(08/13/06) (02/25/07) (05/02/09) (09/24/11)
Wilson’s Holy Smoke BBQ is located on Post Road in Fairfield, just west of the downtown area and right off I-95 (exit 21). The owner/ pitmaster is Ed Wilson, a veteran of the barbecue competition circuit as both a cook and a judge. As you pull up, the place looks like a converted residence. As you pull into the small parking lot in back, there's a good chance you'll smell the wood-flavored smoke coming out of the mobile smoker. Inside, there's a larger smoker that looks like a J&R, with a stenciled caricature of the Food Network's Guy Fieri, who profiled the restaurant on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
The single room establishment has a chalkboard menu, an ordering counter, an open kitchen, bar style counters and stools (they now serve beer and wine) and a few communal tables. An overhead shelf spanning the perimeter of the room displays barbecue sauces from across the country. I'm not crazy about the multiple references to Fieri, but I like that they’re paying homage to some of barbecue's most iconic joints.
In warmer months, outdoor dining is an attractive option.
The compact menu here sticks to the BBQ basics: babyback and St Louis pork ribs, sliced brisket, pulled pork, chicken and sausage. Ribs can be had by the half and full rack and in 2- and 3-meat platters. The boneless meats are also available in sandwiches and a la carte by the pound.
The Wilson's menu doesn't stray too far from barbecue, but there are three different salads, wings, chili, burnt ends and Brunswick stew.
Most barbecue meats arrive in round aluminum salad containers, presented "SOS" (sauce on the side) so you can decide whether to sauce or not.
I scattered four visits over a five year span, bookending solo weekend lunch visits around two early weekend dinner visits with a few different guests.
Burnt ends: Appetizers aren't featured as prominently here as at other nearby joints, so I only tried the burnt ends, only tried them once and didn't see any need to try them again. Wilson's treats the burnt ends differently from the more standard barbecue fare, serving them over rice and beans and topping them with so much sauce that the dish approaches chicken cacciatore. Under the sauce, my stab at the burnt ends lacked the crispness, smokiness and rub intensity that characterizes the best renditions I've tried. Texture even aside from the sauce was a little soggy.
Brisket: The first visit's brisket was nominally moist, with a really nice flavor and a beautiful smoke ring. It had just the right amount of fat and decent tenderness. I would have liked a little more bark, but it was good. On the second visit, the thin-sliced brisket was less fatty but just as moist as the first sampling and cooked to competition tenderness.
Ribs: Along with pulled pork, Wilson's St Louis pork spare ribs have been a constant on every visit. The ribs from the first visit's 3-meat platter (currently $22.95) were fairly small and slightly dry, but had a nice bark with a lot of rub and a good flavor, which I likened at the time to a Texas style.
On the second visit's 2-meat platter (currently $20.95), the ribs were noticeably juicier and had just the right tenderness (allowing a clean bite) and impressively bold, complex flavor from smoke and spice. On visit three, the ribs took a small step backward, arriving fully tender but a little steamy, some with a fatty surface that wasn't crisp. Flavor was okay though.
Two years later on visit four's mid Saturday afternoon visit, the ribs were by far the best I'd encountered at Wilson's and among the best I've ever had. Short but thick and perfectly squared off, they had the same size and shape as chalk erasers but there was nothing chalky about these ribs. The rub-speckled surface was very crisp; the bright pink interior sweated juices that gushed on the mere threat of a bite. Flavor was again deliciously intense, with a strong but very pleasant smokiness paired with a bacony saltiness that I found very appealing.
Pulled pork: The highlight of the first visit's three-meat platter was the pulled pork, which was borderline pink, moist, tender and loaded with flavor. With or without the Carolina style sauce, this matched up favorably with the best pulled pork in the region.
The second time around, the pinker pork exhibited the full spectrum of tenderness from the very crisp exterior to the very delicate interior. On the plus side, the flavor was again smoky and porky. On the down side, the temperature was cold. Barbecue shouldn’t arrive hot, but it shouldn’t be cold either. Coupled with the strong ribs, the flavorful pork made the second visit good, but if served at a more ideal temperature, that visit could have been very good to great. Still, pork was—with some admitted extrapolation—quietly establishing itself as the specialty of the house. I wasn't surprised when it was the featured meat on Guy Fieri's show.
On visit three, the pork was pinker still and more tender, but not quite as fresh. On visit four, the pork rebounded with a somewhat fresher consistency (though shy of out-of-the-smoker fresh like the ribs) to go with that same porky/smoky flavor profile. Tenderness was good and bark was again high.
Chicken: The one time I tried the chicken, a small but moist 1/4 bird on a combo was mildly smoky and had a good dose of spice on the skin. Tenderness was good but this bird was cold. My take on this visit (where the pork was also cold) was that the meats were smoked competently but lost something in the handling afterward.
Sausage: Tried on a visit when I was sharing one combo with three other people, I only got a nibble of the sausage. It was decent: no wow factor, no disappointment, light smoky flavor, moderately juicy and predictably tender.
Three sauces are available in squeeze bottles, all with a homemade taste and all distinct from each other. I like the BBQ sauces at Wilson's. The dark vinegar sauce packed a burst of contrasting flavors: a tartness common to the Carolinas, but with hints of pepper and sweetness. The house sauce was a good mix of tangy, sweet and hot. The chipotle sauce had a little more heat.
Sides have been mostly very good. Savory cole slaw had just a hint of vinegar and a good amount of celery seed—it was well lubricated on one visit and dry on another. Collard greens were cooked just to the point where the leaves lost some of their firmness, then served with little condiment. Baked beans were excellent, with a few different kinds of bean, a slightly firm texture and a good combination of sweet and spice. Mashed sweets could have easily found their way inside a pie. Black-eyed pea salad combined firm legumes with a refreshingly cool condiment that wasn't too heavy on the vinegar. Pale cornbread was coarse, crumbly and very dry. My favorite side was the pickles, thick-cut slices with a strong kick from spices in addition to vinegar. On three of the four visits, my server forgot to include the pickles.
Other Thoughts and Observations
Prices seem a little high for the portion served. This isn't New York, but the menu reads like it's New York.
The Bottom Line
This is authentic, no-frills barbecue that's at times lackluster and at times among the best I've had. There's no guarantee of greatness, but there sure is a possibility. Overall, Wilson’s falls a little shy of knocking my socks off, but I rank it among the best Connecticut BBQ joints I’ve tried.
Yelp reviews of Wilson's
Urbanspoon reviews of Wilson's