Forty years ago, Connecticut got an infusion of Texas-style barbecue when Robert Pearson, a New York hairdresser originally from London, moved to the coastal town of Stratford to open Stick to Your Ribs in an unlikely career move.

He told the New York Times in 1984 that his many trips to Texas convinced him to import a smoker (made by J&R Manufacturing) and loads of mesquite wood from the Lone Star State. “[The barbecue] smelled so good you really got a high just being there,” he said of the smokehouses in Texas. Pearson went on to serve his famous brisket in New York City before retiring in 2005. On a recent trip to the Constitution State, I found two impressive barbecue joints following Pearson’s lead: Hindsight Barbecue, in Waterbury, and Hoodoo Brown Barbeque, in Ridgefield.

A decade after Pearson’s retirement, Cody Sperry brought Texas-style barbecue back to Connecticut about thirty miles inland from Stratford at Hoodoo Brown Barbeque, in Ridgefield. The Connecticut native’s story is similar to Pearson’s in that a trip to Texas changed his career trajectory forever. He began with smokers from Georgia before settling on a trio of Moberg smokers, made in Dripping Springs. Hoodoo has always cooked with wood, though brisket wasn’t always the star.

“When we first opened, it was all ribs and cornbread,” Sperry said of early customer requests. He knew from his first bite of a burnt end at Louie Mueller Barbecue, back in 2012, that they’d eventually come around. “Wayne [Mueller] hit us with this sample piece of brisket, and it was that aha moment,” he remembered fondly. It took about two years for smoked beef to catch on at Hoodoo, but the joint now serves fifty to sixty whole briskets on a busy Saturday.

You’ll see the smoke before the building when pulling up to the restaurant. Ridgefield seems to have more lax requirements for outdoor cooking than cities in Texas, so the smokers are chugging away in the parking lot without an enclosure or even a roof. Sperry said he’s chosen to ask for forgiveness rather than permission in a community that doesn’t have much familiarity with wood cooking. He did say the health department has recently asked the restaurant to build an enclosure behind it to house the growing smoker fleet.

Tyler Hodge is the one likely tending to those smokers. The barbecue hobbyist left his accounting job three years ago to become lead pitmaster at Hoodoo. He calls himself the Sausage King of Connecticut on Instagram, a title without many real contenders. He regularly posts videos of himself snapping his creations in half like a hand model in a Kit Kat commercial. On the day I visited, he had a batch of links stuffed with the ingredients from Truth Barbeque’s Tater Tot Casserole. He felt the trial run needed more potato, but I loved the chunky bacon lardoons mixed in with the ground meat and cheese—and, of course, it had great snap.

Texas BBQ in Connecticut
A tray from Hindsight Barbecue, with pumpkin honey cornbread and blueberry gouda sausage. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
Texas BBQ in Connecticut
Trays from Hoodoo Brown Barbeque. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Slices of smoked brisket were peppery, pleasantly smoky, well seasoned with salt, and beefy in flavor. Hoodoo Brown uses Prime-grade briskets from Aurora Angus Beef, but the meat didn’t have an overwhelmingly buttery flavor from the fat.

Brisket no longer needs a marketing team in Connecticut—it’s easily the best-seller at the restaurant. The signature dish, though, is the Cracklin’ Pork Belly. Sperry developed it with former pitmaster Nestor Laracuente, who wanted to highlight his Puerto Rican descent with a barbecue equivalent of pernil, a Puerto Rican dish of slow-cooked pork shoulder with crispy skin. They worked for months to develop the recipe and only nailed it a few days before opening. Their methodology was once well guarded, but Sperry said he’s told so many people that he wouldn’t mind if I shared it.

It starts by unwrapping a whole, boneless, skin-on Compart Duroc pork belly and letting it sit uncovered in the cooler overnight to dry the skin out. Before it goes on the pit, Sperry wipes down any moisture left, then covers the skin side with salt. A one-pound box is required to thoroughly coat a ten-pound belly. The belly is smoked for three and half hours, by which time the salt solidifies and slides off like a wafer. The cooks then wipe off any excess salt and transfer the belly to a 400-degree oven for about ninety minutes, until the skin is like glass.

The Cracklin’ Pork Belly skin is flat and glossy like an ice-skating rink, and it doesn’t have the puffiness of fried pork skin. It shatters between your teeth as the fat collapses into more layers of tender smoked pork. Add some of the Hoodoo Voodoo, a chunky sauce made with chopped tomatoes, scallions, herbs, and lime, to help cut the richness.

It’s such a unique eating experience that Sperry took his pork belly on tour. Last year was the first official Big Belly Tour, in which Sperry hauled a trailer-mounted offset smoker and a generator-powered convection oven to cook the Cracklin’ Pork Belly at every stop. This November, Sperry finished up his second tour with a 10,000-mile, twenty-stop journey that stretched from Oregon to North Carolina, with eight stops in Texas in between.

The tour was Sperry’s way of staying connected to the greater barbecue world. We joked during our conversation that Connecticut might be the state that sounds least likely to have good barbecue, so a trip there can be a hard sell. Visits from Sperry’s Texas barbecue brethren are few and far between, leading him to feel a bit isolated.

A bigger challenge than isolation for Connecticut pitmasters is trying to cook in an outdoor smoker during the harsh winter months. “We definitely go through more wood, and our cooks are a lot longer,” Sperry said. The length of a brisket cook can jump from fourteen hours in the summer to eighteen in the winter. Jeff Schmidt, owner of Hindsight Barbecue, in Waterbury, Connecticut, agrees. “Making barbecue in February in Connecticut sucks,” he said bluntly. The cooks have to arrive a couple hours earlier in the winter to preheat the pit room with propane heaters and fire up the smokers. The wood (Hindsight uses white oak, just like Hoodoo) has a high moisture content, and sometimes ice crystals form on it in the cold. Schmidt said there’s a mental element too. He and his crew need to consciously work against the reflex to add more wood to the fire on a bitterly cold night. The dirty smoke of an overloaded firebox ruins the barbecue.

Walking past an impressive woodpile at the edge of the parking lot, I popped my head into Hindsight’s pit room to see a pair of Texas-built, thousand-gallon offsets: one with a massive, insulated firebox from Big Phil’s Smokers, in Caddo Mills, and a newer one from M&M BBQ Company, in Tool. They’re a far cry from the smoker that began Schmidt’s barbecue journey.

Schmidt was out of time and ideas for a Christmas gift for his father, Jeffrey, in 2012. “I didn’t know what to get him. It was Christmas Eve, and there was a ripped box. It was half off,” he said of the pellet smoker he snagged from a sporting goods store. His dad runs a hardware store that was founded in Waterbury in 1925 by Schmidt’s great-great-grandfather, and he had been plenty happy grilling over charcoal on his Weber for years. Neither one of them knew how to run the new smoker, but they figured it out, and soon they were taking turns choosing the next protein to smoke. Before long, they scheduled a trip to Georgia to attend a barbecue-cooking school put on by Lang BBQ Smokers. They returned to Connecticut with a new smoker, and, Schmidt said, “I literally started smoking every day.”

Schmidt’s mother, Jayne Lanphear, owns several restaurants in the area. He worked the front of house for a couple of them, including Black Rock Tavern, north of Waterbury. Lanphear let her son run a weekly barbecue pop-up from the restaurant starting in 2019. When COVID shut down the dining room, Schmidt and the rest of the front-of-house staff didn’t have much to do, so he kept smoking and selling takeout orders. His dad saw an old diner up for sale in Waterbury, and Schmidt bought it in the summer of 2020. By October, Hindsight Barbecue was open, which caused a bit of a rift between Schmidt and his mom, who wanted him back at the restaurant working with her. “I had to quit,” he said, and she understood after a couple of months. This week they attended the Connecticut Restaurant Association awards together. Both of their restaurants were nominated for Restaurant of the Year in their respective counties.

I ordered from the counter at Hindsight, then found a booth. The walls were decorated with framed T-shirts from joints all over Central Texas. I noticed a New School BBQ U shirt as well. Schmidt said he took the class from LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue in early 2020. “I love their creativity, and everything they do is high-quality,” he said of the Austin food truck. He said the class changed his perspective on barbecue and helped him with techniques for sauces, sides, and sausages.

After opening, Schmidt hired Jay Rosko, who is now his main pitmaster. Rosko makes all the sausage, and just about every batch is different. I ordered the sausage of the day, which happened to be blueberry gouda (mushroom Swiss sausage with smoked onions is another customer favorite). It had the right snap and smoke, and the nontraditional filling with a maple syrup flair really worked. The joint has fun with its plating as well. A platter of onion rings doused with hot honey came with the only dragonfruit garnish I think I’ve received at any restaurant.

Schmidt said takeout orders dominate the business, so “we get pumped to make barbecue platters for dine-in because it doesn’t happen as much.” Hindsight builds a beautiful platter too. The rosy smoke ring stood out against the black bark of the smoked brisket. Well-rendered fat topped each glistening slice, and the smoke was just right. The spareribs also had the perfect texture—the hefty meat came off the bone easily. They were on the saucy side, but not too sweet. On the side was a seasonal slab of buttery pumpkin honey cornbread, which was a major upgrade from white bread.

The sandwiches are popular, and they get more creative than chopped brisket on a bun. A pork belly grilled cheese special was confusingly served on flatbread. The generous fillings of gooey melted cheese, smoky chopped pork, and aioli couldn’t be contained, but it was good by the forkful. Even better were the mashed potatoes and gravy and the mac and cheese—both helped ease the chilly drizzle outside.

Hindsight Barbecue has been a hit, and Schmidt and his team now operate two food trucks as well as the restaurant. His parents have forgiven him for not carrying on either of the family businesses now that he has one of his own. And his legacy, along with Sperry’s, will be introducing Connecticuters to Texas barbecue, and maybe introducing some barbecue hounds from Texas to the diminutive New England state. With just 45 minutes separating Hindsight and Hoodoo Brown, a trip to one wouldn’t really be complete without the other, which is something I didn’t expect to say when I embarked on a barbecue search through Connecticut.