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Rack & Helen’s
***
Out of a possible five
$$

Barbecue a sizzling sensation at Rack & Helen’s

“Have you been there yet?”

“You need to go and have the (insert one of about a dozen different things).”

I had been to Rack & Helen’s in New Haven not long after its big new facility opened along Broadway Street in 2008, and liked it. But it is still one of the places folks clamor about, and therefore, I had to go back.

And the first things I had to try were the hickory-smoked chicken wings, which my co-worker, Scott, whose taste I trust, swore were the best he had ever had.

And those wings, coated in Rack & Helen’s delicious and unique Parmesan-Buffalo sauce, were some of the best I have had – the second time around. During my first visit, they were a bit lifeless, as if they were not fresh from the smoker and had been reheated. But the second batch I had was outstanding. The skin was crisp, the smoke flavor was present in every bite and was perfectly accented by the slightly creamy sauce, and they were the kind of wings where I tried to pick every bit of meat off the bone.

That first batch of wings was really the only smudge when it came to the barbecue at Rack & Helen’s. There are a lot of smoked items on its expansive menu, and all of the ones I had were worth having again.

There was really no way I couldn’t love The Big Pig grinder. Pulled pork, ham and Ossian bacon was sandwiched between Rack & Helen’s crusty, toasted sub-style rolls, along with pepperjack cheese, fried onion and jalapeno straws, coleslaw and hot barbecue sauce. The crunch of the fried bits along with the salty ham and bacon, spicy sauce (and a little sweet I added from the rack of house sauces on each table) and the creamy slaw all created a messy symphony of pigtasticness.

The barbecued ribs, which are a Thursday feature, looked the part with a nice crispy bark and a bright pink smoke ring on the interior of the meat. These St. Louis-cut ribs had a zesty rub and were tasty, but that smoke ring didn’t equate to much smoky flavor. But I still enjoyed every morsel and loved playing around with mixing the sauces to see what flavor profile they created.

The Rack Special also featured pork in the form of a grilled tenderloin. It had thinly sliced ham and American and muenster cheese. The loin was grilled nice and brown, it was plenty juicy and, since it was “deluxe style,” there were plenty of pickles, lettuce and tomatoes on it.

Rack & Helen’s offers a variety of cold sides with its sandwiches, including a pretty good shell macaroni salad or coleslaw. Hot sides – fries or soup – can be added for an additional charge. The soups I tried – a surprisingly thick and rich beef barley and a straightforward stew – were OK. And I found the house-seasoned fries to be far better than the waffle fries.

The sausage and pepperoni roll at Rack & Helen’s was one of the biggest I have seen in these parts. Folded in a half-circle and crimped on the sides like a calzone, it was a good foot across and 6 inches wide. There was plenty of pepperoni and sausage inside with what seemed like 3 pounds of cheese and just enough sauce to touch it all. The crust, however, was a bit too thin, and it was split several times on top so it almost looked open-faced.

It was filling and it was OK, but it will only make my list of largest – not my list of favorites.

In addition to barbecue and pizza offerings, Rack & Helen’s offers Mexican fare. But the dish I had – chicken enchiladas – fell short. The dish was OK, but not up to par with most Mexican restaurants. The stewed chicken inside was moist and stringy, the beans and rice on the side were fine and there was plenty of cheese on top, but the dish lacked any heat or Mexican flair.

The item that disappointed most at Rack & Helen’s was something I have had before and really enjoyed. The Big Rack Burger is a “Man vs. Food” type item with two 9-ounce Angus beef patties, six slices of cheese – American, pepperjack and Swiss – and two servings of bacon, lettuce, tomatoes and pickles.

It was a big sloppy mess, and would have been great had the patties not been badly overcooked. I was not asked what temperature I wanted the burgers, and extra well done was not what I had in mind. Even all the delicious toppings couldn’t mask how poor these gray patties were. I would get it again, but would be sure to tell my server I want the meat medium-rare.

The service was spotty overall at Rack & Helen’s. It was packed – as it is most of the time – and my servers had trouble keeping up during both visits. The biggest negative, however, is that it still allows smoking inside. It is well ventilated, so the smoke is not too bothersome, but you can tell as soon as you walk in that cigarettes are burning.

And you will smell like those cigarettes when you leave, which is too bad because I would rather walk away smelling like those scrumptious smoked chicken wings.

Restaurant: Rack & Helen’s

Address: 525 Broadway St., New Haven

Phone: 749-5396

Hours: 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday, Monday and Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday (kitchen closes at varying times depending on demand)

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Smoking status: Smoking throughout

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: No

Menu: Wings ($11.49), Big Rack Burger ($15.99), Rack’s Special ($8.49), Big Pig ($9.49 for 6-inch; $15.49 12-inch), half rack of ribs ($13.50), sausage and pepperoni roll ($10.48)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1 /2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.

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