Thursday, August 24, 2006

Review: Big Bubba's BBQ

Big Bubba’s BBQ
Mohegan Sun Casino
Uncasville, CT

The last place in the world one would think they could find some pretty good BBQ would be at an Indian casino in Connecticut. However, Big Bubba’s BBQ is able to pull it off with a reasonable degree of success. While it is a little pricey, Bubba’s is the best commercial Q I have been able to find in Southeastern Connecticut, which is the region where I live.

Big Bubba’s is located upstairs in the newer part of the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut. The space is large and open with plenty of tables; along with a large bar that features several flat screen TV’s. The walls are adorned with old advertisements, and the bar area is flooded with sports pennants and banners.

Once at the table, the roll up containing the silverware is a towel, which I thought was a cool touch. Also, there is a six-pack holder on each table containing several different sauces, a Memphis BBQ sauce, a hot BBQ sauce, a Carolina mustard sauce, a hickory smoke sauce and a habanero hot sauce. Most of their Q is served dry, leaving it to the diner to choose their sauce.

I've eaten at Bubba's more than ten times and overall, I feel the BBQ is very good. For ribs, they serve Kansas City Style spares, but occasionally offer baby backs as a special. They also feature BBQ beef, pulled pork and chicken, along with Kentucky lamb. The meat has a strong, smoky flavor and a nice touch of spice. The “Big Bubbaque” is a great sampling of all their best offerings, a platter of pork, brisket, ribs, and Louisiana links. However, it’s not cheap at $24.95.

My last visit to Bubba’s, I had the two-meat combo sandwich with beef and pork. The meat was piled high and was excellent, served with a side order of potato salad and slaw. In previous visits I have sampled the ribs, and was very impressed with their chicken, which was juicy and flavorful. Mid-weeks, they offer an all you can eat ribs and chicken special, perfect for those with big appetites.

Their large menu offers much more than BBQ, with a definite slant towards southern comfort food. Steaks, burgers, fish, Po-boys, fried chicken, and even salads are all on the menu. Appetizers feature such southern staples as biscuits and gravy, hush puppies with honey butter; onion rings with bleu cheese dressing and Texas chili. They also have trash ribs, which are the burnt ends from their entrĂ©e ribs, which are a good way to sample their ribs if you’re really in the mood for something else. Look out for the cartilage though!

Haven’t tried dessert yet, usually I’m feeling too full from all the Q to partake. Offerings include pecan pie, chocolate cake and sweet potato pie.

Service is decent at the tables, but watch out for the bar. On several visits I have found the bartenders to be gruff and unaccommodating. On two different occasions, I stood at the bar for more than ten minutes before I could get bar service. Stick to the tables.

In summary, I like Big Bubba’s BBQ. It is expensive for a BBQ restaurant, but that has a lot to do with the location. If you’re in the area or are visiting the casino and have Q on your mind, it is probably worth the trip. If you live in Eastern Connecticut and want good Q, you don’t have too many other choices.

The menu:

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Hudson Valley Rib Festival

We had a lot of success early on in Q Haven’s competition barbeque career. We won grand champion in our second competition, and it seemed like the sky was the limit. This past weekend at the Hudson Valley Rib Festival in New Paltz, New York, it became abundantly clear that we are a rookie team with a great deal to learn.

In the barbeque competition, Q Haven finished 13th overall out of 42 teams. While that looks pretty good on the surface, a deeper look at the numbers shows that without a couple of major mistakes, we could have had a banner weekend. Instead, we sat and watched as nearly 40 trophies and envelopes of prize money were passed out Saturday and Sunday, and we received none of them.

Let’s start with the ribs. I made a few minor adjustments to the recipe, which worked out extremely well. I feel the flavor is excellent, and most of the judges agreed. However, I made a serious rookie mistake. The ribs were very tender, and were very close to “falling off the bone” tenderness. While this would be great for most of the general public, BBQ judges are trained that falling off the bone tenderness is an overcooked rib. This caused two judges to punish us with low tenderness scores (one was a 5) and that cost us a call. In ribs we finished 8th.

Chicken. I just can’t figure these little things out. We took a big step backwards in chicken, even though we all thought this was our best effort yet once the box was turned in. However, it’s clear to me that I cannot figure out how to get the skin either tender or crispy enough to satisfy the judges. Our chicken finished in 31st place.

Brisket, however, was by far the biggest disappointment for me, as we had taken two second places in our first three competitions in this category. The problem started before we even arrived at the contest site. When I arrived at my butcher to pick up the brisket, he had two Certified Angus Beef briskets for me, but both were much smaller that I had asked for. My best briskets have been between 13 and 15 pounds, but these were barely eleven pounds each. Naturally, I overcooked them too, and the meat was dry.

An experienced pit boss would have changed strategy at this point, and sauced the brisket before turn in to try and mask the dryness. I turned the brisket in dry, and two judges really hammered it. The KCBS scoring system throws out the lowest score, but you cannot afford to get low scores from two of them and expect to get a call. The brisket finished in 19th place.

The real positive from the event was our improvement in pork shoulder. We came in next to last in pork in Lake Placid, so it was clear that major changes were needed. These changes were effective, and pork finished 12th out of 41 entries. That’s a big improvement, something to build on in the future.

So overall, 13th out of 42 is pretty good. But it could have been so much better without the rookie mistakes.

Our turn-in boxes have looked better, too. Overall, it’s hard to point to the boxes as a reason for our mediocre showing. Most of the appearances scores were 7’s and 8’s, with a few 9’s and only one 6. Our average appearance score was 7.6. However, the lettuce looked shoddy in several of the boxes, and we clearly left some appearance points on the table that could have helped us overall.

Without getting into too much detail, several rookie mistakes were made in the grilling competition on Saturday as well. We made swordfish with a spice rub, and I thought it tasted great, but apparently it was not the type of fish the judges were looking for. Our pork chop entry ended up being a disaster. The sausage was delicious, and it took 8th, our best finish in the event.

The steak was 100 percent my fault. I decided we should do a strip steak, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. However, many teams turned in rib eyes and prime rib, and our entry must have seemed very tough against those much more tender cuts of meat. Live and learn. We finished 13th overall out of 24 in the grilling event.

So now what?

I’m definitely bummed about our showing, and so is Sheila. I’m sure Cristiaan and Kim are not happy about it either. As pit boss, I made most of the calls that led to the low scores, and I take full responsibility for our scores. I have done a lot of soul searching in the last day and have a newfound motivation to get better.

Every competition, I learn a thing or two. This one shows me that I need to avoid the distractions that can pop up and react better to adversity on the fly.

I got really frustrated by the torrential rain Saturday night, more because we had planned to have a big feast, and it completely disrupted the evening. But now that I look back, we are there to compete, not to cook up big feasts or drink to excess. There is plenty of time for fun, but I have to keep my focus.

Now, the next competition for us might be the Jack Daniel’s World Championships at the end of October, if we are lucky enough to get our name drawn. If we do go, we will have to be a lot better than we are right now. I will not go down to Tennessee and embarrass myself at the Super Bowl of competition barbeque. While I’m sure it will be fun, it will really be a business trip and I will make sure we bring our A-game.

If we are not invited to the Jack, then our next competition will be in 2007. That will give me a lot of time to practice.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Almost Go Time

There's a tell tale sign that it's almost time for our first BBQ competition since Lake Placid seven weeks ago: I can't sleep. I found myself staring at the ceiling at five o'clock this morning, running through things that need to be done before I pack the van and head for New Paltz Friday morning.

There is meat that needs to be picked up. Along with beer, last minute supplies and groceries, our new aprons and t-shirts with Q Haven logos will be ready Thursday. Naturally, in normal Ted fashion I have compounded things and have decided to work a bar shift Thursday night (competition BBQ ain't cheap!) and additionally have to help Sheila's sister move a couch into her new condo. Thursday is already shaping up to be what I like to call a "three ring circus" day.

The good news is that after a test cook last night with Cristiaan and Kim, we are confident that we should do well in the Saturday grilling competition. We had already agreed on the pork chop recipe that will be used, but were still very much up in the air about the fish, sausage and steak entries. After trying several combinations, we are confident that we will be able to make some great stuff Saturday.

We have also been practicing for the main event, the KCBS BBQ competition Sunday. We've made some slight changes to our rib and chicken recipes that we hope will score well.

The contest is going to be a great time. There are 39 teams signed up, which will make this our largest event since we began competing in May. There are some "heavy hitters" at the event, including I Smell Smoke, who seems to win every competition they enter these days.

I Smell Smoke!

Also on hand will be Daisy Mae's BBQ, whose pit boss is a French trained, Culinary Institute of America graduate named Adam Perry Lang.

Adam Perry Lang

Between the four of us on Q Haven, we have a grand total of zero days of cooking schooling. Fortunately, foie gras and yellow-fin tuna are not categories in this weekend's events.

We are planning to camp next to Mike Lee and the Yankee BBQ Boys, and hopefully near Ward Mann and Waldo the dog from Hog Heaven BBQ. We are planning a huge feast for Saturday night, and are going to make enough food that basicly anyone who stops by will be able to feast with us. Hopefully we will have good news to report Sunday. Even if we don't win or even place in an individual category, I'm certain we will have a great time this weekend.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Coming Soon: New Paltz

Next Friday, we head to New Paltz, New York for the Hudson Valley Ribfest. This should be a fun event, and I expect it will be well attended by the top BBQ teams in the Northeast. It has been way too long since our last competition, over the 4th of July in Lake Placid.

Even though Q Haven hasn't been competing in recent weeks, we have been active, BBQ wise. We have done several practice cooks, and have attended two events. The first was Harpoon, which was documented in an earlier post, and last weekend we went to the Brookline Backyard BBQ, where Sheila and I were judges. This was an interesting experience.

The backyard competition was run by Andy King of the Bastey Boys, who is President of the New England Barbeque Society. It is designed to get new teams involved in competitive BBQ, and I feel it was a huge success in that department. There were 19 teams, and all but two of them were competing for the first time. There were definately some creative names, including the Green Goobers, Squealing for Vengance and Smokedelic. There were only two categories, ribs and chicken wings.

The judging was a learning experience. Not to criticize the process used, but it was difficult as a judge. Each table of judges got six turn in boxes, and we had to rank them first through sixth place on appearance. That part was easy enough, but we then had to score the samples the same way for taste and tenderness. I found it difficult to score the six different samples in this way, but I did the best I could.

I was particularly interested in trying the rib turn-ins. Out of the six samples I tried, I really liked two of them. However, two of them were so bad, I could barely get a bite down. The other two were decent, one would have scored better if they removed the membrane. I tried to score as fairly and accurately as possible.

Interestingly, neither of the established teams won the contest, or the individual categories. We did hang around with the Lakeside Smokers for a while after the judging was complete. What a real nice group of people. Mike is their pit boss, and he is a real good guy. He has a great group of supporters around him too, and as a metal fabricater he built his own backwoods style smoker. I had hoped we would get to compete with them soon, but it won't be this year. They're not going to New Paltz, and we're not going to Lowell where they compete next.

Anyway, we are really looking forward to getting down to it next weekend. I miss the competition scene, and this event looks like it will be a lot of fun.