Chef Jeff McKay stands with the smoker behind his space at the Trenton Farmers Market. (Photo by Lynn Robbins.)

A Hambone Opera employee tends to the smokehouse beans and pulled pork. (Photo by Lynn Robbins.)

The secret to The Hambone Opera’s barbecue is in the smoke

It’s no mystery why people who visit The Hambone Opera in the Trenton Farmers Market come back and tell their friends about the place. Quite simply, they say, the food tastes really good.

Diner Jerry Piasecki, from Levittown, Pa., recently compared Chef Jeff McKay’s offerings to fare he tasted at a barbecue cook-off in Falls Township.

“This place is tops. Everything is tender, and the ribs are meaty,” Piasecki said.

If there are any mysteries about the place at all, they’re about how the eatery got its name, and more importantly, how McKay has made his place so popular since it opened this past February. And the secret isn’t in the sauce … entirely.

It’s about knowing what barbecue really is and isn’t, McKay said. A lot of people think that barbecue is about slathering sauce on a piece of meat and grilling it or baking it in an oven. Not so, says McKay. It’s about smoking.

“Barbecue is the smoking of meat with wood in an offset fire box. (The heat and smoke from the firebox are drawn into a separate cooking chamber containing the meat.) The cooking is done low and slow,” McKay said.

McKay starts his day at 6:30 a.m. by lighting the firebox, adding the wood and letting it smoke to a wispy white. He rubs the meat with his own Texas style recipe and lets it smoke at 215 to 225 degrees until done.

Pork and brisket take 12 to 14 hours, and are served with or without sauce, based on the customer’s liking. Ribs take four to six hours. After they are smoked, McKay brushes them with sauce and grills them to create a candy glaze coating.

His wood comes from 16-18 inch solid cherry logs from Skillman at the foothills of the Sourland mountains.

“It’s not just pre-packaged wood chips. It’s the real deal,” McKay said.

His brisket and pork come from Dutch’s Meats, less than two miles from the Farmers Market, and his ribs come from Bucks County, Pa.

By choice, his menu includes just a few items: brisket, pulled pork, ribs, smoke house beans and zippy coleslaw. During the summer months, he serves grilled Jersey corn seasoned with barbecue rub.

Customers at Hambone Opera in mid-July had plenty to say about the food.

“The food is on par with any Kansas City restaurant,” said David Spears, who was visiting town from Missouri.

“The brisket is very tender with a good char, and very smoky. The baked beans start with smoke and end with heat. The coleslaw gives a nice contrast to everything else,” Spears said.

“The ribs deliciously fall off the bone, and they are extremely meaty,” said Deirdre Mraw from Yardville.

McKay crafts his Texas rub in his own kitchen. His sauce is a multistate affair, made from his own recipe — prepared by a company in Chicago with peppers from Texas, tomatoes from Kansas City, and vinegar from Carolina — which he calls “Jersey Fusion.”

McKay started cooking as a child in his parents’ kitchen. After college, he moved to Whiskey Flats, Texas and worked for John’s Wood. There he learned the art of smoking meat and gave demos at Albertsons supermarket.

After working for John’s Wood for two years, he met Billy Bones, a multi-award winning barbecue master. He joined the Billy Bones crew and went on a cooking and competition tour across the U.S.

“Billy Bones is my buddy. He inspired me,” McKay said.

McKay started his current business in Skillman where he now lives. He had to come up a business name (which was then a catering company) and asked for suggestions from his musician friends. It was not long before they came up with a name inspired by one of their favorite songs – you guessed it – “Hambone.”

McKay is not making promises just yet, but he hints that if you visit The Hambone Opera in the near future, you just might be greeted by a group of musicians playing a song with the same name.

The Hambone Opera is located in the Trenton Farmers Market, 960 Spruce St. in Lawrence. Phone: (908) 230-2888.

Hours are Wednesday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Eat in or take out. Call for delivery.