Many journalists and bloggers have written in praise of Hangfire Southern Kitchen, and no surprise – run by Sam Evans and Shauna Guinn, Hangfire is the undisputed home of Southern USA-style barbeque in Wales, cooked and served up in a recently regenerated corner of Barry Island.
The story of how the ladies came to launch Hangfire (which started out as a streetfood stall in Cardiff) has been told many times, as have tales of their world travels, including an epic roadtrip around Southern USA. Originally motivated by a plan to meet Dolly Parton, the journey was also when they became intoxicated with American BBQ.
Since Pete and I moved to Wales in early 2019, Hangfire has been recommended to us as a restaurant we’d love not only by Cardiff locals but by food friends all around the country. This has become a destination restaurant for anyone keen to get a taste of American BBQ classics, Sam and Shauna style.
The Hangfire menu focuses on “Louisiana soul food classics, award-winning US barbecue and wood fired steaks“, alongside southern starters and desserts, own-brand beers and New Orleans-inspired cocktails.
Located in a refurbished industrial Pumphouse that powered the nearby lock, as well as cranes and other heavy machinery, the interior is open and airy. The wooden flooring and a mix of exposed brick and wood-panelled walls create a casual vibe and diners are seated at wooden tables with chairs and padded leather banquettes. I’m pleased that there isn’t a trendy tall table with stools in sight!
From the appetisers we limit ourselves to two dishes – I’ve been warned about the generosity of the dishes to come!
Smoked wings (£6.95) come in four flavour variations: maple bourbon bacon pecan, buffalo wings, Korean BBQ, and Kansas City classic. The sweet and sticky sauce, sprinkled with sesame seeds, sliced fresh chilli and spring onions, is fabulous, and I’m glad the portion isn’t any larger or any thoughts of being able to eat more food would quickly be put to bed.
I’m physically incapable of not ordering Frickles (£4.95) if I see them on a menu and the pile of Creole-battered dill pickles do not disappoint. The burst of brine from the dill pickle works so well with the crunch of the batter and the sweet savoury boost from the Fry sauce (which I’d describe as a Marie Rose type sauce – ketchup, mayonnaise and cayenne pepper or paprika, sometimes with a little Worcestershire sauce, mustard or pickle brine mixed in).
It’s really hard narrowing down what to order for our mains. With an appealing list of barbequed meats, not to mention picanha steak, burgers and southern-fried chicken (on waffles or in a burger), there’s a lot of temptation. Input from our waitress Gemma is crucial, and she comes up with an excellent solution to trying a wide range of the items that tempt us the most.
Of course we order the famous Brisket and burnt ends barbecue plate (£19). To this, Gemma suggests adding an extra side of Texas sausage (£2.50), a great way to try the sausage without going crazy on the Choose your own BBQ meats option.
That leaves us free to go for the 2-choice Choose your own BBQ meats (£19) rather than 3-choice (£25). The four choices are 9 hour smoked brisket on Texas toast, 7 hour smoked St Louis spare ribs, 18 hour smoked pulled pork shoulder, and 3 hour house made Texas sausage. We choose the spare ribs and pulled pork shoulder.
Slices of soft, tender brisket are served on top of Texas Toast, which has been drenched in gravy. The burnt ends are in a bowl, and the tray also comes with seasoned fries, coleslaw and pickles. The brisket is alright, though it’s not quite as juicy as I expect and I find the flavour a little bland compared to the rest of our meats. I’d rather have the gravy poured over the meat and skip the toast underneath. The chunks of burnt ends are fabulous – tender inside with gnarly chewy bits, and a lot more flavour.
The spare ribs are an absolute revelation. I mean, I already love ribs, and have done since I was a young child, but Pete is usually indifferent – he’ll eat them occasionally, if I order them, but ribs would never be his first choice when there’s pretty much anything else on the table.
I can’t express to you how surprised I am when I ask which of the five meats was his favourite, and he chooses the ribs! I do too, by the way. Why so good? A lot of it is down to Hangfire’s Memphis Rib Shake seasoning, which gives lots of flavour without overwhelming the pork itself. And the rest is down to sourcing and cooking; these meaty ribs have a wonderful thick layer of flesh with just enough fat to provide moisture; and they are cooked perfectly – tender without being pappy, easy to pull off the bone with your teeth, but not falling off because they’ve turned to mush.
The pulled pork, served in a bowl on the same plate as our ribs, is good though a touch dried out in texture. The smokey barbeque flavour is great.
The Texas sausage is amazing, a joint favourite with the ribs for both of us – punchy with spicing, superbly juicy, and lovely dunked into South Carolina mustard.
We don’t really have space (and I confess we ask for boxes to takeaway leftover brisket, burnt ends and pulled pork) but I am curious to try a dessert, so we choose Smores (£4.95). The delivery (all wrapped up in foil) is a little misleading, as there’s no evidence that this graham cracker, chocolate and marshmallow sandwich has seen a hint of fire or grill – there’s no gooey meltiness on the marshmallows, and the biscuit (similar to a digestive) is a little soggy, as though it’s sucked in moisture from the chocolate spread. Since the savoury dishes are so very good, the lesson learned is to skip desserts and squeeze in more meat! Then again, I might try the pecan pie next time…
Service from Gemma is excellent, taking all the best elements of American service (warmth, friendliness, an excellent knowledge of the menu, and being attentive to your guests when they are seeking your attention), and combining them with local flair.
In fact, that’s probably the perfect way to sum up the food too! The best elements of Southern American food combined with local ingredients and cooking talent.
Hangfire is deservedly very popular, and very well priced too for such excellent cooking and generous portions. Make sure you book in advance, as at the time of our visit, they were booked solid for the next several weeks.