For well over a decade, going all the way back to the first incarnation of Fosters American Grill in Cameron Village, Franz Propst has been building a reputation as a versatile and creative chef in a variety of local restaurants. After winning fans for his shrimp and grits at Fosters, the chef went on to add to his fan base with the likes of grilled cobia with Boursin mashed potatoes at the short-lived Ocean Grill in Cary, and wood-grilled veal medallions with a dried porcini mushroom rub at Peak City Grill in Apex.
All the while, as he was turning out one culinary creation after another, Propst was hankering to get back to basics. That’s basics with a “b” as in barbecue.
The urge isn’t surprising, given that Propst cut his teeth on Lexington-style ’cue when he was growing up in Winston-Salem, and discovered Eastern style whole hog when he was a student at East Carolina University. Inventive chef that he is, Propst got the idea in his head to combine the two styles into one.
Using an electric smoker for precise temperature control, he would smoke pork butts and hams to a level of smokiness about midway between Eastern and Western styles. He’d season the pork lightly with a sauce he created by marrying the two styles: vinegar-based, but with a touch of tomato and spice.
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Propst’s restaurant would break with Carolina barbecue tradition in other ways, too. He’d offer a variety of smoked meats – all humanely raised – from chicken wings to beef brisket. Vegetable sides would be cooked from scratch, and would vary with the season.
The chef told Peak City Grill owner Steve Adams about his idea, and Adams was all in. The concept took material form as The Blistered Pig Smokehouse, which opened last December in downtown Apex.
Propst’s hybrid take on pork barbecue will no doubt strike barbecue purists as a sacrilege. But it will hit the spot for just about everyone else. The pork – which isn’t chopped or sliced but pulled into thick meaty shreds – is very lightly sauced. You can adjust it it to your liking from the bottle of sauce on the table.
The red sauce, that is. There’s also a green sauce, but the chef created that one for chicken. A pungent jalapeño blend that he ages for 30 days before bottling, it’s great with the smoked wings.
Cheerwine BBQ chicken comes with its own built-in sauce, in the form of a translucent garnet glaze that manages to avoid being cloying while playing sweet-tart counterpoint to the smoky meat. I’m partial to the dark meat, but the white meat quarter bird my wife ordered recently proved to be sufficiently moist that I “sampled” more than was strictly necessary to do my job.
St. Louis spare ribs, on the other hand, were marred by a surfeit of sauce – a second application, from the looks of the slab I was served, slathered on after the ribs were done.
Propst’s ancho- and coffee-rubbed take on brisket (there’s that penchant for inventiveness again) is satisfyingly smoky and moist – sometimes so moist that it falls apart as it’s being sliced. If what lands on your plate looks more like it’s been chopped than sliced, rest assured that it’s just as tasty.
Among the handful of non-barbecue alternatives, crunchy-crusted “roasted fried” chicken is a worthy option. So are fried chicken livers, tossed with smoky bacon and caramelized onions. And I can’t imagine that even the most ardent fan of the chef’s shrimp and grits will be disappointed that he’s now using house-made sausage instead of andouille.
You can also make a first-rate meal from the selection of vegetable sides (don’t miss the supplemental list of seasonally changing sides on the chalkboard), though vegetarians should note that a number of these are seasoned with smoked meats. Even if your lifestyle rules out the likes of pork-punctuated baked beans, and Brussels sprouts with bacon bits, you’ll have plenty of rewarding options to choose from. Grilled-in-the-husk corn on the cob, stewed okra and tomatoes, and a surprisingly light and refreshing black-eyed pea salad, to name a few recent winners.
You’ll also find a selection of homemade desserts on the chalkboard. Banana pudding, made with a scratch custard, is about as good as banana pudding gets. A rich coconut custard pie – a whole miniature pie, big enough for two – is marred only by a microwave-softened crust.
Taking its cue from the kitchen, The Blistered Pig’s dining room pays homage to barbecue tradition without being a slave to it. In addition to the obligatory barnyard-themed folk art (kept to a merciful minimum), highlights include a large stone fireplace and the brick walls inherited from the historic Tobacco & Mule Exchange building where the restaurant is located. Built in 1917, the building was renovated a few years ago, and now is home to a handful of shops and offices – just the sort of respectful nod to tradition that I’m sure Franz Propst can appreciate.
225 N. Salem St., Apex
Atmosphere: family-friendly, rustic-contemporary
Noise level: moderate
Recommended: pulled pork, brisket, Cheerwine BBQ chicken, fried chicken livers, vegetable sides, banana pudding
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
Reservations: not accepted
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in the lot behind the restaurant.
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.