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While on vacation, I read an excellent Western (see page 7) and I just started binge watching "Deadwood," both of which put me in the mood for the State Street Saloon.
The saloon opened last summer in a space that has housed a variety of restaurants over the years but sat vacant for the last decade. It's an outstanding space, so it was great news for the city when the Capano family, who also runs local ShopRite supermarkets and the Harp & Dragon Irish pub in Norwich, renovated and reopened it.
When you enter, a large mural on one wall and an old carriage suspended above help set the mood. The bar, which seats about 20, is toward the front of the building. The dining areas - in the back and upstairs - are a mix of dark wood and red brick.
During a past visit, a colleague ordered the jar of bacon ($6), which strikes me as more of a novelty unless you're a super carnivore. You can also get the bacon with a Kung Pao drizzle, scallions and peanuts ($11). For me, a better appetizer choice has been deep fried breaded dill pickles and banana peppers served with an avocado ranch dip ($8).
Last week was my first time at the saloon for dinner. We started with a basket of the house chips ($7), delicious homemade potato chips served with a bacon and bleu cheese dip. Excellent combo.
You judge a smokehouse by their ribs, brisket and pulled pork, so we ordered two of the three.
Whenever I mention ribs to fellow restaurant reviewer Rick Koster - born and bred in Texas - he always asks me the same question: "Are they wet or dry rub?"
Eventually I learned that wet ribs are those slathered with barbecue sauce, which is what you'll usually find around here and which always greatly disappoint Rick.
I'm happy to report that the State Street ribs ($17) pass the Koster test. These ribs have a nice crust of dry spices - a little bit of heat from cayenne and cumin balanced with some brown sugar. The ribs were served in three slabs, and I ate the first one just the way they came - without adding any barbecue sauce. They were tasty, meaty and tender.
The ribs are served with a six pack of house-made hot sauces. I passed on the one labeled "hot hot hot" and instead squeezed out some of the "bourbon" sauce, a nice confluence of bitter, spicy and sweet. I took the final ribs home and only wished I had taken some of the sauce, too.
My son, Colby, is a member of the sandwich generation so he picked the Southern Bell, a messy, tasty pile of pulled pork, southern slaw and pickles. At $10, this is a great value.
If you're tempted to have it all, there's the Whole Lot platter ($19): ribs, pulled pork, smoked chicken breast and beef brisket.
Next time I'm going to try the jambalaya ($18.95), which features andouille sausage, smoked chicken and shrimp.
Other entree options include beef brisket ($17), fried catfish ($12), pork chops ($17), half chicken ($15) and a 16-ounce rib eye ($22).
As good as the entrees are, the side dishes stand out just as much. I picked mac and cheese and Creole corn, both served in a tin cup. The macaroni was lightly coated with cheese, with a dusting of bread crumbs on top. Scrumptious. The corn turned out to be the spiciest part of my meal. The ribs also came with a hunk of dense cornbread.
Colby had steak fries, a perfect complement to his pulled pork.
I went back Tuesday and fought the cruise ship crowd to get two hot dogs with sauerkraut, mustard and onions ($7). The saloon is running a special for National Hot Dog Month, with other options being chili, cheddar bacon cheese sauce and onions ($8) and a corn dog ($7).
I added a side of stick-to-your ribs Cowboy Baked Beans.
They have an impressive selection of whiskey, rye and bourbon (more than 50). The draft selection is a little thin, however, dominated by light American lagers. I settled on Hooker Red Ale, but wish the Capanos would be a little more adventurous here like they are in Norwich.
In the days of the wild, wild West, the saloon was not only a place to get a drink but, if you had enough money, you could also spend some time with a lady of the house. Obviously, that's not the case today. But I do know some locals, mostly women, who feel uncomfortable in the State Street Saloon because of the fishnet stockings and bustiers that the staff wears. Then again, a handful of couples there during our most recent visits seemed OK with the whole theme.
That's a personal choice. But you should know that the food is absolutely worth a visit.
158 State St., New London
Hours: Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Cuisine: They smoke their own ribs, pulled pork and brisket.
Atmosphere: Saloon feel, including the staff's outfits.
Service: Efficient and friendly.
Prices: Affordable, with sandwiches in the $10 range and, except for a rib eye steak, entrees under $20.
Handicap access: Street-level entrance.
Credit cards: All majors.