs ($8.00). The beef ribs were large bones with the retracted meat tender near the bone and coated with a powerful dose of fragrant, tasty rub that was surprisingly crisp (often a rub this heavy is soggy). Moist pork ribs lacked the flavor punch of the beef ribs but still had a well-developed bark and a pleasant enough flavor with or without the sauce. Unlike the burnt ends and brisket that preceded them, both rib types tasted like they were reheated, though both were pretty good.
Pulled pork ($7.99 per pound) was next. This was very fresh and tender, with an uncomplicated preparation, and the juiciest of the meats we tried after the burnt ends. It was served with a thin Carolina style sauce with sharp vinegar and liberal use of black pepper that accentuated the natural pork flavor of the meat. I liked this pork with and without the sauce.
I returned with two friends late on a Sunday afternoon. This time we tried chili, burnt ends, red hots, a brisket sandwich and spare ribs. This time the burnt ends were served as thick slices rather than thicker cubes, and without the pool of natural juices to provide moistness. The meat was still tasty and somewhat moist from the inherent fat, though it lacked the succulence of that first batch.
The juicy red hots looked like hot dogs, and they had a similar mouthfeel, but packed more flavor than hot dogs, with ample chile peppers supplying some kick. I wonder what these would taste like on a roll.
Pork ribs carried more rub than the first time and were much fresher, possibly smoked that day. I liked that they were tender but not over tender: you had to bite to get the meat off the bone, but what you got was fairly juicy. The meat had a briny flavor, with just a hint of smoke.
Along with the chili, the brisket sandwich was the highlight of the second visit. Served on thickly sliced white bread, the brisket was sliced neatly and piled high, with just enough BBQ sauce to complement the meat. The excess fat was trimmed out, the bark was left in and the meat was very moist and tender. The key to a good sandwich is getting the right ratios, and this worked.
Overall, the meats were good, with the pulled and sliced fare a little more dependable than the ribs. Though none of the meats bore a smoke ring, it was obvious that all of the meats were smoked, with the amount of smoke and bark varying greatly from meat to meat.
On the second visit, we tried the “Texas bean and brisket chili” ($3.50). I prefer my chili without beans and fully expect any chili with a "Texas "moniker to have no beans, but this was a very good one. Not only did the beans not get in the way, they actually contributed greatly to the complex flavor. The thin broth was mildly spicy and mildly sweet without depending on tomatoes. It was also a nice carrier for the many bits of brisket scraps and larger slices.
Two sauces are available in squeeze bottles on the table. Both are dark brown tomato-based Kansas City style sauces, with only the heat level separating the two. Both were pretty good, though I preferred the meats without them.
For sides, potato salad was the standout, with hints of mustard and other flavors in the creamy dressing that allowed the potato to shine. The other sides I tried were average. Cole slaw was very creamy but lacked flavor. Beans were ketchupy. Warm cornbread was decent.
On the second visit we told the counter server that we were sharing everything and he could not have been more accommodating. He really impressed us with individual portions of chili, burnt ends and red hots in separate cups, and he sliced the brisket sandwich for us. It was like a poor man’s tasting menu.
Beyond the flexibility of the menu, it’s obvious that the prices here are a steal. All of the sandwiches are less than $5.00 alone and $6.25 or less with a side. The most expensive platter is $8.50.
The bottom line: This is a nice little place that aims to please, and it would be a regular stop if I lived in the area.
Rick Koster's review of Chester's BBQ in The Day
New London Times profile of Chester's BBQ and Russell's Ribs
Ted Lorson's review of Chester's BBQ
Urban Spoon reviews of Chester's BBQ