Cider House BBQ has a farmhouse lodge feel, with wooden cathedral ceilings, natural wood floors, roomy booths, leather covered tabletops and old style chairs, some with armrests. There's a brick fireplace that gets winter use; a back porch offers screened-in dining in the summer. A small bar backed by corrugated aluminum offers house made hard ciders in addition to the usual brews and spirits.
This joint is located about two and a half miles from I-89; be careful if using your GPS and just know that Cider House is 1.9 miles north of the junction of Routes 2 and 100 on Route 2.
Also be aware that the hours are quite different in different parts of the year. The winter schedule has them open seven nights a week serving dinner only; summers cut the days back to Thurday through Sunday but stretch the service to cover both lunch and dinner.
Barbecue (smoked) meats on the Cider House menu include St Louis cut pork spare ribs, pulled pork, brisket and pulled chicken. Grilled items include Andouille sausage and a vegetarian friendly seitan (soy product). Appetizers introduce variety with gumbo, four different salads, fried pickles, shrimp, quesadillas, corn fritters, smoked-then-fried wings and fried seitan "wings." Non-barbecue entrees lean toward Southern with crawfish mac and cheese, blackened catfish, two types of fried chicken, pan seared grouper and more. Sandwiches offer all of the boneless barbecue meats, burgers and veggie burgers, shrimp and catfish po' boys and a portabella mushroom sandwich.
Big props to Cider House for its gluten free and vegetarian offerings on a deep menu. Each item is clearly identified as gluten free or vegetarian where applicable, and that includes all but one of the sides and many of the appetizers and mains.
My young bride and I visited on a Sunday night during a long weekend in which July 4 fell on the following Wednesday. There was a large party (between 12 and 20 guests, with many children) ahead of us and a few other parties of two arriving just after us. Only two servers—one of whom was probably the owner—were on hand to handle the entire restaurant including the bar.
Wings: Smoked-then-fried wings ($8 for 10 or $5 for 6) are served naked with Buffalo sauce and blue cheese on the side for dipping. The frying gives more than just the quick crispening that's a secret method used elsewhere; here it adds a thorough crunch. Inside, the meat was slightly pink from smoking, though the smoke flavor was very light. All of the wings had borderline moisture (you could call them moist or dry and have an argument either way). But that's all moot, because the sauce is the real star here: a Buffalo style supplying a nice balance of heat and tang with strong and complex all-around flavor. As smoked wings they were pretty good; as Buffalo wings they were very good, competently combining flavor with both crunch and lubricant.
Cornbread: This is brought to the table gratis as a single mini loaf per every two guests. Served at room temperature on our visit, the cornbread was fairly dry and fairly ordinary.
Ribs: A generous 4-rib allotment on the 3-meat combo ($28) delivered dark, crusty, well-rubbed St Louis cut spares, unsauced as are all meats as standard practice. Do the math on dark (a little too black) and crusty and you get dry (only somewhat in this case), so these needed an even more generous allotment of sauce (four choices available on the table) to make them moist enough to eat. Meatiness per bone was low, hence the generosity of bones—call it a wash. Smoke was low; rub was very noticeable texturewise and pleasant tastewise, but a lot less potent than the crust would suggest. Overall, about average, with the potential to be above average with a little extra size, a little fresher rub and a little more moisture from a little less cooking and holding time.
Brisket: Joining the ribs on the 3-meat combo, the brisket occupied much plate space as a pile of very thin, very gray deli slices. Two immediate, non-subjective problems here (besides being so thin sliced and gray): they were cold (not room temperature but refrigerator cold) and they should have also been joined by the missing pulled pork. A number of other factors contributed to both my wife's and my plates being sent back for correction, and I'll get to those later. After a lengthy re-do, the plate came back with a different batch of brisket that included semi-moist gray chunks on top in addition to more (or possibly the same) gray deli slices on the bottom. None of the meat had any smoke ring. Bark was very minimal. If there was any smoky flavor, it was only slight, but I still believe the brisket was smoked (then refrigerated and reheated in liquid). The meat was tender enough in a meaty, bouncy, pot roasty way, with decent moisture possibly coming from jus (the bottom pieces were much more moist). But it was probably just water, as this brisket was lacking all-around flavor as well as smoke.
Pulled pork: When my 3-meat platter got corrected to add the third meat, the pork rivaled the brisket in its generosity but the only other characteristics it shared were gray color and lack of all around flavor, though smokiness was a significant step up. On the plus side, the bark was both plentiful and very crisp. On the down side, tenderness was low and moistness was lower. With table sauces added, the pork was workable, but I found myself adding more and more to remedy the moisture and flavor deficits. This would have worked better in a sandwich where slaw and sauce might compensate and the crispiness would be a strong point standing out under the sauce.
Pulled chicken: My wife's pulled chicken on a 2-meat combo ($23) caught my eye instantly, and I reached for a piece before she did. It looked unbelievable, and by unbelievable I mean I could not believe that the kitchen staff would have the balls to send it out or that the server (who I believe is the owner) would have put it down on the table with a straight face. I've often tasted dry and only occasionally seen dry, but this took the cake—and then left it out in the hot sun, stuck it in a strainer and stuck it back out in the hot sun just to be sure. The color was pale as if oven baked in some spots, strange looking in others and the beyond-crispiness was immediately obvious. Taste? Not much, and no signs of being smoked. But to be honest it's hard to say, because texture so completely overshadowed flavor. This was so dry it was as brittle as a tree branch in winter. People often say dry to mean it's not as moist as it could be. This chicken was a 10.0 on the dry scale. Did I mention that the chicken was dry?
As I said, I've had many a dry meat, but this was the first one warranting a send-back. The second attempt made marginal improvement. Like the pork, it was best used as a vehicle for the sauces. If there was a bright spot, it was that the chicken chunks weren't overmashed like most.
Seitan: Shocker of shockers, this grilled soy-based vegetarian product had more rub, more moistness, more tenderness and more flavor than any of the meats, along with a very respectable fiery component. In case you're thinking that I may have been impacted by a bar set pretty low, let me go a step further and say that the seitan was surprisingly good and that all of those attributes were positive on their own and not just by comparison to the other disappointments. The combination of the spicy, gritty rub and the tender interior gave the seitan enough of a meaty texture to get by, and the flavor was every bit as captivating as the ribs could have been and should have been. So the good news is that the seitan was the best item of the night. The bad news? The seitan was the best item of the night.
Meats are served unsauced to allow use of table sauces at the diners' discretion. The bad news is that the meats on my visit really needed sauce additions to supply missing moistness and flavor. The good news is that the sauces are all pretty good. Three of the four choices had slight variations on dark color, midrange thickness and sweet-tangy flavor like traditional store-bought but with a little more nuance and superior flavor. The fourth was a slightly thinner mustard sauce that effectively blended heat and sweet.
Collard greens: Very cold on the first arrival and slightly cold on the re-do, these were cooked through and lightly accented with minimal broth that didn't quite cover the bitterness of the vegetable.
Cole slaw: This looked like store-bought but had a much fresher taste, with apple slices mixed in. Maybe it was both.
Baked beans: Another in the below room temperature sweepstakes (even on the re-do), these large beans had decent texture and subtle but pleasant savory flavor.
The gentleman at the closest other table also ordered a few smoked meats. I heard him say "This is dry," then less than a minute later, "This is really dry." My wife even caught him mockingly holding both hands to his jaw to help chewing. I felt some comfort in knowing I wasn't alone and feel more comfort now knowing you can't say I was being an overly fussy barbecue snob. I wasn't alone.
Knowing that the first round got sent back and seeing that both my wife and I left about half the meat on our plates at the end of the meal, our server should have been proactive and asked questions that might achieve insight to avoid problems with the next customers or facilitate long-term improvement. But no, he just asked if we saved room for dessert. We did (not that we planned to), but not there.
The Bottom Line
Cold, dry and flavorless are no way to go through life, son.
If the problematic meats had texture and temperature issues but still had flavor, I could still have hope and just chalk the visit up to a holiday weekend, random bad luck or uncharacteristic understaffing. But the lack of flavor almost entirely across the board and the willingness to serve meats that should have been saved for staff meals make it hard to extrapolate and see a result much different on a future visit.
That said, if you're looking for a true barbecue joint in Waterbury and enjoy your barbecue with sauce as a major component, Cider House has some interesting ones that do the trick well enough to help the meats get by. For a diverse crowd with dietary restrictions, this is one of the best bets among New England barbecue joints. It's just not for me.
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