BBQ in Hampden County
By Gina Beavers, Photos by Dan Little
It may seem like ancient history now, but a few weeks back we were celebrating spring’s hard-won victory over a rather cruel winter. As the bitter chills of winter subsided and spring stretched wide her arms to shake off her deep slumber, verdant spears of asparagus reminded us that lighter and brighter culinary fare was on the horizon. And that, eventually, those light flavors of spring would succumb to the full-throated tastes of summer.
While few would argue that the fertile soil of Western Mass yields some of the finest summer crops in the country, even fewer would deny their love for one of summer’s more delicious rites of passage: barbecue.
American barbecue is more a religion than a culinary genre, a time-honored summer tradition from coast to coast. But what makes barbecue a thing? From the diner’s perspective, it’s usually about the tender and flavorful meats dished up without the worry of beautiful plating or clean fingers. From the chef’s perspective, it’s the science.
“It’s the knowledge that it takes to make good barbecue,” says Chef Rich Daviau, owner of Damn Yankees BBQ in Holyoke. “You have to know your cuts of meat and you have to know what types of wood go with those meats. You have to know what flavor profile you’re going for.”
Of course, barbecue hasn’t always been the high art it is now; meat has been smoked and roasted since before history was recorded. Through trial, error, and inarguably gourmet touches of genius, barbecue is a global mainstay.
When we think about barbecue, however, we tend to think about the South rather than New England. And unlike Chef Daviau, most of us are far from being pit masters. The art of making fine barbecue, therefore, might be best left to those in the know. So if you haven’t mastered your grill or if it’s just too darned hot to fire up your backyard pit, check out the Southern side of the lower Pioneer Valley.
Theodore’s BBQ: Blues, Booze & BBQ
Theodore’s BBQ is a bonafide fan favorite situated in the 200 block of Worthington Street in downtown Springfield. It’s been in the same location for almost 40 years and is, at once, quaint and gritty—sweet and sour, if you will—the perfect balance. Family-friendly, the tables are covered with brown butcher paper, perfect for doodling with the crayons provided, or catching stray morsels from your relaxed Southern comfort-style meal.
“We smoke our own pork, brisket, chicken, and ribs with apple or hickory wood. The pork and brisket can take up to 12 or 13 hours to smoke. The chicken and ribs take about six hours,” says Keith Weppler, who co-owns Theodore’s BBQ with Keith Makarowski. The process, however, is never the same, he says. “From the amount of the wood to the weight of the meat … it’s different every single day.”
As for the rest of the menu: “We make most of it from scratch including our barbecue sauce.” The extensive menu includes three types of ribs, hamburgers, and house specials like jambalaya and smoked meatloaf dinner. Theodore’s also offers vegetarian options and a vegan and gluten-free black bean burger. Upon finishing your meal, Weppler recommends one particular treat: “You … have to try our bourbon bread pudding.”
Besides good food, this downtown institution can boast great live music throughout the week. If you want to hang out for a while, they’re open until 2am on the weekend.
201 Worthington St., Springfield
Monday–Friday 11am–11pm, Saturday 5pm–2am
Sun Kim Bop
Barbecue is a worldwide tradition. From the Caribbean to Korea, you can travel the globe and discover delicious meats prepared for smoking or grilling.
For Korean barbecue, or gogi-gui, there’s Sun Kim Bop in downtown Springfield. Sun Kim Bop began as a hardworking food truck in 2013. Owner Sun Kim shuttled between Amherst, Springfield, and many other towns for lunch rushes, festivals, and events.
A native of Seoul, South Korea, Kim launched the food truck to introduce the Valley to the tastes of her home. “I learned cooking from my mom,” she says. “So I make my food … from scratch.” The truck’s popularity led her to open the brick-and-mortar location in 2017.
The open and airy restaurant is part of a slowly reviving strip of businesses on Main Street across the street from the MassMutual Center and a block from Springfield’s Court Square. Kim says that in spite of the early breakfast hours, the bulk of traffic happens during lunch.
Sun Kim Bop provides tastes of Korean street food including Korean BBQ short ribs or galbi. Scored and marinated, the bone-in beef ribs are smoked and served with a side of spicy Korean BBQ sauce. The meat is smokey and tastes very different from its American cousin.
The marinade is very light. “It’s all natural,” Chief Cook Gerald Gerardo says of the marinade. “It’s soy sauce, ground garlic, ginger, onion, lemon juice, white cooking wine, and sugar.” Served with white rice (bop) and a green salad, the dish is perfect for summer.
Gerardo’s quick tip about the kicky BBQ sauce: “It’s a little on the salty side, so a little goes a long way.”
Sun Kim Bop
1244 Main St., Springfield
Thursday and Friday 8:30am–8pm
Saturday 11am–2pm and 4pm–8pm
Damn Yankees BBQ & Catering
Damn Yankees sits above a stretch of the Connecticut River and just feet away from a busy section of Holyoke’s Main Street. At first sight, you might not realize there’s a restaurant inside the unassuming brick building (better known as the Waterfront Tavern), which perhaps makes Chef Rich Daviau’s joint the best-kept secret in town.
Chef Daviau says that “to get good barbecue is really hard,” but he’s been serving it for years. Daviau is an undisputed barbecue expert and learned the art of smoking meat from some of the best pit masters in the South. With over 30 years of experience in the kitchen, Daviau opened Damn Yankees in 2015 and hasn’t looked back. Inspired by Sun Kim Bop, he expanded last year, taking his BBQ on the road with a food truck.
Damn Yankees churns out a variety of 12- to 18-hour slow-cooked meats six days a week. But when asked about the perfect Damn Yankees dining experience, Chef Daviau says, “Get the brisket.”
Of course, it can’t be all meat, all the time. Daviau says he has an appreciation for sustainable agriculture and purchases his summer produce from local farms including McKinstry’s Market Garden in Chicopee, his hometown.
Damn Yankees also provides backyard barbecues with custom menus. And because it’s New England, they’ll serve up a classic clambake and raw bar, crawfish and crab boil to satisfy traditional Yankee tastes.
Damn Yankees BBQ & Catering
920 Main St., Holyoke