Barbeque took a circuitous route to land in Connecticut. The root word, possiblybarbacoa, is reportedly Carib indian for cooking food on a raised grate over a fire. This, then, is Barbeque: the verb. You may hear people using the word this way as we approach the Fourth of July: "hot dogs, hamburgers, we're having a barbeque." Historically correct or not, I am not down with the verb: "barbeque" is a noun. It is meat - deeply, carefully smoked - and the goal is a harmonic balance of aroma and flavor, the joining together of fire and food.
The path to opening the new H'Cue Texas BBQ in Derby has as many twists, turns, stops and starts as the route to its spiritual home in Lockhart, Texas. Chef and owner Heath Klarsfeld and H'Cue COO Kevin McGhee met during college in Boston. Kevin had just attended the California School of Culinary Arts, and Heath was on his way to the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan (now the International C.I.). The two bounced around the country - Kevin to work in L.A., Heath to Carolina, where he learned smoking from Kevin Pomplun (Fatty Crab, Fish&Game), the pair reuniting at Inside Park in Manhattan. Heath moved on to Hill Country BBQ in Manhattan, where he was trained by the staff of Kreuz Market, a top-two landmark of Texas BBQ.
"That was it," he told CTBites. "When you have a vision, you know what you want to do.It's all set pieces after that." His next step brought him to Connecticut, where he opened Atelier Florian in New Haven. A purveyor knew the owner of Zoe's in New Haven had a space in Derby he was looking to leave. Kevin and Heath opened H'Cue in that spot, just off the Derby green, this February.
H'Cue is a traditional BBQ joint setup inside. A small cafeteria line is backed by the menu on several chalkboards, and tables are evenly spaced throughout a bright space. There are a few decorations, but none of the forced clutter and neon "Hey, y'all!" signs of somewhere in need of purchased authenticity.
"The great thing about barbeque is the service style is low overhead and lets us focus on the food," said McGhee.
The pork is a Red Wattle heritage breed, and the beef is Angus or Hereford. The pork is sourced from Pennsylvania, but all the brisket beef is from Texas. So too, is the wood which produces all the smoke at H'Cue, comprised of 75% Texas Post Oak, and 25% pecan wood.
There are plenty of soft drinks on the menu, mostly Stubborn sodas with a few interesting options like orange hibiscus, and a selection of draft beers including local options from Two Roads, Hooker, and a dedicated Black Hog tapline. Shiner Bock is another necessary, and permanent, fixture.
In several trips to H'Cue before I made my presence known for this post I ate my way around the menu. My judgement?
This is real barbeque.
H'Cue's food shows the hallmarks of people who understand the details of BBQ. One of my first clues was, perversely, plain white bread. Most of my BBQ experience is in the deep south, where cheap, soft, white bread is ubiquitous for use both as a sop and in sandwich construction. The best BBQ is often made outside cinderblock cubes down dirt roads; it's people's food, and it's served with inexpensive bread. Seeing it on my plate of takeout was like a coded message.
The bread was laid on top of a paper tray of house made pickles, raw onion slices, and jalapenos, for use at the eater's discretion. The pickles are sweet, a little spicy, and a perfect condiment alongside pulled pork. Like a plain cheese pie at a new pizza place, pulled pork is my yardstick for all BBQ. H'Cue's passes the test. The meat itself has been fully permeated by the oak and pecan smoke, and hasn't been shredded into confetti. Larger chunks and bits of delicious skin and bark remain, suggesting it was in fact hand-pulled. My one reservation is I prefer my pork just as it emerged from the smoker, and H'Cue mixes in some sauce before you see it, but the possible faux pas is forgiven by reason of deliciousness.
A word on sauces:
The H'Cue Slather sauce, as is found on the pork, does not take the generally accepted molasses route for a base. It begins with crushed pineapple, which is then cooked down for a sweet start before being spiced up.
The Sweet Kansas City sauce does use molasses, but skips around the usual ketchup base of most BBQ sauces. H'Cue begins by smoking sweet onions, then caramelizes them through baking, and adds roasted tomatoes and handfulls of spice.
"It's about a six hour cook to make a batch," said McGhee. The result is nearly an intoxicant.
A mustard based Carolina Red sauce is available, with a little tomato for color, but you - thanks to reading so far - now know about the secret (well, not now) Alabama White BBQ sauce. This last is a mayonnaise base with horseradish, vinegar, and a serious dose of black pepper. It's applied to some of the sandwiches at H'Cue, but they'll bring you some if you know to ask for it.
The ribs, available in a single serving, 1/2 or full rack, need nothing, in my opinion. They arrive with a thin, sticky bark of sauce, smoke, and fat, underlain by a bright pink smoke ring. The bones were in good condition, which has been a problem at a few other local joints, and the meat separates from them easily.
So what else?
Burnt ends - the most heavily done points off a cut of brisket - are available on their own at H'Cue as supplies last, or made into a smokey, spicy chili. I can't recommend this side highly enough. Likewise with the purple cabbage cole slaw, which provides a bright, crunchy, tart counterpoint to all this unctuous goodness.
I have been - and I can't believe this either - I have been to more than one purported BBQ shop in this state which didn't even serve mac and cheese. Heresy, I know, but I'm telling you I've seen it. H'Cue is not one, and the yellow cheddar gold which is served over shells also finds its way onto one of their fringe creations, the Steak Sammy, made with sliced tri-tip steak, cooked onions and the cheese sauce.
A new addition to the menu, The End Of The Universe, is for the brave, or possibly just those returning from a lost month in the woods. In a toasted Portuguese roll: shredded brisket, pulled pork, German potato salad, cheddar cheese, lettuce, and those house pickles, all topped with a fried egg. If you're still hungry, the sweet potato pie I had, topped with a reduced beer and molasses drizzle, was light and airy - almost a sweet custard above a flaky crust.
If one of your coronary arteries trembled in fear just reading that, know you may order a salad such as the Big Tex (I had to try one, it was too improbable.) Said 'Tex is a base of spinach and mixed greens with pecans, crunchy onions, and oranges with what turned out to be a seriously good chipotle vinegar dressing. Not to be protein deficient, it came with smoked chicken which was better than I've had from any deli, but was a bit dry. I saved this and made a bomber sandwich with it a few days later.
"We adapted a little bit, adding sandwiches and salad to make sure people in Connecticut are happy, but we're not interested in anyone's 'take' on Texas barbeque," said Klarsfeld. "This IS Texas barbeque."
H'Cue has a full bar downstairs which opens at 4:00. There are a good number of seats and a pool table, and a full menu is available. Sharply pickled deviled eggs made an excellent snack on their own - the whipped yolks are mixed with bits of pulled pork. They arrive in fives, and an order paired with jalapeno corn bread and a link of hot smoked sausage makes outstanding finger food paired with a few beers.
It was a long and winding road for BBQ to get to Connecticut, and it has a new destination in Derby.