Veggies or meat, 'The Pig' goes full bore for flavor

CorrespondentMay 27, 2011 

  • 630 Weaver Dairy Road, Chapel Hill

    942-1133

    www.thepigrestaurant.com

    Cuisine: barbecue

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $-$$

    Atmosphere: casual, unpretentious counter service eatery

    Noise level: moderate

    Service: friendly and fast

    Recommended: vegetarian fare, charcuterie, barbecue (don't miss the hushpuppies)

    Open: Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.

    Reservations: not accepted

    Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; patio

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Standing in front of The Pig is a large, fanciful sculpture of the restaurant's namesake beast, fashioned from old gas canisters, castoff chains and other salvaged mechanical parts. Striking a splay-legged pose at once jaunty and fierce, he seems to be saying, "Don't let the name fool you. The Pig is not your run-of-the-mill barbecue joint."

That boast is confirmed when you step inside and see the menu, written in pastel chalk on two large blackboards - one for the regular menu, the other for specials - behind the order counter. There, sprinkled liberally among the familiar smokehouse staples is a wildly eclectic offering ranging from house-cured pastrami on rye to homemade tempeh braised in a barbecue sauce spiked with Bell's Two Hearted Ale.

The threads holding this culinary patchwork together - house-made charcuterie, strong vegetarian selection, focus on local produce and humanely raised meats - can be traced to owner Sam Suchoff. Before opening his first restaurant, Suchoff worked at Lantern, Neal's Deli and The Barbecue Joint, The Pig's predecessor in this space.

A self-described "recovering vegan," Suchoff clearly knows how to please the vegetarian palate. The "Sweet PLT" (that's sweet potato "bacon," lettuce and tomato) sandwich has earned a devoted following. So has the fried oyster mushroom po' boy and other variations (recently, fried shiitakes).

"Sprouts 'n' shrooms," an inspired combination of Brussels sprouts and mushrooms fried to a nutty-sweet caramelized turn, should please vegetarians and carnivores alike. Same goes for a seasonally changing selection of sides that might include thyme-dusted planks of fried squash or fried okra amped up with dry rub spices.

Watch out for the collard greens, though, if you're a committed abstainer from meat. That's pork fat glistening on the surface of their potlikker.

If that ambrosial potlikker doesn't erase all doubts about Suchoff's conversion to the pork side, then his cola-braised pork belly sandwich surely will. Adding a little root beer to the mix has made this mahogany-glazed slab of unctuous goodness even better, imparting an anise note that's subtly evocative of the five-spice blend in a Chinese barbecue.

The changing charcuterie selection runs the gamut from boudin blanc to the andouille that has recently been featured in gumbo. Pastrami is available pretty much all the time. So are homemade hot dogs and bologna, which are sold by the pound to take home. Or enjoy them in the restaurant in the form of, say, a fried bologna sandwich or the Japa-dog, which the menu informs you is topped with pickled daikon, Japanese mayo and the exotic condiment furikake.

For all its variety, the foundation of The Pig's menu is barbecue. Suchoff swears by his electric hardwood-burning smoker, favoring it over traditional methods for its precise temperature control. When it comes to the meat for his Eastern style 'cue, though, he's an old-fashioned whole-hog guy.

The result, when it hits the plate, is moderately smoky with a medium chop and a good bit of "outside brown" mixed in. The meat can be a little dry, but that's quickly remedied with a splash of sauce. At The Pig, the sauce is a variation on the classic Eastern vinegar-based brew that gets its deep amber color and distinctive flavor from a touch of caramelized sugar.

The Pig turns out a more than respectable beef brisket, too. Purists will note the lack of the smoke ring that's a hallmark of a classic brisket, but others will counter that you can't taste a smoke ring.

For my money, though, the most memorable things to come out of the smoker are the ribs. They're big and meaty that some people actually mistake them for beef ribs. They come with a thick, tangy-sweet Midwestern style sauce on the side, but I found it unnecessary. The dry rub and deep smokiness that permeated their flesh were all the flavor I wanted.

ggcox@bellsouth.net

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