Not long after we moved up here, we were in Manhattan with our friends Tracy and Anne Spillman from Little Rock - and by chance we stumbled across a two-story restaurant called Virgil's Real Barbecue. Their placemats sported a U.S. map with several all-star barbecue joints singled out. This included McClard's Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs, a wonderful spot whose co-owner, Scott McClard, happened to have been Tracy's college roommate. Meaning: we'd know if BBQ was real.
It was pretty damned good that day, and we were excited, then, when Virgil decided to expand his empire with a restaurant in the Mohegan Sun Casino. It opened several months back in the same location once occupied by Big Bubba's BBQ, and apparently part of the segue was that Virgil got to keep the sports team pennants and kitsch you'd find in a Hollywood warehouse containing props from "The Dukes of Hazzard."
Steep prices suggest Virgil is proud of his work. But the portions are massive and you might end up with a several doggie bags. Even so, it's hard to ignore an appetizer selection that includes trash ribs - small pork ribs that have been marinated an extended period of time before smoking - alongside Virgil's take on staples such as crab cakes, wings and nachos. Crispy hush puppies ($8.95) are exotically seasoned cornmeal flash-fried in hot oil with a crisp outer husk and moist interior. A maple-happy soft butter spread accompanies - and it's all brilliant in concept and execution.
Trash ribs ($9.95) are a happy bargain. Served with a fine potato salad anchored in mustard rather than mayo, there's a heap of riblets slathered in a spicy/sweet sauce - a truly fun mess. Use your fork to peel the meat from the bones, spear a bit of potato salad - and let it all hop on your tongue.
My wife Eileen, being a vegetarian, loves the Manhattan Virgil's because of their phenomenal grilled vegetable salad - which has over time included grilled bok choy, asparagus and mushrooms. Ingredients, that is, extending way beyond what she calls the "we don't care about vegetarians" trinity of zucchini, green bell pepper and summer squash.
At the Sun, despite fewer "exotic" veg options, she was still happy with their edition of the grilled vegetable salad ($13.95). While relying on two-thirds of the trinity - summer squash and zucchini - they are flavorfully grilled, along with eggplant. Also among the mixed greens are big strips of red cabbage for a great crunch, big hunks of tomato, kalamata olives, red bell peppers, cucumbers, shredded carrots, and cheddar and bleu cheese. The Maytag bleu cheese dressing is somehow both subtle and rich.
Sandwich options include flat dogs, pulled chicken or pork and burgers. As a Texan, though, I went straight to the heart of the matter - and was hugely disappointed with the Sliced Fat Sandwich because there was a small hunk of brisket in there.
Oh, wait. I've got it backwards! I ordered a Sliced Texas Beef Brisket sandwich ($14.95) and was presented with bun containing globs of fat with a small portions of dry and flavorless meat. Look, I understand that brisket fans come in two camps; some like the beef totally lean and others want a bit of fat for flavor. But this was basically inedible and gave me the creeps.
However - thankfully - that turned out to be my only bad experience.
The Southern Surf 'n' Turf ($23.95) comes with a skewer of four large, delicately seasoned shrimp and a choice of the house smoked meats. I selected Carolina pulled pork, which was a pillowy mound of shredded hog. It's very tender, lean, with a bit of crisped bark for contrast - all tangled with a sweet and vinegar tang that compliments but doesn't overpower the pork flavor.
A word, too, about those all-important sides. With sandwiches and platters, you'll get to choose from the likes of mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, cheddar cheese grits, collard greens with ham hock, and cole slaw (or $5.99 each if you want to pick 'n' choose your own combo meal). Big portions and, from our choices, the cheese grits were flavorful and textured and the collards a bit too sweet but still welcome in this part of the world.
Virgil's Sun location doesn't match up with the true greats of the South and Midwest, but a lot of the food is good and it's very nice to have in the area.