One of the best aspects of New Haven is it still feels like a city of neighborhoods. Downtown, East Rock, Wooster St.; each place has its own authentic personality. Leaving the lively strip of State Street was like an exit into post industrial Thorazine: there was no "There" there. Now, just down James Street, and bordering the State Street exit off I91 north, there is. Bear's Smokehouse of Hartford has opened at the Stack, and given the area not just a new personality, but several.
Follow State Street across the Mill River, or claw your way through the I-95/91N interchange to the State Street exit, and you'll see the new DISTRICT campus where an old bus depot used to glower and fume. The Stack is deceptively easy to find in that you don't take the main entrance, but can always find it by zeroing in on the brick smokestack. This now sits like a lone art installation, or a pin dropped on the restaurant's location. The restaurant's shipping container front is likewise deceptive. It's like looking down the wrong end of a telescope: small sights are actually much larger than they appear.
The Stack is the brainchild of Jamie and Cheryl McDonald, who are behind the Bear's Smokehouse restaurants and Chango Rosa Taco in Hartford, and Jason Sobocinski, of Caseus, Ordinary, and Black Hog brewery. The group has paired to create a cafeteria-style BBQ dining room, which leads to a full bar and views of the smokers, indoors from a 200 person beer garden complete with outdoor bar, mahogany tables, and outdoor heating, bordered by a purpose built outdoor music amphitheater. Telescope laid aside, you've just walked into a kaleidoscopic eatery.
CTBites attended a preview at the Stack, which will be open for business by the time you read this post. Jamie's Kansas City heritage shows itself in the BBQ forward vision of all of his establishments, and the meats and sides will be in full view for your choosing as you slide a tray down the line. I first tried the brisket, in slider form, with a drizzle of Bear's Kansas City sweet BBQ sauce. The beef was deeply infused in Stack's all wood pellet smokers, and softened without drying inside an intense, chewy bark. Bear's KC sauce is sweet, but it's tangy and spiced, and avoids and syrupy tones which would distract from the meat. Black Hog beers take up most of the tap space right now, and the heavier brisket paired best with a crisp Hog Lager pils.
The cool pilsner came in handy when I speared a few slices of cheddar and jalapeno Texas sausage off a passing tray.Where there is smoke in this sausage, there is fire, and I experienced both, paired with the twin rewards of a spicy burn and the endorphin hit which came with it. I've had the sausage from the famous Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas, and this was a close relative. The fire mellowed out, and I took a long sip of lager.
Bear's "Moink Balls" - an herbaceous meatball wrapped in bacon and sauced - made their way onto the menu from Hartford, thankfully, and other smoked options include wings, ribs in racks or smaller offerings, kielbasa, and my beloved pulled pork. I got my hands on the last of these as part of a Mac Attack, on top of a small bowl of mac and cheese, but tried the pork on its own so as to give it some prejudicial criticism.
The first thing I liked is the protein hasn't had all the pork cooked out of it. The worst pulled pork is served pre-packed in sauce that's more properly called aspic, or served in limp, ashen strands. This pork had retained all the meat essence, but possessed by that smokey voodoo which permeates the fibers and concentrates its flavors in a thin external bark. Two thumbs up, and I'm difficult and protective about how pulled pork is done.
Pulled pork over mac and cheese with some sauce is a basic preparation common as sidewalk pigeons, but I'm an easy mark for it on a menu, and yes, you can trust a place with Caseus DNA to do a decent mac and cheese. If I worked in one of the several businesses in-filling DISTRICT's other spaces, I'd be in danger of eating this every day, which is where the on-campus crossfit box would come in handy. I'd probably just order another sandwich, but I'd plan on joining the gym, and that's like guilt-Teflon. It slides right off.
Another Moink ball and a palate cleanser was necessary. Corn bread seemed like just the thing. I'm equally hard on cornbread, but this delivered. Even after sitting in a basket for a bit, the puffy yellow cube had kept its moisture, which kept it from being overly crumbly, and there was a bit of crunch to the cornmeal, which is a necessity. I was slightly suspicious of the honey butter for managing to stay liquid at slightly cool room temperature, but let's be serious: I ate it anyway.
I freshened up with a Smoke Stack Manhattan (brisket fat washed bourbon, Agostura bitters, smoked [both] sweet vermouth and maraschino cherries) and, decidedly non-vegan cocktail in hand, stepped outside the bar doors to the heated, paved, softly lit and mahogany scented beer garden. It is the greatest tragedy of our times this space is opening now, past summer's last rattling wheeze, instead of in the summer when I could have incurred great personal debt in a meat saturated, whiskey stunned glow in this space. Picnic tables and chairs clustering around fire pits are in easy reach, and past a low fence the amphitheater's gentle slope leads to a stage with its back to the Mill River.
When Sobocinski gets the microbrewery at the Stack up and running, his plan is to invite working brewers from all over Connecticut to come in and collaborate on beers. A constant, innovative churn should be the norm in this place.
The word for the Stack is "Unexpected." In this brand new, corrugated steel, almost Scandinavian style business incubator/millennial industrial park, where people are sure to use words like "activation" in irritating ways, is genuine, well prepared comfort food, beer and booze to please anyone, and the sense of it all being a gathering spot for life. It's human in a way this reach of the city hadn't previously been for a long time. Just the type of thing which gives neighborhoods a personality.
Bear's Smokehouse at the Stack, 470 James St., New Haven