Hank Charcuterie does damn near everything perfectly
After a year of discomfiting political and cultural shakeups, take heart: Positive change remains possible. At least in Lawrence, where Hank Charcuterie, a hyper-local, meat-minded restaurant, keeps growing — and keeps getting better.
Hank is no secret to LFK residents, who have enjoyed owner and executive chef Vaughn Good’s homemade sausages and tasting plates since 2014. But Good had loftier aspirations, so this past July he rolled away the butcher cases to fit a full-service bar in its place, turning Hank into a more full-service restaurant.
The cozy dining room is freshly bedecked in a comforting, prom-night-on-the-prairie style: ornate tin ceilings, chunky exposed ductwork, succulents in whitewashed mason jars. A chalkboard-painted wall shows you the day’s specials while preserving space for an exhaustive credits list of the local ranchers, bakers, farmers and foragers who keep Hank fresh. Think Portlandia without the pretension. Good stops shy of flashing baseball cards with the names and hobbies of the day’s ducks, but he has taken pains to ensure that every aspect of the meal has regional roots, from the salts and spices (KC’s Wood + Salt) to chef de cuisine Jamie Everett’s kitchen knives (Sedalia’s Halcyon Forge).
Even the dinnerware is locally sourced, each plate and cup hand-fired and polished by Lawrence ceramist Mike Crouch. The hefty, unglazed earthenware is undeniably beautiful, though it may prove impractical for restaurant wear and tear: On more than one visit, my plate arrived chipped.
Hank doesn’t accept reservations for its weekend brunch, but the dishes are worth the drive from KC and any reasonable wait. My table started with a half-order of the biscuits and gravy, the kind of homely dish, often a half-assed proposition at restaurants, that Hank elevates to perfection. The rich bacon gravy had a peppery bite and a velvety texture; there was zero gloppiness. But the star of the show was the toasted buttermilk biscuit, which arrived with golden-brown edges and a crisp exterior strong enough to weather the gravy. The result? Buttery, flaky, soft-textured innards that never succumbed to mush. Hank serves — and I say this with experience and without hyperbole — the best biscuits and gravy I’ve ever had.
The main courses maintained that level of excellence. The jambalaya (also available at dinner) was meltingly smooth, made with snub-nosed Carolina Gold rice cooked to a risotto-like texture. A tent of lightly pickled okra gave the dish a bright snap in both flavor and texture. “The only reason I’m not licking this clean,” confessed a tablemate, “is that my head is too big to fit in the bowl.”
The porchetta and sausage inspired similar rapture. The smoked-pork sausage link that day could have been a cover model for a meat fashion magazine: The crackly, spice-crusted casing glistened, and the tender interior was a delicate pink. The porchetta nearly blanketed the 12-inch dinner plate, a thick rind of fat shielding succulent, perfectly cooked pork belly. The center loin — a leaner, more finicky cut — was more fibrous but no less flavorful, dressed with a white-cheddar mornay sauce and a slow-poached egg.
Even a meal that permanently raised expectations was bound to dip below the clouds at some point. So here I report that the two-handed breakfast burrito was chintzy on the chorizo, and the duck-fat potatoes that accompanied another dish were oilier than they were crisp. But these things were easily elided with a thorough dousing of one of Hank’s fermented hot sauces. Only one such sauce — a saltier, Central American-inspired jalapeño variety — is on the menu right now. But you can (and should) press your server for a ramekin of a bright, astringent hot sauce made with lemon-drop peppers. The citrusy chiles have a unique fragrance and flavor profile, delicate despite a bracing heat. I couldn’t stop dipping the tines of my fork in the sauce long after my brunch plate was clean, though the stuff made me cry crocodile capsicum tears as though I were at a Pixar movie.
Hank’s cocktails — the raison d’etre for the renovation — are inventive, but not all of them live up to the price point yet. The la Botanica, a beet-forward drink, is almost worth ordering for the visual (think: blood of your enemies). But the Principe de los Apostoles Mate gin is earthy enough on its own, replicating rather than complicating the flavors of the tart beet shrub. The Miles From Minnesota had a similarly muddy finish, though the blend of Laird’s Applejack, Drambuie, and a rhubarb amaro delivered the aroma of a comforting spiced cider.
The blue-ribbon cocktails at Hank are batched and barrel-aged. If I could have only one, it would be the Bitter Giuseppe #2, a blend of scotch, bourbon, Cynar and Benedictine. Four weeks of barrel-aging rounded the sharp edges off each spirit, melding flavors into a balanced, mellow whole. It’s a boozy drink that sips with a smoothness just waiting to double-cross you.
The barrel-aged cocktails are 25 percent off during happy hour, giving you a good excuse to divert the savings to some appetizers. It seems like every restaurant serves “house-made pickles” these days, but Hank’s version may be the first worth ordering. The pickled vegetables are sliced thick, with a sharp vinegar brine and a commercial-ready crunch. But if you’re feeding a crowd, the charcuterie board is — as you might expect from a former butcher shop — your best bet. Hearty bread from Lawrence’s 1900 Barker bakery chaperones smoky folds of “duck ham” (exactly what it sounds like), spicy Tasso ham, decadently salty summer sausage, and a hefty portion of head cheese. The latter is an intimidating-sounding but eminently approachable terrine. Pretend it’s meatloaf, if you must — the delicacy is worth some self-deception.
In addition to the sliced meats, the board comes with a generous dollop of paté (cold and creamy, with a whipped, mousse-like texture), coarse-ground mustard and light daubs of a plum-colored, tamarind-flavored sauce.
If you stay for dinner (and you should), scope out the daily specials. One of the finest dishes I tried was a bowl of supple gnocchi with heritage pork in a comforting beet ragu. Standard menu highlights include a double-stacked, flavor-balanced “Hank burger” and an autumn-rich bowl of duck and foie gras sausage, served with crispy-curly hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, a gentle smear of butternut-squash purée and brunoised apples sautéed in brown butter.
Hank’s newest incarnation is still fresh, and Good and Everett have a few kinks to work out. The rabbit pot pie — flaky crust stuffed with tender vegetables and braised Rare Hare Barns rabbit — was heartily seasoned but far too soupy. (A more collagen-heavy broth would help.) And the mac and cheese was an all-around disappointment. More than one of my tablemates expressed concern for their dental work after crunching through garlic-and-shallot bread crumbs that had assumed the texture of fossilized Grape-Nuts. And while the blend of mild Alma, Kansas, cheddar and New York white cheddar melted into a silky sauce, the flavor was so subtle as to be undetectable. To make a mac worthy of its menu, Hank needs a sharper cheese in the mix.
Hank’s desserts, sized for sharing, include a rich chocolate torte with a gooey pecan brittle, and an apple crumble with pillowy apple slices and buttery islands of crisp. But the best value may be the $2 scoop of house-made ice cream. The flavors rotate frequently: On my visits, I sampled a cream-forward Chocolate Oak (good), a warm and boldly flavored Carrot Ginger (better) and a salty-sweet Milk and Honey (best).
On both of my visits, the clientele was a democratic mix of flannel-shrouded young hipsters, middle-age Jill Stein impersonators and beer-bellied older men with backward-turned baseball caps — often at the same table. Call it cause for cautious optimism. If there’s one thing that can unite Americans right now, it’s a fine cut of meat — or a hot sauce bold enough to make meatless bites great again.
1900 Massachusetts Street, Lawrence, 785-832-8688 | 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Tuesday–Thursday, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Sunday
Cocktails: $8–$12 | Appetizers: $9–$20 | Entrées: $8–$30
Share a charcuterie board with friends and sip a Bitter Giuseppe #2 while you wait for the jambalaya (with a side of the lemon-pepper hot sauce). Finish with a scoop of Milk and Honey ice cream.