Texas barbecue is a culture unto itself. From the kind of wood used (mesquite and oak, primarily), to the brisket seasonings (salt and pepper and that’s it), to the barbecue restaurant’s hours (11am until sold out). Texas-born and -bred, Chris Nicki, owner and pitmaster of Hank’s Texas Barbecue, adheres to traditions (except that he loves sauces), even if it means regretfully having to turn people away after the last piece of beef, pork, chicken or hot link is gone.
Nicki’s philosophy is to never waste any of the food they serve and to honor the animal. That extends to using smoked pork bones for flavoring and meat scraps in the collard greens and Tex Mex-style beans. Vegetable scraps go into sauces and are pickled as part of their house-made pickle options.
“It’s like Tetris to try to fit as much as we can on the smoker at a time,” he says. “But we want to create a culture where people understand that with Texas barbecue, you show up early, eat really well and when it’s gone, it’s gone.” Updates on what’s still available are posted on Facebook and Instagram and people are encouraged to call after 3 p.m. before making the trip to the restaurant. On really busy days, supplies run out mid- to late-afternoon.
Named after Nicki’s dachshund, Hank’s opened in early February in what was formerly Solera restaurant, owned by Goose Sorensen. Sorensen provided a wealth of information about opening a restaurant, as did restaurateur Justin Brunson, when Nicki moved to Colorado from Chicago. There, he’d worked as a paramedic on the South Side. “I grew up wanting to be a firefighter but I’m terrified of heights so I ended being a paramedic,” he says. Some friends opened a seafood restaurant in 2011 and Nicki helped them out by frying fish on Fridays. Nicki got the restaurant bug and decided he wanted to open his own restaurant someday.
After creating a business plan, Nicki worked with anyone who was willing to teach him, including Brunson, whose River Bear American Meats provides some products to Hank’s.
Nicki veers away from Texas barbecue tradition when it comes to sauces. “I love sauces and I love making them,” he says. Currently, there are three sauces: traditional, sweet-spicy tomato and smoked vegetable; Carolina mustard; and a vinegar-based one. He’s working on a green chili sauce and hopes to work up to about 15 that people can add to their proteins. Another divergence is using jackfruit, which looks like pulled pork. With Hank’s dry rub, pineapple puree, and time on the smoker, jackfruit has become a popular vegetarian entrée.
The restaurant is arranged with three sets of tables seating six, not because the restaurant is expecting that many large groups, but because Nicki wants to encourage people to sit together at communal tables, getting to know each other. That camaraderie extends to the enclosed patio, which houses the large smoker that Nicki hopes will be joined by another smoker soon. “You don’t feel like you’re on Colfax,” he says. “You feel like you’re in your own backyard and that’s what makes it perfect for Hank’s. That’s what we’re trying to make you feel—like you’re at home.”