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    Restaurant Reviews
    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Hanging with Chester in the New Land of BBQ

    A ribs and North Carolina pulled pork combo at Chester’s in Groton. (Rick Koster)
    Brisket and sausage at Chester’s. (Rick Koster)

    Evenly spaced on the dining room walls of the main dining room in Chester’s Barbecue is a series of framed black and white photos of various smokehouses and barbecue-eaters from generations ago and from across the country. The antiquated nature of the images — along with the accepted notion that most any barbecue restaurant worth a damn is probably in some dilapidated shack or another — makes the pictures almost seem like a Walker Evans exhibition if he’d focused on his favorite rib joints rather than the Great Depression.

    The interior of Chester’s Barbecue in Groton. (Rick Koster)

    Located in a Groton strip center, Chester’s is neither dilapidated nor a shack, but it’s hardly Monte Carlo real estate, either. In that spirit, the photo gallery is a noble aesthetic — an homage, maybe, to what might be called Real BBQ.

    The exterior of Chester’s Barbecue in Groton (Rick Koster)

    Perhaps it’s also doggedly ambitious: In the quarter-century we’ve lived here, New England has slowly improved on a reputation as a fairly barren source for smoked meats, sides and fixins. But we HAVE in our neck of the woods stepped up our game with spots like Chester’s, Noble Smokehouse, Dog Watch Mystic and the Bayou as well as with a number of food trucks like Uncle D’s Blazin’ BBQ and Backyard Smokers.

    A local history

    I think Chester’s was here before any of them, first in a tiny standalone building on New London’s Bank Street, and now in the longtime Groton location. The titular Chester moved out of state years ago, but the restaurant was purchased and is operated by the Dugas family — and they’re doing a pretty great job.

    Chester’s is split into two rooms. You enter and behold the order/takeout counter, behind which is the kitchen and carving stations generating an enticing aroma of wood smoke (which WILL cling to you like a post-Happy Hour drunken friend). CHESTER’S is spelled out in the tile floor, and there are booths on either side and a fountain drink machine. To the right is the larger dining room — all wood paneling and with the aforementioned photos.

    Available meats are brisket, burnt ends, hot links, turkey, chicken, North Carolina pulled pork, chopped pork, pork spareribs, boneless ribs and sweet sausage. Sides include sweet potatoes, coleslaw slaw, beans and rice, cinnamon apples, corn niblets, potato salad, baked beans, collard greens, mac & cheese and chili.

    There are a variety of combo plates involving one-, two- and three-meat options; ribs, sandwiches; chicken dinners and rib platters. Folks can buy barbecue and sides in various size increments, and there are also family-style meals available ($66-$93 feeds four-six, $108-$115 for six-to-eight). Kiddos can have a choice of hotdog or chicken tenders with a side and a drink for $8.

    Oh, and if you’re hosting a large gathering? The Party Time assemblage ($295) includes two racks of ribs, 16 pieces of chicken, two pounds of brisket, two pounds of pork, two pounds of hot links, two quarts of coleslaw, two quarts of baked beans and 16 pieces of cornbread.

    Sampling widely

    On the first of my two recent visits, I tried a two-meat combination ($24), which includes two sides and a fine block of moist cornbread. Gotta try the brisket, right? (It’s a law if you’re from Texas.) I also went with sweet sausage, collard greens and potato salad. I asked for the brisket to be carved lean — which is also a routine option back home — and was encouraged when cheerfully told that was a perfectly fine request.

    The meal was quickly brought to my booth and served in compartmental fashion. Several slices of brisket were in one cardboard carton and carved links of sausage in another. The sides were stuffed into generous Styrofoam containers.

    The brisket, ladled with a rich, faintly sweet sauce, was tender and delicately tattooed with crusted. The smoky presence wasn’t overpowering, and the beef is allowed to speak for itself. Very nice. The sausage was finely grained and not greasy. I didn’t find it particularly sweet or distinctive, but the flavor was pleasant and the skin popped satisfyingly with each bite.

    I can’t say enough about the finely chopped, fresh collard greens. Their innate bitterness was mellowed by a bit of vinegar and, cooked with specks of what seemed to be smoked turkey; the serving was triumphant. I also liked the potato salad. Served cold out of the refrigerator, the batch featured diced squares of potato in a thick mélange of mayo with a dash or bracing mustard.

    On a return stop, I again went with a two-meat combo. This time I chose spareribs and North Carolina pulled pork. I couldn’t determine any particular dry rub on the exterior of the large, lean ribs, but that’s no always necessary. What there was, was a discernible smoke presence and the purity of the meat, which had been pulled from the smoker with timely precision. It made for a fun experience — particularly with a drizzling of sauce.

    As for the pulled pork, I received a softball-sized serving of shredded hog shoulder. A forkful had strands trailing off the tines like a mop of greatness, and dipping the whole thing into a container of sauce was an entertaining exercise. It’s a huge portion, and I suspect the Tarheel sandwich (the Carolina pork with slaw on a bun, $16 with side) would be awe inspiring.

    Because I’m a helluva guy, I took home some vegetarian-friendly corn niblets, potato salad and mac & cheese for the meat-eschewing Wife Unit. She shared my enthusiasm for the tater salad and pronounced the other two sides more than worthy. Next time, I’ll bring her with me. Because I will be going back.

    Chester’s Barbecue

    943 Poquonnock Road, Groton

    chestersbbq.com, (860) 449-6868

    Cuisine: Barbecue and fixings

    Atmosphere: Two spacious dining rooms with old-timey, barn-like design — and just enough smoke aroma to keep you in a happy state of mind.

    Service: Order at the counter and a server brings to your table. Friendly and helpful folks.

    Prices: Pretty expensive but you get a lot of food

    Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily

    Credit cards: Yes

    Handicap access: Inclined ramp from parking lot; wide door level with the sidewalk, and with plenty of open floor space.

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