Located on the main drag next to a handy parking lot, Nat Hayden's is a tiny over-the-counter operation with less than a handful of tables. You order, move down the line, ten pick up your order and pay at the end. There's an old-time feel to both the physical space and the manner of service. The smoker is a Cookshack.
The straightforward menu has the "basic four" of pork ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket and smoked chicken, plus sausage, beef shortribs and specialty sandwiches like the brisket "burger" (brisket with burger-like toppings). Large, thick cookies are more than eye-catching near the check-out area.
Two visits spaced more than a year apart caught Nat Hayden's for a Friday dinner and a Saturday lunch with different barbecue sidekicks for each mission. Even with a fifteen month gap, there wasn't much difference between the two visits.
Both visits skipped the appetizers. I was tempted to try the chili on visit #2, but it was off the menu.
Ribs: Very lightly sauced pork ribs from the second visit had a well developed but barely crisp crust. The meat was moist (though shy of juicy) and extremely tender, cooked well past what I consider ideal. The smoke was very noticeable. Aside from smoke, the flavor was reticent, but the tableside sauces picked the ribs up a bit. On the first visit, we tried the ribs both sauced and unsauced: the latter had similar flavor and texture; sauced ribs were more enjoyable.
Pulled pork: Large chunks and long strings of pork were perfectly tender with a chickeny consistency and flavor. Smoke was lighter here than on the ribs; overall flavor was similarly subdued. Sauce was hardly necessary for moisture but added a needed boost in flavor.
Sausage: Crisp outside, moist and nominally smoky inside, this was enjoyable. I only had a small taste, so I don't remember the flavor specifics.
Chicken: As is the case with many barbecue joints using a Cookshack, chicken was the highlight on the first visit and very good on the second visit. Both times the skin was borderline crisp and the meat was tender, steamy moist and pleasantly smoky without tasting oversmoked. The second visit brought more of an interesting herbal flavor to complement the smoke.
Brisket: Of the four meats sampled, only the brisket had a smoke ring, and it was prominent, hugging an extra crisp crust. Overall texture was about average, with some of the slices defying the promising apperance with a near pot roasty consistency. Smoky and beefy, the brisket had a decent flavor without offering anything noteworthy.
Two sauces grace the table in squeeze bottles. The darker sweet sauce is surprisingly thin (closer in viscosity to maple syrup than ketchup) and is mostly molasses with an assortment of background flavors. The redder hot sauce has the same consistency, more spiciness and some added pepperiness and tang. A third bottle, available only at the counter, is a Carolina sauce that's equally sweet and tangy.
Sides are a bright spot, so much so that I'd consider a return visit more for them than for the adequate but undistinguished smoked fare. The mashed potatoes and gravy are light and silky and full of potato flavor. A biscuit is almost light, but a pleasant greasiness is welcome. The cole slaw is both crisp and super creamy, with fierce tanginess making it so much more than a foil for the meats. Potato salad ups the ante even further with a condiment that's not so creamy but full of pungent spark from vinegar and vegetables. Mac and cheese is the tight Southern style that offers no cheese flow, but the buttery cracker crumbs still give it plenty of richness. Garlicky collards are well past wilting and have a cooked down flavor intensity that suggests bacon as a major player. Saucy rice and beans are the surprise hit: slightly sweet under the dark brown sludge, slightly spicy and more than slightly addictive. Grainy cornbread goes against the grain stylistically with a shorter, wider cut and a corny flavor that's more savory than sweet.
The Bottom Line
Nat Hayden's isn't going to blow you away with barbecue to tell your grandchildren about, but it's an honest brand of 'cue in a cozy shop that does a lot of the peripheral things right.
Urbanspoon reviews of Nat Hayden's Real Pit Barbecue