Published October 27. 2011 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 10:49AM
If, like myself, you're a committed Epicurean - which is to say, a hoggy glutton - being afflicted with Bell's Palsy presents a cruel irony. Here's how it works.
BP, in case you don't know, is a nerve affliction wherein half of your face basically droops and freezes in that position. At this time of year, a particularly apt metaphor would be to imagine a before/after jack-o'-lantern, where one half of the gourd is freshly carved and chipper and ready for the Big Night. The other half, though, is like the pumpkin two weeks into November, when it's all rotted and saggy.
Well, I've got the damned thing. It's not painful, particularly, and the condition typically goes away after a few weeks, but it IS a bit annoying. As such, Epicurus would recommend the proper way to deal with the irritant factors of Bell's Palsy would be to consume huge quantities of comfort food and liquor.
Precisely because of the palsy, one side of my visage doesn't work! To eat, I have to finesse tiny bites of food into the right side of my mouth and chew carefully so my shark-like incisors don't rip apart the deadened left half of my tongue and gums.
Ah, screw it.
I headed to Big Bubba's BBQ in Mohegan Sun because they have a lot of comfort food, and also because I haven't eaten there in years and it was time to see what they've been up to. I'd figure out a way to ingest the stuff, I decided.
Like anything associated with a casino, Bubba's is an exercise in overkill. Eight-hundred-foot ceilings, casually overstylized roadhouse décor, plenty of kitschy neon and old-timey signs - and a bar area with several big screens tuned to sporting events and festooned with numerous college football pennants and helmets.
It's a very calculated set-up but fun, anyway.
Peter "Hopps" Huoppi, the Day's video wizard, accompanied me on my comfort mission because, as the father of a 2-year-old, he could cut my food into tiny pieces. Plus, he's a burgeoning barbecue and Southern food explorer, and I wanted to get his fresh take.
One caveat: ribs were out of the question. Part of the fun of eating ribs is the big, sloppy, rip-the-meat-off-the-bone-with-your-fangs process. Obviously, that wasn't going to happen.
But there's plenty besides ribbage on the Bubba's menu: various combos of pulled pork, brisket, chicken, sausage and lamb; fried chicken, meat loaf, chicken fried steak; shrimp, jambalaya, catfish, steaks; po'boys and burgers; fresh veggies and sides like dirty rice, greens and mac 'n' cheese; huge salads, desserts and appetizers ?
The first thing to know about food at Bubba's is that A) it isn't cheap and B) one of the reasons is that portions are insanely large. So while there are tempting appetizers including barbecue shrimp, nachos, trash ribs and wings, it's best to be conservative. One app should suffice, so we opted for fries with cheese and roast beef gravy ($7.95). You get a huge bowl of long fries, slathered in a sort of cheese sauce you'd expect on ballpark nachos, and with a modest infusion of brown gravy. While a much higher gravy: cheese ratio would have been preferred, it was still gooey greatness and we ate far too many of them.
I ordered Tallulah's Chicken Fried Steak ($16.95), a huge tenderloin lovingly smashed into license plate-thin pliability, floured and deep fried, and covered in cream gravy. The meat was heartbreakingly tender and void of connective tissue, the exterior brittle and crisp, and, with a dousing of hot sauce for incendiary accent, it was glorious. Entrees come with cornbread and two sides, and I chose country greens and dirty rice.
The former were finely diced and augmented with vinegar and bits of turkey. Beautiful. Bubba's take on dirty rice, a Louisiana dish, has white rice browned by bacon bits (instead of livers or giblets) and infused with celery, onion and bell pepper. It was toothsome but a bit bland. But to mix the rice into the steak gravy, sprinkle some greens, and take a big comingling bite was truly a fine thing.
Hopps experimented with the two meat combo ($20.95), selecting pulled pork and chicken. The huge heap of shredded pork was a revelation - an exercise in lean, tender glory underscored by a hickory infusion. Every time Hopps looked up at the big screen showing Sports Center, I'd steal another forkful.
His chicken was a more modestly sized joint of thigh and breast. Again, the meat was beautifully cooked for maximum succulence - and the skin, expertly crisped with an almost brulee-style exterior, provided a smokey, contrapuntal sweetness.
For sides, I introduced him to cheese grits, which he pronounced intriguing though, given the cheese overdose of our appetizer, perhaps unnecessary, along with another new experience for him: Cajun green beans. These are clipped length of bean that have been mixed with a spicy tomato broth. Great flavor, but the beans need to maintain a snappy texture and these got soggy quickly.
Small complaints, though. Bubba's is a nice Comfort Oasis, helped me keep the Palsy at bay, and served as a further intro for Hopps into the culinary possibilities of the Great South.