Smokey's Char Grill is another of those Connecticut joints that I can see Jan and Michael Stern of Roadfood falling in love with, based purely on the throwback sign towering over the casually retro looking drive-in itself. It's basically a mom-and-pop hamburger stand that also serves barbecue, with over-the-counter service and a few tables in the minimalist dining room. Outdoor dining is an option in warmer months.
The barbecue menu sticks to the basic four: ribs ("loinbacks" in this case, better known as babybacks), brisket, chicken and pulled pork, all smoked on site over hickory. Combination platters allow any two items to be paired; small and large size versions of "The Sampler" combo include all four. Five "steak burger" creations differentiated by toppings all weigh in at a half pound; basic hamburgers and cheeseburgers are available at half pound and quarter pound sizes. Wings, dogs, grilled chicken, smoked chicken salad and steak sandwiches round out the offerings.
A Saturday dinner visit and a weekday lunch visit caught Smokey's about a year apart. Both were on multi-stop BBQ crawls: the first one late in the day and the second one in the second slot as a late lunch.
Onion Rings: Large and puffy, the donut-like battered onion rings ($3.69) from the first visit were outside my preferred style but crisp, dark and tasty, making them the highlight of that visit.
Wings: The order on both visits included wings ($6.99 for 10 pieces). Buffalo wings were competently prepared, with a moderately crisp exterior, tender inner meat and a pleasant if uninspired Buffalo sauce. Smokehouse wings on the return were billed as smoked-then-fried, but the smoke component was very faint. The frying part did a better job of living up to the description with thorough crispness. A liberally applied rub added some outer flavor.
Burger: A favorite appetizer technique of mine is splitting a burger or sandwich, executed on the first visit with the herbed bacon cheeseburger ($6.49). Served on thick Texas toast, this burger delivered on the promised bacon flavor, but the beef was pretty ordinary.
Ribs: Small babybacks, ordered unsauced, brought decent crusting and an almost glowing pink smoke ring. Cooked to ideal tenderness, the meat was moist but shy of juicy. Flavor seemed muted all around, from smoke to rub to mop.
Brisket: Pale on the first go-round and smoke ring pink on the follow-up, the brisket was moist and cooked to the proper texture both times: able to bend easily without breaking. I'm guessing the repeated pool of brown liquid under the brisket was more a result of the holding broth ("au jus" on the menu) than inherent juiciness, but either way, the job got done. I liked the second batch's dark crusting, but flavor was again very muted.
Chicken: Although not smoky, the chicken was the highlight of the second visit's platter, bringing slightly crisp skin, good inner moistness, tender texture and a strong chickeny flavor amplified by assorted spicing techniques.
Pork: On both visits the pork was tender to the point of being delicate. The first rendition was heavy of sauce (dolloped on top), light of bark, light of smoke and extra light of flavor aside from the saucing. Take 2 looked like chicken, felt like chicken and tasted like chicken. Actually, like boiled chicken. But at least like it was freshly boiled chicken. This time the sauce was more integrated into the meat, but with a lighter hand and lighter color, as if thinned down.
A single all purpose sweet-tangy-spicy compromise did a decent job, and when requested on the side was served up hot.
Baked beans, served in their own boat to prevent leakage, were generous with the quantity and more generous (maybe a little too generous) with the molasses flavor. Mac and cheese artfully avoided being overcooked and had just enough cheese (halfway between sharp and mild) to fully coat each elbow. Cole slaw was crisp and well seasoned. A cornbread mini muffin had corn kernels and very dry texture.
The portions were quite generous. The BBQ combo (a ridiculously affordable $10.99) offers good value.
The Bottom Line
On my first visit, Smokey's Char Grill struck me as a joint that might not have been much at the time, but had potential for future improvement. They seemed able to nail the barbecue textures but timid with the smoke, rub and all around flavor. After the second visit, I think it is what it is: not the best of joints, not the worst of joints, not one I'm likely to rush back to, but not one I'd avoid.
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