Yellow Rose BBQ
is an outdoor, over-the-counter barbecue joint in downtown Willimantic that's easy to spot: just look for the huge roof over the open parking lot that dwarfs the tiny structure where meats are prepared. Of course you could also just follow the smoke, which on both of my visits billowed steadily and fragrantly from the smoker next to the hut. Yellow Rose takes its name from the song that pays tribute to Texas, so expect Texas style 'cue. There's no indoor seating; picnic tables are available near the takeout stand and across the parking lot at Corleone's, where you can order a beer to go with your 'cue.
Unfortunately, I picked a cold weekday in winter for my first visit for lunch, not realizing that I'd be eating outdoors. That may or may not have had an impact on the food. The second weekday visit in April saw temperatures reach the low 90s. I had sufficient additional personnel on both visits to order liberally, not that I wouldn't have anyway.
The Yellow Rose BBQ menu is compact and barbecue focused, featuring babyback ribs, pulled or sliced brisket, pulled pork, pulled chicken and half chickens. Sausage has been featured in the past and is a planned returnee down the road. Turkey was available on one visit as a special.
The boneless meats can be had on sandwiches; all meats can be ordered by the pound. There are just a few sides. Sodas are by Hosmer, a local favorite.
There are no appetizers as such. Chili would be a natural.
Meats are served unsauced, with slices of white bread that can be used for make-your-own sandwiches or as a canvas for the sauces available on the picnic tables. Instead of plates, you get sheets of butcher paper.
Pork ribs: Short but thick babyback ribs ($6.99 per half pound) from the cold winter visit had nice meat content and whiffable smoke, but I knew as soon as I picked one up that it was going to be stiff. While I'm not an advocate of meat falling off the bone, these were either a good half hour away from being done or stored on such a way that the cold impacted the texture. Flavor was more than decent but the low temperature and high rigidity were too much of a distraction.
Things picked up dramatically by spring, when the ribs were at the other end of the texture spectrum: shy of falling off the bone, but very loose and very tender (chicken thigh tender). The most distinctive aspect of these ribs was the peppery crust so thick it had the density, crunch and mouthfeel of a crusty coffee cake, which I found very appealing. Its flavor perked things up without overpowering, though the moist inner meat was more tame than the surface. Attractive pink color offset the flappy, fall-apart aspect. Our table was divided on how smoky they were. I'm guessing the air near the smoker was already so smoky on its own (in a good way) that it made a true assessment difficult. Overall, some good ribs that would easily rank above the median but short of my best. I wouldn't hesitate to order these again.
Brisket: Also $6.99 per half pound, the meat most associated with Texas barbecue was splendid on my first visit. There was no single standout characteristic to hang its hat on, but everything was there in perfect balance: crisp edges, tasteable rub, moderate smoke and a texture that allowed a clean slice as tender as you can get without even threatening to fall apart. Whether it was from rub penetration, injection or post-smoke immersion, this meat had a lot of pleasing, complex flavor that supported the beefiness without taking over. I imagined it might be even better under more favorable conditions, but on a frigid wintery day, this brisket was still a success.
The second outing basically duplicated the excellence of the first, with maybe a slight dropdown in flavor but a slight improvement in moisture and smooth texture. Yellow Rose brisket would easily be in my top 10-15 percent, with a good chance of making my as-yet-unwritten top ten list.
Pulled Pork: This one could go either way. On the first visit, we didn't order any pulled pork but received a complimentary sample in a small plastic cup. The meat was supremely moist and tender but light on bark, color and flavor. Taking that into account, I ordered but a quarter pound (compared to a half pound of brisket) on the second visit, and I'm glad I didn't leave it out. It was like a completely different meat, this time presenting deep pink color at the edges, some dark and crispy bark, some nice bounce-back to the outer texture and some gentle strings. Moisture was moderate; flavor was more ramped up with rub, smoke and natural porkiness, sans sauce. I'd want to try this again before drawing any real conclusions, but we're definitely looking at a half pound next time.
Chicken: Tried on the second visit, a half bird ($5.99) brough dark, moist skin with a heavy spice crust and borderline crispness. I liked that it was presented as separate breast, wing, thigh and leg pieces rather than a single unit. Under the skin lay more moistness, even in the breast; the thigh was full-on juicy with a steady stream. Yellow Rose's chicken might be a little on the plain side, with flavor coming mostly from the very noticeable smoke (pepperiness less noticeable than it looks), but it was the freshness and moistness that most made it enjoyable. Definitely above average, possibly top quarter.
Turkey: On the second visit we received a few complimentary slices of the smoked turkey, which bore most of the same characteristics as the chicken.
Both sauces available at each picnic table are thick, sweet, tomato-based renditions, with the "Original" packing less heat than the "Spicy" but more complexity from more actual spices.
Sides weren't a horror show, but weren't nearly as impressive as the meats.
Potato salad: A creamy rendition made with big chunks of potato hit the spot and may have also obliterated said spot with a full arsenal of spices. This recipe, this much pepper and this much mayo isn't for everyone, but I like it, even though I'm not a mayo guy.
Beans: These looked and tasted canned, with that typical New England baked bean flavor lurking under the camoflage of additional spices.
Cole slaw: This had the look and feel of a storebought rendition, but the condiment was refreshing, not too mayoey and somehow worked..
I often (untintentionally) say in a review that I'll probably be back, then wind up never returning for a while if ever. Yellow Rose isn't one of those: I know I'll revisit and soon, because a) the brisket alone is worth going back for, b) I need to figure out which pork is the more representative version and c) there's another barbecue joint that just opened up a few blocks away on Main Street, which will bring me back to the area for another taste.
The Bottom Line
This is good, solid barbecue that won't always bowl you over with flavor but won't disappoint, served in a no-frills setting that's easy for takeout, picnic table dining or tailgating under the shade of covered parking. Brisket and chicken are the standouts here. Not one of my top five for Connecticut barbecue, but probably in my top ten.
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