A rising column of smoke caught the corner of my eye just as I was zooming past. And then, as the low-slung white building of Henri's Hotts receded in my vision on the Black Horse Pike, the aroma hit me like a barbecue ghost — an intoxicating whiff of slow-roasting meat. My synapses fired, the steering wheel turned, and my car veered with appropriately screeching tires onto the Route 54 off-ramp to reverse our course from west to east.
My kids howled in protest, and my wife went ominously silent at the sudden detour, eager as we all were to finally return to Philly from our time away at the Jersey Shore. But some things in life are worth straying off-course and off-schedule for. Some things merit making room for an early snack. And great barbecue — which has frustratingly proven to be one of the rarest finds in this part of the country — tops the list. Within a few moments, literally the second our teeth sank into the pink "halo" that kissed the meat of those baby back ribs with smoke, they would understand this, too.
But first, there was the approach. Henri's Hotts Barbeque is a modest roadside joint to be sure, the structure built in 1948, and of late a former "run-down pizza place," says owner Douglas Henri. "It's still run-down, but it's just not a pizza place anymore."
It's much as he found it just three years ago, when on a detour from his own trip back from the Shore, he asked his wife to pull over. One look at the empty space, and he knew his plans for early retirement from a career as a corrections officer in Jamesburg had taken a sudden turn, from prison guard to pit master extraordinaire.
The interior of Henri's Hotts, in fact, is reasonably tidy, a series of booths and simple tables trimmed with NFL-themed curtains and flat-screen TVs overhead fine-tuning the man-cave theme. Of course, slicker decor is not necessary for great 'cue — it would almost raise a red flag for some aficionados.
What really matters are those 1,500-pound black magic boxes parked on trailers outside — two 84-inch-long tubes of charcoal-black rolled steel purchased from Ben Lang BBQ Smokers in Nahunta, Ga. Their chimneys were puffing at full pig and chicken ahead when we rolled into Henri's lot. And when the pit master was kind enough to flip up the side doors, there was treasure inside: several grates laden with meaty racks of ribs, pork butts, and splayed-open birds already well-burnished with the deep mahogany shine of a slow hickory and oak smoke.
The flavors were every bit as good as I'd hoped. The meat of those ribs just clung to the bone until it gave way with a gentle tug of my teeth. A mound of tender pulled pork was an aromatic collage of chopped meat, the bits of charred exterior mingling with moist, pink, and perfumey flesh. Their savor hit my taste buds, resonated, and called me back for more.
Actually, those pits are only part of the secret. What really matters here is the pit boss himself. Anyone can fire up a smoker, and I've seen more than my share of so-called barbecue spots (and otherwise great kitchen chefs) put their racks into a billowing cloud only to fall short on finesse, on depth of flavor, or on low-and-slow patience. I've seen cooks cheat for tenderness with a par-bake, boil or braise. I've also seen well-meaning devotees lavish their meats with all manner of elaborate voodoo rubs, brines, injections, mops, and finishing foil cocoons to achieve the perfect "Texas bark."
There's little chance of that with Henri, though, whose no-muss technique is beguilingly plain and unbelievably effective — just good-quality meat, which he buys daily from Sam's Club and trims himself, a steady smoke, and his trusty meat thermometer. Not even salt or pepper?
"Nope," he says, watching me devour a platter of brisket, whose drenchingly moist, thin slices practically melted on my tongue. "That's Black Angus beef there. It tastes good because that's how God made it."
Not even God, though, could have gotten a brisket platter on my previous visit, as stormy power outages had sent virtually the entire town of Hammonton early to this little Folsom roadhouse to pick up a platter of wood-fired supper. I can just imagine Henri at the counter, nodding with his trademark blend of gruff and charm to the notice posted above the kitchen: "Lack of Planning on Your Part Does Not Constitute an Emergency on My Part."
Even on a good day at the restaurant, which is open only Thursday through Sunday, patience is required, as the wait for the single, overwhelmed server can be considerable. Luckily, Henri is one of the rare barbecue chefs whose repertoire is worth waiting for: solid from start to finish — aided in no small part by his sauce. While he may be the humble minimalist when it comes to his meat, he is a slathering showman when it comes to his "secret" glaze — a deep, dark shine that paints the platters before they hit the table with a perfect balance of tang, sweetness, and zip.
Henri, who grew up the nomadic life of "an Army brat" (born in Germany, raised in Kentucky, Maryland, and Philly), and who was also an Army medic and Florida police officer before returning north, is a largely self-taught cook who subscribes to no particular regional style. But the influence of his Southern grandmother informs the rest of the menu, which hits soul food basics with remarkably few weaknesses. His fried chicken, which seals juicy meat inside a thin crust that explodes with zesty flavor, should easily be counted among the region's best. The same crust adds crackle to his big and meaty chicken wings, which, with a shimmer of his dark sauce injected with honey (for the sweet) or hot sauce (for lip-numbing spice), are almost worth the trip themselves. His platter of fried shrimp, not to be ignored, comes with some of the best fried hush puppies I've had in a while, those crispy balls filled with corn batter that's equal parts sweet and earthy.
Add in some spot-on sides of baked beans studded with burnt brisket ends, tender collards with peppery spice, brown sugar sweet, and vinegar tang that had my Virginia friend raving ("best greens ever"), some killer mac-'n'-cheese with sharp cheddar, and chunky potato salad "made with everything my Aunt Minnie put in it," from celery to pickle relish.
The only things missing were the desserts. They are apparently in abundance, from red velvet cake and peach cobbler to sweet potato pie, at Henri's $13 Sunday buffet. At all three of my visits, though, the baked goods were M.I.A. Then again, there may be nothing sweeter than the serendipity of a barbecue find like Henri's Hotts — a one-stop picnic well worth the detour, and now a destination in its own right.