A few miles west of downtown New Haven, Smoke and Bones BBQ occupies the ground floor of what was once an Armour Meats production and packing facility. Large medieval industrial doors that once led to the retired facility's smoker and storage elevator face the casual dining area whose walls hang vintage Armour advertisements as homage. The Smoke and Bones over-the-counter operation features an open kitchen, meats and sides stored in steam trays and delivery to the table as orders are ready. The smokers are Southern Prides located at the rear of the building.
BYOB is an option while the restaurant awaits its beer and wine license. Look for local craft brews. Smoke and Bones also operates a BBQ food truck.
The barbecue-deep but not barbecue-exclusive menu features babyback ribs and St Louis cut spare ribs (4, 8 or 12 pieces), pulled pork, beef brisket, burnt ends, smoked sausage, pulled chicken (half pound or pound for all boneless meats) and smoked chicken (1/4, 1/2 or whole bird). All come with cornbread or biscuit; you have the option of also adding two sides for $2.75.
The boneless selections can also be had as a sandwich or as a trio of sliders; pulled pork also adorns the BBQ nachos. Fried chicken is available by the individual piece, as 1-, 2- and 3-piece meals and as buckets with up to 16 pieces or strips. Buffalo wings come in sizes ranging from 6 to 48 pieces. Fried seafood includes shrimp, catfish, clam strips, whole clams, scallops and cod. All of the seafood selections and fried chicken strips can also be used to fill po' boys. There's a burger, a veggie burger, hotdogs and five different salads. If that's not enough, Smoke and Bones is also open for breakfast, serving eggs, BBQ breakfast sandwiches and BBQ hash.
I visited solo for a Saturday lunch. The joint was busy throughout my stay.
Burnt ends: Any time I see burnt ends on a menu, it's a guarantee that I'm going to try them. Even if that weren't the case, the pink coloring and crisp edges of the burnt ends drew me in like a beacon from the holding tray behind the counter. I sprung for a small order (half pound) without sides as a first round, taking a menu to plan the second wave. You get your choice of sauce; I went with Louisiana Hot on the side.
There was a bit of variation among the pieces, with some borderline moist and others fully luscious. All were tender without having that steamy pot roasty quality. Complementing the red cross sections, the dark bark had only borderline crispness but a strong rub. The real calling card of these burnt ends was the intensely pleasing flavor that ventured well below the surface. Rub was a player, smoke was a big player and an injection may have been involved as well. For pure flavor, these would easily make my top 10. Make every piece as crisp and moist as the best examples from the boat and we're talking top 5. In retrospect, my sauce selection wasn't the best for burnt ends, as it wound up being more of a wing sauce (then it hit me: Louisiana Hot), but both it and the burnt ends were good enough that it didn't matter. A good start.
Ribs: So after those burnt ends, I was starting to get excited and starting to wonder just how good this place could be. I couldn't wait to dig into the ribs, which were short, plump, well rubbed St Louies. I got ahead of myself, because they must have gotten ahead of themselves pulling the incomplete half rack out of the smoker. Cutting ribs with a plastic knife can sometimes be a challenge, and that was the case here. These were stiff and underdone to the feel of the knife, and a bite from three different bones confirmed it. The cross sections had pale meat but a pink smoke ring around the perimeter. Moistness was decent. Flavor was too, with the rub even more tingly than on the burnt ends, while smoke was a bit lighter. Taste wasn't an issue; it's just that texture was a deal breaker. There certainly was enough promise to give them another try, and if this joint were closer than a 2-hour drive, I'd make it a point to try them again before a review.
Pulled chicken: Accompanying the ribs on the 2-meat combo ($14.99 before the $2.75 sides upgrade) was pulled chicken, an item I rarely try unless I'm stealing a few pieces off my young bride's plate. As it turned out, this was an accident: I ordered pulled pork, but it was rung in as pulled chicken, as the buttons are adjacent. Bark level (really skin when it comes to chicken) was low; moisture level was high if a bit steamy. Flavor had a light but noticeable smoke along with a much stronger chickeny essence. Overall, good without being noteworthy.
Pulled pork: Shortly after I brought the pulled chicken mixup to the counter staff's attention, a replacement order of pulled pork hit the table. This had less pink color than the ribs and burnt ends, but compensated with a high bark level. Most of the meat came from large chunks that pulled easily into long, gentle strings. Some of it had a little bite-back, some of it was melt-in-mouth tender and all of it was moist to succulent. The pork had decent flavor, though the smoke, bark and porkiness were all more understated than the meats that preceded it. I'd peg this pork as above average (maybe top third), with the potential to be among the better ones.
Fried chicken: The bad news is that you can't include fried chicken on a 2- or 3-meat combo, but the good news is that you can buy it by the piece to supplement a combo. I opted for a thigh and found its batter crunchy and light with very moist meat within. I'd like a little more seasoning in the batter (I always do), but this was some solid fried chicken.
I tried three of the four sauces, which are served on or alongside the meats as requested (you can get multiples), as opposed to being available on the table in squeeze bottles. All of the sauces had roughly the same thickness and viscosity—sometimes a benefit, sometimes not. The Louisiana Hot is basically a Buffalo style chicken wing sauce, with nice heat, a tangy punch and enough body to hug the meat without falling off. The dark brown Kansas City Sweet is a little thinner than most of this type and a little tangier too. The dark Memphis Vinegar sauce is thicker than a Carolina style vinegar and also sweet and tangy, making it a little difficult to distinguish from the Kansas City Sweet.
Biscuit: A dense biscuit included with the burnt ends (you get a choice of cornbread or biscuit, even if no sides are involved) didn't have the butter content to rival the moist beef cubes for richness.
Cornbread: A yellow mini loaf had a Twinkie-like consistency and a cornier flavor that wasn't all that different from a standard mix or store-bought model.
Cole slaw: This had the look of a store-bought model, only with more mayo. If you like a mild, extra creamy style, this one's for you. If not, I'd recommend moving on to something else.
Collard greens: A bright green, finely chopped variety still had some crispness left, along with appealing cooked-down flavor from the vegetable itself. spices and generous additions of meat that I think was pulled pork. This was a well-above-average rendition that made up for the cole slaw.
There's a very strong brand identity here, with a pirate-ghost theme on the menu, decor, signage and even the liner paper below the meats as served. It came as no surprise when I learned that the owner was a graphic designer.
The Bottom Line
Five meats and a couple of non-bready sides made only a small dent into the vast menu, providing both highs and lows. Smoke and Bones isn't quite pantheon ready, but despite the ribs gaffe and mixed bag sides I found it a pleasant surprise and am optimistic enough to slot them into Connecticut BBQ's second tier. I have a good feeling about this place and look forward to another go-round—to try more of the menu, to reprise the pantheon-ready burnt ends and even to give those ribs another shot.
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