Waterbury, CT: (01/13/06)
In early 2006 I made my first visit to their Waterbury location after trying them in Orange CT a few months earlier and loving their ribs even at 10:00AM. This place is counter service only, with booths, indoor picnic tables and a high-top community table for 10. This branch of Uncle Willie’s offers an all-you-can-eat buffet for $12.99, with some interesting meat, seafood and vegetable choices. Because I was trying to minimize my food intake, I got the 4-rib St Louis platter for the same price, with my usual sides of collard greens and cole slaw.
The average sized ribs were pink and moist, perfectly tender (almost to the point of falling apart but not quite), with a crusty, tasty rub. I ordered these with sauce on the side and both my sweet and hot sauces were good. My no-sauce ordering strategy may have been the reason the meat itself wasn't as warm as it could have been, but the flavor was good, with hints of smoke and seasoning letting the meat take the spotlight. The sides were both excellent and served in large portions. Collard greens had leaves and stalks in a flavorful broth. The slaw was sliced extra thin, with a good contrast of sweet and tart.
That first visit to Orange had me expecting to be wowed and place Uncle Willie’s among my favorites. Unfortunately, they fell short of the wow factor, but I still thought Uncle Willie’s was very good.
New Haven, CT: (03/22/06) (10/28/06) (01/12/07)
Uncle Willie's moved their second outpost from Orange to New Haven, and I was able to check out the new location during their first week of operation. It's a smaller place, with no booths and not as convenient from I-95. It's probably a good thing for them, though, with less overhead and a better location (urban walk-in traffic and nearby Yale University are plusses). The atmosphere is similar to their original location in Waterbury, with side dishes and homemade pies behind display cases, and benches and tables to accommodate about 16 diners. The wall decor features vintage tin signs and menus from famous barbecue restaurants from Tennessee to New York. The vibe here is definitely Southern; service is friendly and leisurely paced.
Three kinds of ribs are offered: St Louis pork, babyback pork and Texas beef. Other barbecue meats include pulled pork, chopped pork, beef brisket and burnt ends (a pork and beef mix). Beyond barbecue, the ambitious menu features burgers, hot dogs, salads, sandwiches, po' boys, wings, fried chicken and seafood (clams, scallops, clams and a few kinds of fish). I like the fact that there are special deals for kids and seniors. There's also a lot of flexibility: meats are available with or without sides; sandiches come in two sizes; ribs can be ordered in quantities of 2, 3, 4, 7, 12, 14, 20 or 24 pieces; chicen can be ordered in several permutations of white meat, dark meat and quantity.
On that first visit to Uncle Willie's New Haven, I got the 4-rib dinner with chili and cole slaw. The good but greasy chili was a simple yet tasty blend of ground beef and spices with no beans and just a faint tomato flavor, more similar to a meat sauce for pasta than traditional chili. The unsauced ribs had a dark, thick crust from spices and a pink, juicy interior. They were somewhat smoky and tender, pulling easily off the bone, though noticeably rubbery. These ribs had a really nice flavor as-is or dipped into any of the four sauces: sweet, hot (similar to sweet but hotter), vinegar and mustard (boring basic yellow). Slaw was very crisp and light, moist but not overpowered by Mayo or vinegar, with long, thin slices of cabbage, red and green peppers and a sprinkling of celery seed. Cornbread was huge, coarse and mildly sweet.
I returned to the New Haven location with a friend for a Saturday lunch, allowing a wider sampling of the menu. Pork ribs again had good flavor and again were slightly rubbery. Large beef ribs had a better texture and good flavor, although it was pretty obvious that both the pork and beef ribs were reheated. Brisket was excellent, succeeding in both the flavor and texture departments and much fresher tasting than the ribs. Pulled pork, pulled chicken and fried chicken were all pretty good, though not memorable. Burnt ends had a lot of bark but not enough fat or flavor to really compete with other versions I’ve had recently. Cole slaw and collard greens were again excellent. Baked beans were OK, but a fairly ho-hum New England version. Corn bread was moist, heavy and again very good.
In early 2007, I stopped in for a quick Friday takeout lunch. This visit was disappointing, with the ribs meaty but cold (and I only took them as far as the parking lot). The texture this time was squishy, a new one for me. After a bite or two from each rib, I gave up. Cole slaw and collards were as good as usual. Cornbread was a little stiff but decent.
The bottom line:
Roadfood’s Jane and Michael Stern call Uncle Willie’s one of the top 10 barbecue restaurants in all of America. I’m not so sure I’d put them in my top 10 for just New England, but I do like them. After all, there’s a lot to like about Uncle Willie's—the nice people, the far ranging reach of the menu, the very good sides—but I’m still waiting for them to reach the heights they regularly seem to hint at. I’ve had some pretty good meals at Uncle Willie's (and one dud), but never a great one. I’m not sure what the deal is: maybe Waterbury is the superior location and I always wind up at New Haven; maybe they’re better at night and I always come for lunch; maybe I’m simply expecting too much based on what I’ve read on Roadfood and other sites. I really want to love Uncle Willie’s, but I don’t. I do like them, though.
Yelp reviews of Uncle Willie's
Urban Spoon reviews of Uncle Willie's (Waterbury)
Urban Spoon reviews of Uncle Willie's (New Haven)