Barbecue in the Northeast? The thought brings on feelings that bounce between optimism and frustration. We northerners end up rating our barbecue joints on a handicapped scale, and we might say things like “That restaurant is good for New York BBQ,” while wistfully reminiscing over some carnirvana meals we have had in Texas.
As of late, the situation has been changing. I am fortunate to have two barbecue joints here in Queens—John Brown Smokehouse and Butcher Bar—whose offerings (the burnt ends at John Brown’s, the fall-off-the-bone ribs at Butcher Bar) can often compete with Texas.
However, finding smoked pork sausage that brings me back to Luling or Austin has been difficult. Perhaps David Lombardi, owner of Uncle Willie’s Barbecue in Seymour, Connecticut, used to be haunted by such thoughts. Before he opened his pit barbecue joint in a quiet Seymour strip mall, he traveled around the South and Midwest, and brought pieces of America’s barbecue belt up north. He even aped the hole-in-the-wall ambiance: three small tables and no bathroom for customers.
But I didn’t mind the appearance when I walked in last weekend and the sweet smell of wood-smoked meat greeted me. There I was, in the Valley of Connecticut—the baked ziti capital of the country (if you can muster up a more suitable epithet for the Valley, please let me know)—and I ended up devouring a smoked pork sausage that made me feel like I was surrounded by pumpjacks and roadside dinosaurs. The sausage was as thick as a fire hose, meaty yet moist, tender without becoming that weird spammy texture of some sausages and hotdogs. The spices worked with the smoke and the glazing of sweet barbecue sauce, yet did not overpower them. Lombardi sources the sausage, which he smokes on-site for over twelve hours, from a supplier in nearby New Britain. “They’ve been making sausages for a hundred years,” Lombardi told me.
Equally as surprising was the pulled smoked chicken. I usually avoid chicken at barbecue joints, as chicken is normally the least popular item, and one that I feel the restaurants throw on the menu to appease the occasional person in a large party who won’t eat beef or pork. Or at least that is what the meat usually tastes like—token, forgotten, free of character. Not so at Uncle Willie’s. Covered in a sweet mustard sauce, the pulled white and dark meat received all the attention that chicken needs (but seldom gets) to avoid drying out.
With the addition of a soft and sloppy serving of baby back ribs, the experience was like finding great baked ziti in Luling.
Extra points accrued for Uncle Willie’s extra-campy takeout menu.