Given the cost of gas and the current economic climate, you may find yourself staying close to home this summer. There is no shortage of things to do in the Pioneer Valley and probably no shortage of things to do around the house as well.
That’s all well and good, but sometimes you’ve just gotta say “road trip.” And, often in the same breath, “barbecue.” Bub’s is good, but when you want a trip longer than the drive to Sunderland, you’ll want to think Curtis. That is, Curtis’ Ninth Wonder of the World Barbeque in Putney, Vt., and its sister restaurant, Curtis’ All American Restaurant in Chester, Vt.
The relative merits of ribs versus pork shoulder versus beef brisket can start a fight pretty much anywhere in the United States. (Chicken is always an afterthought, and sausages, no matter how good, are more of an appetizer.) Curtis competes in the rib category so we’ll limit our discussion to ribs. Some rules apply: If you parboil your ribs before cooking, you automatically lose. If you apply the sauce too soon, your ribs burn. To tell if a rib is truly done, squeeze between two bones. The meat should be tender and juicy and pull off the bone with just a touch of resistance.
Putney is just north of Brattleboro at Exit 4 of Route 91. Curtis’ Ninth Wonder of the World Barbeque (802-387-5474; www.curtisbbqvt.com) is located on Route 5 north right next to the Mobil station. Curtis Tuff came to Putney about 50 years ago and started working at the Green Mountain Orchards. Some teachers at the Putney School asked him to help barbecue a pig for one of their events and one thing led to another. In 1978, he opened the Ninth Wonder Barbeque, housed in two blue school buses that he used to take his ‘que on the road.
The pit is off one of the buses and the ribs and chicken are passed inside to be portioned out. Once you get your meal, you take it to a picnic table. Sides include corn muffins, baked beans, collard greens, cole slaw and potato salad. There is no beer or wine, but there is a line of Curtis’ bottled sodas. This year, Every Day With Rachael Ray magazine named Curtis’ sauce the best hot and spicy sauce in the country.
Curtis’ ribs go from package to grill, with no parboiling or marinating involved, and they have a good smoke flavor. The sauce goes on at the end, producing a dark red burnish. When Curtis himself is cooking, say on a Saturday afternoon, the ribs are hot and the sauce is red and spicy. Once the ribs cool off, the smoke flavor can get a little creosote-y unless they are reheated well, which is typical of barbecued meat.
Three out of four of us thought the chicken was a little dry; the holdout was my wife, a Southern girl to the last, who likes her fowl well-done. Compared to Bub’s Hot Bar, being charged for each side seems miserly, but you’ll want to order a few just to round out the meal. Curtis’ baked beans are first-rate, just toothy enough to let you know they’re homemade. The collards are well cooked, but they could use a little vinegar or hot sauce to perk up the flavor. The corn muffin is sweet and moist.
Curtis’ is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. until dusk, from early April through the end of October. I’d suggest driving up on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. The food is served hotter and the sides taste better on the weekend.
If you’re feeling adventurous and it’s a nice day, you may want to try Chester. However, if hunger overtakes you on the way, or you need an appetizer, I highly recommend FAT FRANKS in Bellows Falls (92 Rockingham St., Bellows Falls, 802-463-4388). Its tag line, The Wurst Place in Bellows Falls, tells you all you need to know. Do not make the mistake, as I did, of calling the gentleman behind the counter Frank. His name is Jim and the restaurant gets its name from the size of its hot dogs. When you walk in, you are confronted by a case of Italian, lamb, Andouille and other locally made sausages as well as a menu with a half dozen variations on the frankfurter and hamburger. The sausage case always sidetracks me so I have yet to taste the frankfurters, which I bet are excellent. The lamb sausage topped with caramelized onions is worth the detour.
The Chester restaurant is off Exit 6, on Route 103 South. There are signs inside the restaurant with three or four names for the place, but Curtis’ All American Restaurant seems to be the official one. It’s located at 908 Route 103, Chester, 802-875-6999 (www.curtisbbqvt.com/NewPlace.html).
The restaurant is owned by Curtis’ daughter, Sarah Tuff, and her fiancée, Chris Parker. The day we stopped there, Sarah and Chris were off serving barbecue at an all-day music festival, but we ate there anyway. I’m glad we did. I’m going to go out on a limb here and recommend the restaurant in Chester over the stand in Putney.
Curtis’ All American Restaurant is on the way to the Okemo ski area and does most of its business in the winter, meaning that you can satisfy those mid-winter barbecue cravings.There is pulled pork and, on Fridays, beef brisket. And there is sweet tea. Nothing beats homemade sweet tea with barbecue unless it is beer, which the restaurant also sells. But, based on subjective taste tests and the presumption that many of the sides are probably made in one place and trucked to the other, I think the food is better at the restaurant. The ribs are big and meaty, and reheated properly. The chicken is juicier. And the counter help is far, far friendlier.
Besides, you can drop in at the VERMONT COUNTRY STORE (www.vermontcountrystore.com) on Route 103 on your way back. A mixture of tourist-kitsch and old-style New England sundries, it truly has something for everyone (I bought authentic soda crackers) and a stop there will give the barbecue a chance to settle.
Originally published, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Friday, July 18, 2008