By LEEANNE GRIFFIN
Special to the Courant
11:17 AM EDT, June 2, 2014
It all started with a Peking duck smoker box discarded in a friend's yard. But New Haven-area restaurateurs Jason Sobocinski and Mike Farber saw treasure, not trash, and took the smoker for their newest venture.
Sobocinski, owner of Caseus Fromagerie and Bistro in New Haven, and Farber, owner of Mikro Beer Bar in Hamden, partnered up last year to open Ordinary in the old Richter's space on New Haven's Chapel Street. The cocktail bar's limited kitchen allowed only for small bites such as cheese, chocolate, meat pies and grilled cheese sandwiches. Sobocinski, who with the help of blacksmiths had retrofitted the duck smoker, was smoking meats in the alley of Caseus on Whitney Avenue and bringing the finished product to Ordinary to augment the menu there.
The alley smoking "worked out OK until winter time," Sobocinski said, calling the converted smoker "a finicky beast." But the addition of smoked chicken, beef brisket and pulled pork had taken off at Ordinary, and they wanted to keep that going.
Farber had the answer: a vacated space on Whitney Avenue, back over the border in Hamden. The converted (or "perverted" smoker, Farber says with a laugh) found its home and the crew began smoking meats daily for the new Smoke Box BBQ in early March. "This place was born out of necessity," Sobocinski said.
With the assistance of pitmaster Dan Casbarro and manager Chris Cangialosi, Smoke Box serves as both its own restaurant, with lunch on offer Monday through Saturday, and also as a commissary kitchen for Ordinary. The slow-smoked meats are antibiotic- and hormone-free, including Berkshire pork, Bell & Evans chicken and pasture-raised brisket. Higher-quality meats come at a higher price, but "I wouldn't do it any other way," said Sobocinski. "We've got to put the best product out there."
Farber agreed. "We have our brands, and people expect certain things from us."
The meats are prepared with Smoke Box's unique spice rub, made in large batches (the formula is secret, but it has brown sugar, paprika, cumin, coriander, garlic, onion and fennel, according to the owners.) Meats sit overnight and then get loaded into the smoker, which can hold about 100 pounds at a time. Pork and brisket are smoked over local applewood for 6 to 8 hours and then braised for several more; chicken is smoked for 5 to 6 hours.
The serving options are where Smoke Box gets creative: diners choose meat first, then a preparation, sauce and sides. Choose a "box" (half-size for $9 or full-size for $12) and any of the three meats can be loaded onto a Caesar salad, crispy corn tortillas, hand-cut fries or griddled macaroni and cheese, or in a sandwich.
Sauce (or "sawz" in Smoke Box parlance) choices include North Carolina apple cider vinegar, Texas sweet n'spicy or Alabama tangy mustard, all made fresh in-house. Smoked and pickled vegetables are part of the free "works" to add to any order; you can also add half an avocado, Mystic Cheese's Melville or Cabot extra sharp cheddar for another $2. Crispy slaw, Caesar salad, fries or mac and cheese are also available as sides.
Sandwiches with choice of fries or slaw are $10 to $13; these include a smoked cheeseburger with Melville and pickled red onions; a BoomBox Bomb with choice of smoked meat, griddled mac, slaw, fries and sauce; and a Smokeirrito burrito with Mexican rice, cilantro and smoked jalapeno and tomato. And then there's the CSLT, on which crispy-fried smoked chicken skins stand in for bacon; the skins are also a free topping for box meals.
Daily specials are advertised on the restaurant's Facebook page, like a smoked meatloaf sandwich, smoked turkey melt Florentine, tacos, Cubano sandwiches, and a recent mole poutine with pulled pork and Cheddar. NoRA Cupcake Company of Middletown provides the sweets, with several daily cupcake flavors.
The owners are working on getting a beer and wine license for Smoke Box (BYOB is available now) and recently expanded the restaurant's hours to include Saturdays. The owners realized the need for weekend service when they had an unexpectedly huge crowd of patrons on Good Friday, they said.
With multiple businesses apiece, Sobocinski and Farber are clearly busy, they said, but they rely on each other as business partners to make everything run smoothly.
"We help each other out," Farber said. "It's been real symbiotic for us."
>>Smoke Box BBQ, 2323 Whitney Ave. in Hamden, is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Information: 203-909-6545 and smokeboxbbqhamden.com.
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