(02/11/12) (02/20/12) (06/23/12)
A lonely building that looks like a former residence has the misfortune to be off the beaten path and across the street from a graveyard, but free and easy parking and close-enough proximity to Southern Connecticut State University and Dixwell Avenue compensate, making HanBone's BBQ an ideal takeout joint. The over-the-counter service and lack of sit down dining further that approach, though you can take advantage of the narrow counter against the back wall for a stand-up dine-in experience. Aside from a huge chalkboard menu and some attractive showcases housing homestyle sides, there's not much going on for decor. The meats are stored in steamtables in full view, while more kitchen activity is visible further back, where there's a Southern Pride electric smoker.
A streamlined meanu sticks to barbecue and sticks to the basics, offering the standard four of St Louis pork ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket and smoked quartered chicken, plus chopped brisket, chopped chicken, smoked wings and rib tips. The full ribs can be had as single bones ("HanBones"), half racks and racks, but not in the 2- and 3-meat combos that include only the boneless meats. Chicken with bones is available as dark quarters.
I scattered three visits over a four month period, hitting HanBones on two weekday afternoons and one Saturday afternoon.
Ribs: A one-third rack of St Louis cut spares ($6.99 with one side) from the first visit yielded four bones, each bearing a considerable would-be crust that had lost most of its sturdiness during storage, reheating and holding phases. The high rub content still managed to infuse some flavor, fully permeating the ribs. Tenderness was high, edging toward overtender but still within range. The moist, steamy meat had little to no smokiness but did carry a faint floral/herbal flavor that was unique and pleasant.
The second visit delivered the same floral qualities while stepping up the texture: the exterior had some much needed sturdiness and the interior proved tender without drifting into soggy.
The third visit's ribs were backsliders, donning plenty of rub but swapping the floral for a Shake 'n' Bake feel that was slightly wet. The inner meat this time around had just a hint of moisture. Smoke was again low.
Pulled pork: Light of color and light of bark, the pulled pork in the 2-meat platter ($10.99 with one side) had decent moistness, decent tenderness and a very light flavor that wielded no smoky bite. This might have succeeded a little better in a sandwich but was a little bland on its own.
This profile mostly repeated itself on the follow-up visits. The sandwich from visit 2 had much improved bark but declining moisture. Visit 3 showed a virtually monotone product in the combo, but bark continued to improve, moistness erupted with full juiciness and texture was just about perfect. Unfortunately, flavor was nowhere to be found without relying on a sauce addition.
Brisket: On the first visit, the most dazzling meat in the showcase ("I want that, whatever it is!") managed to combine a rub-heavy, fully crispy crusty exterior with a moist and tender interior. Again there was very little smoke, but that same floral essence that characterized the early ribs was in play here. The rub was pleasant but not as intense as its quantity suggested. Overall, the brisket was enjoyable on its own or dipped in sauce, but showed potential to be something special down the road if smoke and rub levels increase.
After skipping brisket on visit 2, I hit it again the next time, finding long, thick slices rimmed with fat but fat free throughout the body. These had the same light rub, less of a crust, a little more smoke (still light) and not that much moisture. While that first batch was great for eating on its own, this one was a better candidate for a sandwich with sauce.
Initially, the Carolina and Chipotle sauces both had the same base (tomato), the same consistency (midway between thick and thin) and a very similar marinara flavor that varied slightly in their sweet, hot and sour intensities. These coated the dipped ribs well without overpowering, but were a little too tomatoey for my taste. The most recent visit found the vinegar sauce thinner and zippier, with some light sweetness for depth. This distinguished itself nicely and served as a better complement to the pork.
Sides overall were a hit.
Cole slaw: Two kinds are available. The home style was crunchy and as herbal as the ribs, bringing refreshing dill with each bite.
Collards: Cooked just to the brink of wilting, the large, dark green leaves bathed in a punch-packing broth that also packed numerous bits of garlic.
Beans: Very ordinary and possibly canned, these had a tomatoey feel.
Mac and cheese: Well coated and creamy, this rendition was midway between mild and sharp.
Cornbread: By far the most moist of any cornbread stored and served in cellophane, it had a twinkielike texture with a light liquid coating that tasted sweet upon first bite and buttery down the stretch. This is a surprise hit.
The Bottom Line
The barbecue at HanBones has been low on smoke and color with inconsistent texture and flavor, but there have been flashes of positivity. Some other positive attributes (good sides, big portions, incredibly low prices and friendly staff) leave me watchful for future improvement.
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