Food Dudes: Kansas City barbeque comes to Hartford

According to pitmaster and owner of Bear’s Smokehouse Jamie McDonald, as he explained in an interview with NBC Connecticut, “If you don’t smell smoke in a barbecue place then they aren’t cooking fresh.” Located in downtown Hartford, you cannot get within two blocks of Bear’s without smelling the wood smoke.
A larger than life bear mural marks the façade of the restaurant, located in an up-and coming area of downtown. The interior of the restaurant evokes an industrial style, with many wood and metal elements. The menu is written in chalk and the ordering process is cafeteria-style, with customers adding more and more food to their trays as they move down the line. Seating is casual, with seats and long tables, and outside there is a terrace for spillover when the weather is nice. Peak hours do get crowded, but turnover is relatively high and customers usually do not have to wait for an open table.
Jamie McDonald traces his roots back to Kansas City, and he brings the Kansas City ‘burnt ends’ specialty to his menu. Considered a delicacy by barbecue aficionados, the burnt ends are the flavorful point ends of the brisket. Not only does Jamie smoke his meats to perfection, but he can probably eat more than you.
Jamie earned the nickname “The Bear” during his career as a competitive eater. One of his capstone achievements was downing 287 chicken wings in just a half hour. In case you were wondering, that is one wing every six seconds. If that feat does not intimidate you, Jamie offers what he calls the Grizzly Challenge. If you and a friend can eat more meat than him in 10 minutes, you win $1,000.
Bear’s offers eight different kinds of meat: brisket, burnt ends, kielbasa, pulled pork, turkey, chicken Texas sausage, and ribs. Sides include mac and cheese, fries, smoked barbeque beans, a baked potato, cornbread, and coleslaw. There is also a variety of meal formats to try. Customers can order a one, two, or three-meat combo, each of which comes with a choice of two sides. Bear’s also has sandwiches with your choice of meat, which you can upgrade to “bear size” for a small upcharge. The “mac attack” features a hefty portion of mac and cheese topped with your choice of meat.
For starters, do not miss out on the smoked wings or moink balls- a smoked meatball wrapped in bacon. The moink balls sell out quick, so do not be disappointed if you have to come back for them. After you order your meat, the server working the cafeteria line will ask if you want sauce. The sauces are great and you can pick between sweet or spicy. If you choose to opt out, they have an even wider selection of sauces by the drink station after you pay. There is a good selection of craft beers and some interesting sodas as well.
I ordered the two-meat combo with pulled pork and brisket. Initially I tried to order the pork and burnt ends, but they were already sold out of burnt ends for the night at 6:45 p.m. The server explained to me that the burnt ends are one of their most popular items. For my sides I chose mac and cheese and smoked BBQ beans. I added a piece of cornbread as well.
The meats were out of control good. The pulled pork was juicy and flavorful. The brisket had a delicious, meaty, smoky flavor. The brisket was prepared perfectly; it was melt in your mouth tender, but still had a nice firm bite to it.
I asked for a little bit of the spicy sauce, which turned out to be sweet with a bit of a kick, but definitely not overwhelming, especially if you like hot foods. The smoked barbeque beans were delicious and I was pleasantly surprised to find chunks of pulled pork mixed in with them which add extra flavor. The cornbread was also a great addition to my meal. I used it to soak up all the amazing sauce at the end.
The portions are large so bring your appetite and you will not be disappointed. Bear’s is a definitely a gem – tucked into downtown Hartford, the restaurant is a must visit if you are craving some old-school comfort food.
As if the tasty barbecue wasn’t enough, owner Jamie is a Trinity Alumnus – he graduated IDP class of 2000 with a major in economics.
Bear’s Smokehouse Barbecue address is 89 Arch Street, Hartford, CT 06103 or contact them by calling at (860) 724-3100.

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