On a main drag of Wallingford, Knuckleheads is a small, no-nonsense restaurant with about a dozen tables. The bar is small (for now, 'til they expand, according to a mole), but the beer list is impressive. Minimal wall decor includes a gigantic fork and knife, a collectible guitar and a poster of Anthony Bourdain parodying Shephard Fairey's iconic Obama "Hope" poster. Although a few smoked items are on the menu, Knuckleheads makes no pretense of being a barbecue joint. In fact, "BBQ" isn't listed anywhere except as a sauce for the wings. There's a Smokin' Tex electric smoker in the kitchen.
Let's get straight to the smoked fare: pulled pork sandwich, brisket sandwich and a smoked Cuban, all served with fries, sweet potato fries or onion rings. A few different wings (fried) are available, as are hog wings (alas, not smoked). The hamburger section includes nearly a dozen preconfigured toppings permutations. You can also get hot dogs, wrapped in bacon or not, with a variety of toppings.
Three hearty eaters made Knuckleheads the final stop on a multipurpose Connecticut crawl. We hit them around 3:00PM on a Saturday afternoon.
Hog wings: These bone-in pork shanks ($9.99 for 6) are becoming increasingly visible at barbecue restaurants and the occasional pizza shop. Here, they're deep-fried, not smoked (or at least not billed as smoked), but the results still managed to dazzle. The outer surface had a crispy crunch like duck skin. Underneath, the meat went beyond moist and into full-on juicy. A quick tear of the shank produced a clean break, revealing an ever-so-slightly pink interior beneath. Although not undercooked, its color didn't make me think it was smoked, but you never know. I don't think it was rubbed either, but these pork shanks still had a compelling flavor from the natural porkiness and the crispy surface.
If served on their own, they'd be fine, but the Acapulco Gold sweet and sour dipping sauce nailed it. This sauce had the color of pineapple but the consistency of apple sauce, with a mostly smooth finish and discernable tiny chunks throughout the mix. Flavor started sweet, then kicked in with two different heat sources: chile pepper and horseradish. We tried some of this on everything.
Overall, I have mixed feelings on the hog wings. They really don't have to change at all, and I'd still be all over this rendition, which stacks up against just about any I've had in a barbecue restaurant. But if they were rubbed and smoked instead? They'd go from very good to spectacular.
Pulled pork sandwich: Served on a buttered, lightly toasted kaiser bun, the Knuckleheads pulled pork sandwich ($9.99 with fries) impressed with a hefty portion, pink color and gobs of bark. We requested sauce on the side, but the meat, as is customary, already had a lighter, thinner application of a red vinegar sauce that gave it just a little moisture and a little flavor boost. Smokiness and all around flavor were very satisfying, The one drawback was a very steamy consistency, which for someone who likes it saucy might not be a problem. There's a choice of two different sauces, both tried on the side. While this pulled pork wouldn't make my pantheon, it was surprisingly enjoyable for a sandwich shop and probably better than at least half of the barbecue joints I've been to in the region.
Brisket sandwich: A perfect bookend to the pulled pork, the brisket sammy had a similar ($10.99) price, the same buttered toasted bun treatment, same generosity, same pink color, same smokiness and same moistness/steaminess. Bark was there, but not in full force, and somehow the flavor came through even stronger from whatever rub was used but not necessarily visible to the naked eye. I got a pastrami vibe, minus the crackly crust. Another pleasant surprise, another that's in the top half and another one I'd come back for, next time with mustard.
Burger: Based on the advice of a PigTrip reader who tried it months ago and told me it was one of his all time best, we went with the Brie Burger (pepper crusted patty, breaded/fried brie, grilled onion, ruby port reduction, $10.99 with fries). Minor mistake including regular fries instead of the requested sweet potato fries, but the burger was cooked to spec: good char on the exterior, plenty of au poivre peppercorn treatment, medium rare doneness, decent moistness. Flavor inside was nothing special (hey, we're living in the age of custom beef blends and superstar beef suppliers), but certainly beefy and appealing. It was with the supporting cast that I had more of a beef: the reduction was overpoweringly sweet and the fried brie may have sounded more exotic than melted cheddar, but wasn't as effective. While I did enjoy my allotment of this burger, I'd go for something more basic next time.
All of the sauces are home made. I have high hopes for the PBJ sauce that we didn't try, and I'm a fan for life of the Acapulco Gold sweet and sour dipping sauce served with the hog wings. The other two we tried were both sweet and both brown, but very different. Unfortunately, I can't remember which was which namewise, but the thicker, lighter colored one was a decent interpretation of the classic bottled BBQ sauce and the darker, thinner one (with the viscosity and sheen of motor oil) was excellent if you like molassesy flavor with faint but lingering heat.
Fries: Frozen plain fries were cooked to a crisp (maybe thanks to an extra coating or extra dip) and served hot with fluffy interiors. Ordinary at first glance, but competent.
Onion rings: Beer batter style had a nice crispness and light sweetness, with a waffly texture. For me, nothing above ordinary.
Cole slaw: Served in a small portion with every plate, this surprise addition brought more homestyle cred than either the fries or rings.
I've seen a few online reviews describing lackluster service, but on our visit the service was stellar. Server Tracy not only looked like Marisa Tomei, but had the same bubbly personality.
The Bottom Line
Knuckleheads isn't a barbecue joint, but its legit pulled pork and brisket sandwiches are smoked as advertised, and better than you'd think. I'll have both of them again, but it's the unsmoked hog wings that will bring me back.
The Knuckleheads menu (tough to find)
The Curvy Cook blog's review of Knuckleheads
Yelp reviews of Knuckleheads
Urbanspoon reviews of Knuckleheads
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