World-class BBQ returns to CT with the homecoming of renowned pitmaster Nestor Laracuente, who is overseeing the kitchen at Mason Dixon Smokehouse in Stamford. When I heard that Nestor was teaming up with Mason Dixon, I was ecstatic, the mounds of his perfectly prepared meats that I raved about at Hoodoo Brown were indelible etched in my memory. Would Mason Dixon fill the void that I have felt for months? Bottom line…yes, the food is spectacular.
Laracuente is a soft-spoken lover of meats and Southern rock who spent years perfecting his craft. After leaving CT last year, he returned to Brooklyn where he spent time with his buddy at Beast of Bourbon in Bed-Stuy. His time was spent experimenting with new rubs, new dishes, waiting for the right opportunity for his return to Connecticut. His newest venture, of which he is part-owner, opened a few weeks ago and it is slowly expanding the menu.
The interior is modern rustic, with rough-hewed-edged tables under Edison bulbs dangling from the ceiling, exposed brick from front to back along the right and a long bar on the left. There is seating to accommodate 85 at tables, another eight guests can sit at high-top tables overlooking the bar and more than a dozen bar stools. The walls are adorned with painted chalkboards proclaiming “Keep Calm it’s BBQ Time,” “BBQ is a Culture,” “BBQ is a Taste Memory,” and “Best BBQ in Town is Right Here.”
The bar offers eight beers ($7) on tap including Allagash White Ale, Bronx Pale Ale, Firefly Lizard’s Breath IPA and Stamford’s own Half Full Toasted Amber Ale. “Blue Collar Brewskies” are $4-5 and include PBR and Modelo Especial and an assortment of craft beers range from $5-8. Almost all of the beers are US brewed. Likewise, the bar offers a significant selection of US ryes, bourbons and single malts and a few Tequilas and Mezcals from Mexico. A craft cocktail menu includes named drinks Shallow Grave, Snake in My Boot and Austin-Tacious.
But the centerpieces of any BBQ joint are the meats and the sides, and Mason Dixon’s are slowly prepared in two 108” Lang smokers. The menu includes Appetizers of Macho Nachos with smoked brisket, QueTine, a BBQ poutine with a choice of BBQ over fries and finally smoked and deep-fried Wings. Three sandwiches are currently offered and include a Barnyard Rumble with both pulled pork and smoked brisket, Hogzilla with shaved ribs, Carolina pork and cracklin’ pork belly and a Black Friday with smoked turkey. Additional meats available for the Combos include St. Louis ribs, and smoked chicken. The sides include Brisket Beans, Mac-n-Cheese, Collard Greens, Cucumber Salad, Apple Slaw, Potato Salad, Seasoned Fries, Cranberry Sauce and Cherry-Carrot Salad.
I chose the Combo with three meats, cornbread and a side ($23), and elected the St. Louis Ribs, Brisket and Carolina Pork, plus the Brisket Beans for my side. When the platter arrived, I noticed the pork belly was present instead of the Carolina pork and the server was quick to bring me a separate portion of the pork, customer happiness is key.
The brisket was hand-sliced and delivered an abundance of juiciness and a moderate level of spice from the pepper-salt rub. There was a great smoke ring, with a thin strip of fat separating the crust from the meat, which was tender and rich in flavor. With a slight tug, the slices came part easily to enjoy each delectable morsel.
The St. Louis ribs were not only picture-perfect, they were perfect. Nestor’s new rub includes a hint of brown sugar to balance the salt and pepper rub and the meaty ribs were succulent throughout. The rub created a firm crust and a good level of smokiness. Avoid the urge to add any sauce to these ribs…let the meat and spices speak for themselves.
The Pork Belly at Mason Dixon sets a new standard. The large cubes were almost completely meat, nearly all of the fat was slowly rendered out. There was a thin layer of skin that was lightly crisped, just giving that little cracklin’ crunch when bit into. When a little sauce was added, it created a delicious canvas of flavors and fantastic balance of soft meaty texture offset by the slight crunch of the skin.
The smoked pork was also excellent. The portion included several large, thick slices of perfectly smoke pork. They were smoky, meaty and juicy. Of all the meats, the pork benefitted the most from the sauce as the rub was limited to the exterior of each thick cut. Adding the tangy and sweet sauce created a wonderful complementary balance to the rich pork.
The sides were equal to the challenge of accompanying the meats. The Brisket Beans was out of this world. The creamy beans were intermixed with chunks of brisket. The first bite took my palate in a different direction. While the other dishes focused on sweet and smoky, the beans brought in some spiciness, just enough to grab your attention. The house-made corn bread was moist, dense, with great texture. There was just a little touch of crunchiness throughout the piece, with sweetness kicking in from the thin layer of maple atop the cornbread. The carrot cherry salad was a little too sweet for my taste.
After my carnivorous extravaganza, Nestor stopped by the table. After he instructed the server to change the music to the Lynyrd Skynyrd station, I asked him what drove him in his BBQ passion. He slowly stroked his beard and told me “food is an important part of life…it brings people together. I saw the power of how a perfect piece of fried chicken could bring a group of teenagers together on a Sunday night. I then embraced the hardest parts of smoking, the rain, the cold, all to create the meats that would bring people together over a great meal. That is the power of food”
Overall, Mason Dixon Smokehouse is one of the best, if not the best, BBQ I have eaten in years. Nestor Laracuente has mastered the art of smoking, yet constantly looks to improve his recipes and his technique that already create flawless meats. Each and every bite brought a smile to my face, and I highly recommend grabbing a table, a large appetite and make sure you have a handful of napkins to wipe the sauce from your smiles.
78 West Park Place – Stamford, CT 203-817-0392
Neither CTbites nor the author were compensated for this review; the meal was provided without charge. The opinions contained herein are solely those of the author.