Review Date: 10/02/15
Visit Dates: (06/06/15) (07/04/15) (08/28/15) (09/25/15)
There's a bit of a Cowboys and Indians theme going on that might scare some into thinking that Hoodoo Brown Barbeque is one of those 1980s era barbecue joints relying more on sauce than smoke, but those fears should be quickly quelled by the custom Lang smokers in the exhibition meat prep area, visible through a 5x8 window at the rear of the dining room. Other stereotypical touches include fort-like columns and beam brackets, some corrugated aluminum walls, reclaimed wood everywhere else, a Texas state flag fashioned from wood planks, steer horns, photos of western rogues and Westerns playing on a TV in the main dining room. A few different nooks and crannies make the seating a bit more roomy than it actually is, and much more fun. The larger tables are seated communal style, so if your party of four gets seated at a table for eight, don't get too used to the extra space.
A separate bar area has a very long bar and plenty of standing room.
Owner Cody Sperry got the barbecue bug after a trip to Austin that led to a dozen barbecue joints. That, in turn, led to barbecue as a hobby, which led to a barbecue catering business, which led to a barbecue restaurant. For Hoodoo Brown he joined forces with pitmaster Nestor Laracuente, who's manned the pits at New York City barbecue joints Dinosaur, Smokin' Q, Harley's and most recently Hometown.
Parking can be a bit hard to come by, but there are many more spaces around the back. It'll give you a chance to check out the smokers on the way in, taking a back door into the bar.
Don't be put off by the Hoodoo Brown website's rhetoric on "Texas Outlaw Barbeque" and "The Baddest Barbeque Around." Sure, the bar can get loud, but this is a comfortable family restaurant; the servers are as wholesome as can be.
But if you're wondering where the name Hoodoo Brown came from, here's an exerpt from their website:
Leader of the notorious "Dodge City Gang," Hoodoo Brown was the baddest cowboy of them all. A bank robber, cattle herder, justice of the peace, moonshiner and cook, Hoodoo Brown epitomized life in the Wild West. We celebrate Hoodoo Brown's spirit and authenticity by cooking the best Texas barbecue on the planet... or at least right here in Ridgefield.
Appetizers include smoked wings, BBQ nachos with brisket or pork, Texas poutine with brisket debris and cheese curds, fried green tomatoes and a few different salads that start out vegetarian with the option of adding smoked meat. Barbecue meats include St Louis pork ribs, beef short ribs, sliced brisket, pulled pork, "cracklin' pork belly," smoked turkey, "crispy smoked chicken" and two varieties of smoked sausage. All of the meats are sold a la carte with sides available a la carte. There are no 2- or 3-meat combos other than large orders ($65 and up) for crowds. Sandwiches can be had straight up with pork, brisket or turkey or in more creative combos that include the aforementioned (combinations of meats, pork belly and fried green tomatoes, shaved ribs) as well as smoked meatballs. There's also a burger with a custom blend (brisket-shortrib-chuck), blackened catfish and chicken and waffles.
I made four pilgrimages to Hoodoo Brown, all for dinners: Friday and Saturday visits with different friends, a Friday visit solo and a Fourth of July visit with Young Bride. All of the visits were right at opening (as of this writing, they don't serve lunch, but it's coming).
Disclaimer: I was offered a free tasting prior to the restaurant's opening but did not attend. I paid for every meal, but knowing Nestor Laraquente well from visits to his previous joints, I was recognized on every visit.
Fried Green Tomatoes: Thick slices in crunchy breadcrumb shells ($9) rest on greenery that can be used for wrapping (a technique recommended by Young Bride). There's a good coating-to-tomato ratio and recognizable tartness in the tomato. They're cooked just enough to get the natural juices flowing and the natural sweetness alive. A dipping sauce straddles the line between remoulade and Thousand Island.
Wings: Tried on the first three visits, this appetizer ($9 for six) has shown steady progression. The opener delivered an appealing chickeny flavor and a solid Buffalo sauce but came up a little short in smoke and crispness.
The second visit's half dozen went with the Rajun Cajun flavor, a two-pronged wet and dry approach that to me didn't evoke Cajun flavors as much as Buffalo on steroids, but that's hardly a complaint. This packs a little heat, a lot of spice (different from heat) and that tang familiar to Buffalo wing fans. With all this going on, the smoke came peeking through and the chickeniness came roaring through. Most importantly, those plump bastards brought another two pronged attack: the missing crispness outside and a more potent juiciness inside.
On visit 3 the wing exteriors were closer to firm than downright crisp, but the other attributes repeated. Flavor was even more explosive.
What I liked a lot on all three tries was the intense chicken flavor heightened by the light smoke. And what I really liked, especially on the later tries that went with the Rajin' Cajun choice, was the very bold rub with a grab bag of components led by just-hot-enough cayenne. A pre-smoke brining process and some hot sauce used under the rub both round out the flavor tremendously. These very compelling wings made my annual Wings List as is, but would rank even higher with better crispness.
Pork Belly: If you're at all a fan of this item, Hoo Doo Brown's version ($12 per half pound) is a must try and very different from the New York City interpretations familiar to much of the pitmaster's following. Here, the belly is served as a bunch of 2.5-inch cubes, each looking like a brownie or better still a lasagna with layers of tender pork and melted fat, topped by the piece de resistance: an ultra crisp shell of crackly skin that contrasts brilliantly. A pool of pig juice will most likely be at the bottom.
"HooDoo VooDoo," served on the side, is a mix of diced tomatoes, peppers, vinegar and cilantro, inspired by the pitmaster's family recipe for "aji pique." Its brightness and acidity cut the heaviness of the pork.
Ask for a steak knife so that you can cut it in a way to get all of the layers in a single bite. (Separate the layers to trim the fat if you must, but still try to reassemble before eating.) The different layers will have different textures with different firmness levels, all tender and some melt-in-your-mouth tender with slurpy pig nectar. Flavor is fairly simple, relying on the natural pork to sing a capella. It's a virtuoso performance.
Sausage: Two different varieties (cheddar jalapeño; garlic Parmesan) made an easy add-on at $3 per link on the first two visits (slices on the first, links on the second). I viewed the sausage as one of the few less-than-impressive items on those visits. The casings weren't crisp and the soft interiors had unusual flavors that might have hit someone else more favorably than they did yours truly. On visit 4 I went back for another try at the cheddar jalapeño, finding it very different and much improved. It's now $5 per link (two for $9), but it's now much thicker and longer, perhaps a better value. More importantly, there's more snap, a torrent of juices (even though the surface is scored) and a very strong, very pleasing mix of smokiness and beefiness out front, with the integrated cheddar adding complexity and liquidity, and the jalapeño adding as much brightness as heat. I can't wait formy next one.
Cajun Corn on the Cob: The ubiquitous cobbed consumable ($4) based on Mexican street corn is available here too, listed in the sides section but also handy as an app. It gets a spicier-than-usual treatment.
Ribs: You get a very large serving of meat in the half rack ($18) whose ribs are both long and thick, and they're very aggressively rubbed with a sweet and savory mix. All three times I tried them, the flavor has been relentless, bringing a refreshing porkiness that stands up to the heavy rub. Smoke gets third billing. Tenderness has varied: all three times it's been within the window, but the first visit saw extreme tenderness while the third and fourth visits' ribs were more toothsome (I like them either way). Juiciness is constant. The smaller ribs at the end of the rack came in a little dry one time, but they compensated by throwing a few extra ribs in, still supplying six juicy ones. Overall, some solid ribs that would rank right up there with my favorites.
Beef Rib: Note that this is singular, not plural, though you can certainly order more than one. But it's a giant short rib, with about a pound and a half of meat on it, sold by the pound (expect $40+). So it's a commitment best enjoyed either as the only meat you have or as a shared item among a crowd. Don't worry, they'll be glad to slice it for easy dispensing. Coincidentally, it's not just the biggest item on the menu but also the most Texan; the austere rub consisting mostly of black pepper lets the beef shine brightest. There's enough fat in the cut that it comes out very moist, with the fat mostly rendered into a liquid lubricant (my one try on the first visit came out fully moist but not quite gushing). The thick crust is crunchy and that rub has impact. Further down, the interior is tender enough to wobble in spots. Chimichurri sauce, served on the side, is another condiment that uses acidity to tame the heaviness of the meat. If you have the hunger or the numbers to make it happen, the beef short rib is a must try and one of the best examples in the Northeast.
Pulled Pork Sandwich: Tried on the first visit, this hefty creation ($13 with fries) was just as tall,
as much from the brioche bun as the pork. Color, smoke, overall flavor
and moisture were all light, exacerbated by the breadiness of the bun.
As I always say in my burger reviews, there are many different
interpretations of brioche—some light, some dense; this was the
latter. Pitmaster Nestor was working the room and asked how everything was; I mentioned the mildness of the pulled pork. He came back with a ramekin of freshly pulled pork to try, and this had everything going on: bright color, lots of bark, running juices and intense smoky/porky flavor.
Pulled Pork: It wasn't until the fourth visit that I tried the pulled pork again, this time as an entree ($9 per half pound). This time the bright red color wasn't there, but all of the other positive attrubutes were on point, from the bark to the smoky/porky flavor tandem to the juicy, wilting shreds. To have sauced this serving would have been sacrilege.
Brisket: This is the pride of the HooDoo Brown menu, served in thick slices
($12 per half pound) with a potent pepper-led rub whose strength comes
from both quantity of pepper and the whole peppercorns that explode upon
contact. Like the beef rib, that crust is well formed. But here the
meat below goes a step further in tenderness, bringing an almost buttery
bite that melts in your mouth. The fat is fully rendered into the meat,
leaving a puddle below and making trimming unnecessary. The smoke and natural beefiness both come
roaring through, combining with that rub to deliver a very satisfying
flavor. Hoodoo Brown's brisket is among my handful of favorites in New
England and New York. On one of the visits the slices had an interesting
disparity, at least appearance wise, between the left and right halves:
one looked very moist, the other dry. But tasting revealed this to be a
mirage, with the entire slice fully moist and the better half fully juicy.
And who doesn't want a juicy better half?
Turkey: Tried on visits 1 and 4, the favorite white meat of Texas barbecue ($9 per half pound) impressed with strong poultry flavor and good tenderness both times, borderline moistness one time and great moistness another. The smoke levels are lower than Texas, but in a sandwich, it'll do. If you're torn between the chicken and the turkey, go with the chicken, which has more wow factor, especially if you're going to eat it all. The turkey is better in a sharing (easier) or save-some-to-take-home situation.
Chicken: This ($12 for a half bird) was the menu item that most caught my attention before HooDoo Brown even opened. In a barbecue era where innovation is the best way to get attention, nobody seems to have the initiative to bust out a smoked chicken that's more than just an afterthought. Until now.
This one lived up to the billing and then some. Beyond the promised crispness—a legitimate crackle here, thanks to a brief stint in the deep fryer—the skin brought forth an attractive golden/maroon tint and bumpy rub that aided texture as well as flavor. There's a 2-day preparation to infuse flavor even before it hits the smoker, but the most dramatic aspect is the texture. Tried on visits 2 and 4, it not only came through in crispness, but triumphed in inner juiciness, even in the breast. The second try had a mini lake of hot, brown chicken juice in the crevice between the breast and thigh. Oh, and this is a large bird. If there's a downside, it might be that the smoke is fairly light and the spice rub, though dense, is tamer than on the red meats. But the complex flavors are present (even a hint of that Chinese chicken wing background flavor) and stronger than on just about any barbecue chicken you'll encounter. This is that rare must-try chicken at a barbecue joint.
The house BBQ sauce is tomato based, with a sweetness that I'm guessing is from a combination of honey (more) and molasses (less). Nice viscosity and mouthfeel. The irony is that this is an excellent sauce, and the meats it's intended to go on are also mostly excellent, but they're mismatched. Carolina mustard is surprisingly dark and big on seeds, not like your typical Carolina. This would be very at home on a pastrami sandwich in the Lower East Side. Mojo sauce, offered on the earlier visits, brought orange, cilantro and garlic. Thin and bright, it's a natural for poultry, but I believe it's been discontinued.
Baked Beans: These are raised to an artform with three different kinds of beans, all sizeable, all slightly al dente, offset by a thick, sweet condiment with a little heat for contrast.
Collard Greens: Cooked slightly past wilting, the leaves are loaded with smoked turkey necks—both chunks and loose shreds like you'd find in a turkey stew. The broth is a hearty mix of chili heat, poultry flavor from the necks as well as their fat, which adds a unique lusciousness to every leaf. I tried this as a side on the first visit and as a pre-meal snack on the third visit. Without the distractions of other meats upstaging it, I realized this could be a meal unto itself. One of the best.
Cole Slaw: This is an interesting concoction, topped with shreds of apples. On two different tries I somehow got both ends of the tenderness/freshness spectrum: once with the cabbage too wilted by age and once with it too firm from just being made.
Mac and Cheese: The first visit's batch was soggy, spicy and not very cheesy, but the fourth visit saw a dramatic retooling: soft baby shells with more than enough of a 3-cheese blend with chiles and tomatoes. It brings smoothness, richness, heat and a Texas personality. Not something I expect the kids will like, but adults who like it hot and wet should be pretty happy. A little more firmness to the pasta and I'm very happy.
Potato Salad: Large chunks of potato get treated to an avalanche of interesting vegetable toppings, led by celery, a few different peppers and a few different herbs. I loved it on visit 1, liked it on visit 2, loved it on visit 4.
Fries: Crisp outside, soft inside, very homemade tasting and very seasoned.
Cornbread: They go the New York route here and offer cornbread not as a throw-in on a platter but as an a la carte add-on ($3). Fortunately, it's a large block, coarse and extremly dense while still tender. But most of all, it's buttery, which is tasteable in its entirety and unmistakeable on its glazed top. If you're a fan of the cornbread at Hometown in Brooklyn, you'll like this, as the lineage is the same.
Though many of the patrons wouldn't dream of trekking into Brooklyn for
barbecue, some are more than familiar with the pitmaster's earlier work
at Hometown BBQ, so comparisons are inevitable. There are echoes elsewhere, but the beef rib and the cornbread are the only two items that seem identical in style; the brisket is a little different and everything else is very different.
While Yelp reviews have been mostly favorable, most of the low stars point to their running out of key items, especially ribs. I'd rather have a barbecue restaurant run out and know that when I order something, it's fresh.
The Bottom Line
Hoodoo Brown has been operating at a very high level right out of the gate. What impresses me even more than the multiple wows on every visit is that the less wow-worthy items are being recognized and improved, often wowing me on later visits. The height of their highs and the high percentage of those highs already make Hoodoo Brown the best of Connecticut BBQ and one of the best in the region. I'm excited that they're still refining, making the upside even more promising.
OmNomCT review of Hoodoo Brown Barbeque
CT Bites review of Hoodoo Brown Barbeque
Yelp reviews of Hoodoo Brown Barbeque
Zomato reviews of Hoodoo Brown Barbeque