Barbecue is like love,” says Michael Gondevas, co-owner of Hamilton Pork in Jersey City. “You can’t take it too fast.” I second his emotion. Located a block from handsomely renovated Hamilton Park, Hamilton Pork pulsates with food, drink and atmosphere as delightful as its winking name.
What Gondevas, 39, says about the art of barbecue—“smoke it low and slow”—also applies to the restaurant, which he and his half-brother, John Gondevas, 27, opened 11 months ago in a renovated garage that last held a Vespa dealership: “I feel fortunate that our clientele let us develop slow.”
I first visited Hamilton Pork in April and then again in June. Its eight smoked meats more than passed muster, but sides seemed misconceived or mishandled. On a return visit in late October, the meats were noticeably better, both smokier and juicier. (It would not be unusual for the former to diminish the latter.)
The bigger improvement was in the supporting cast. Too-vinegary house barbecue sauce now had (in both mild and hot versions) sharp/sweet/heat in balance. Burnt-end beans had gone from syrupy to tangy, the burnt ends of brisket now bolstered with bits of smoked Italian sausage. Mac and cheese, formerly squishy and insipid, had become substantial and savory. Sweet potato mash had climbed out of the realm of pie filling to revel in actual sweet potato flavor. Of all the sides we tried, only one had not changed: the warm jalapeño-cheddar corn bread. It didn’t have to. It was great from the start. “We listened to our customers,” Gondevas explains, “and did a lot of trial-and-error experimenting in the kitchen.”
The roll call of meats includes the usual suspects and a few terrific surprises. Among the standard bearers, pulled pork, pork ribs, baby-back ribs and half chickens were each distinct in flavor, despite emerging from the same gargantuan Southern Pride smoker—visible from the dining room—that can handle 480 pounds of meat at once, “rotating like a rotisserie at 220 to 290 degrees,” Gondevas says.
The smoke emanates from a blend of five woods, including pecan, the Lone Star sine qua non, “when we can get it.” Part of each meat’s distinctiveness owes to individual coatings. (“We tweaked every rub.”) My award for most improved goes to the brisket. This, as they say in the Lone Star State, is righteous ’cue.
As for surprises, the aptly named Gigantic Beef Rib ($23) is a hunk of ravishingly flavorful meat on a long, curved bone, suggesting a paleolithic hockey stick. Its near-black crust isn’t charred; that’s chewy-crisp “bark,” the toothsome result of the dry rub melding with the beef’s fat in the smoker.
A subtler eye-opener is the smoked lamb belly, a touch of cumin in its rub. It’s crisp on top, meltingly rich inside, loaded with lamb flavor. Gondevas (who handles finances and the kitchen with his wife, Lauren) and John (who handles the bar and front of the house) are Greek on their father’s side; “Greeks cook lamb on a spit,” Gondevas notes, “so why not on a smoker rack?”
“We have the same dad and different moms, both Italian,” he explains. Gondevas grew up in Jersey City, John in Lodi. “We both inherited the Italian love of food and the Greek knack for food businesses,” Gondevas says. “It was natural for us to end up co-owning restaurants. Our dad came to Newark from Greece, worked his way up from dishwasher, and ended up owning restaurants.”
In 2009, Gondevas and his wife renovated the old Hamilton Park Ale House, which stands on the corner of 10th Street and Jersey Avenue, virtually within sight of Hamilton Park. They reopened it as the Hamilton Inn, now a neighborhood favorite for its New American food, bar scene and hip brunch. After the Vespa dealership next door closed, the garage that housed it became available.
“I took it for storage,” Gondevas says. “I wasn’t thinking of a new restaurant. But then I got interested in barbecue, and John and I went to Austin for research. We made some friends, kept going back, and became totally obsessed with Texas ’cue.”
The brothers spiffed up the garage, artfully distressing its 16-foot-high brick walls, adding vintage neon signs they brought back from Texas and, most audaciously, sawing a horizontal opening into an actual shipping container and installing it as the bar. Their friend Kristen Scalia, who owns the eclectic Jersey City boutique Kanibal & Co., donated the huge, 48-star American flag that hangs on the wall above a row of blonde-wood booths facing the bar.
A month after opening, Hamilton Pork’s head chef, Jon Vitiello, who had a background in cutting-edge cuisine, left. Gondevas had an epiphany: “This is a barbecue place, and what we really needed was a great pitmaster.” They found one next door at the Hamilton Inn. Actually, Nivardo Sanchez, a line cook at the inn, had never done barbecue. Now 27, he had come to America from his native Oaxaca—the Mexican state famed for its complex mole sauces—at age 20. At the inn, he had started as a dishwasher and worked his way up.
“He’s a natural in the kitchen,” Gondevas says. “He has an amazing palate and an instinct for sauces and seasonings. He’s always there with a tasting spoon and fine-tuning a rub, a spice or a temperature. He’s a real Texas-style pitmaster now.”
Sanchez’s flair extends to the menu’s eight different tacos. (The Gyro, made with lamb belly, pickled cucumber and crema, won my heart.) “I found out in Austin that where you get Tex, you also get Mex food,” Gondevas says. At staff meals in Ham’ Pork’s early days, “when we never had time for real dishes, the cooks threw together these incredible tacos. They worked so well with the barbecue meats, we put them on the menu.”
Sanchez and Gondevas worked together to perfect a wings recipe that soars. Big, meaty Kung Pow wings are smoked, flash fried, then brushed with a bracing sweet-spicy sauce that Gondevas says “we slaved over. It’s been a love affair with those wings.”
For dessert, there’s a cinnamon waffle, deep fried like a churro and filled with ice cream from Milk Sugar Love on the east side of Hamilton Park. A maple-bourbon bread pudding is in the works. Ham’ Pork’s soundtrack is a Pandora classic-rock station that Gondevas says “is a thing with the cool neighborhood kids who work here. They just get the music. Something about barbecue brings out your lust for life.” It certainly brought out mine.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Mexican - Modern - Southern - Tex-Mex
Price Details:Tacos, $5; nachos, salads and sandwiches, $8-$14; meats, $10-$15 per half-pound; selection of three meats, $21; full rack of ribs, $30; sides, $4-$9; desserts, $9.
Wine list:Full bar; signature cocktails, mainly bottled beers, bourbon, tequila, a few wines.