A tiny little joint on Centre Street offers over-the-counter service and a cooking area that makes "open kitchen" an understatement. You're right on top of the action as the smoked pork and fried apps make their way from holding chambers to heating pans to a staging area to the counter, all in precisely choreographed fashion. A shoulder-high Cookshack smoker is the closest contraption to the counter.
The area for ordering, waiting and eating is more than a bit cramped. Arranged perpendicular to the tiny window eating counter, a half dozen stools are meant to be straddled sawhorse style for the only dine-in option. The edge of the counter plunges straight down with no recess, so there's no leg room (sauce stain alert). Takeout is the way to go here, and with parking surprisingly easy, it's a breeze.
For such a small place, the roster of appetizer, sandwich and meat options is startlingly deep. I'm not sure whether it's the creator of the dishes or the writer of the menu who deserves more credit, but each one sounds very tempting in print—none more so than the "green chile and pork belly donuts with garlic aioli, farm cheese, lemon and smoked paprika salt."
Appetizers also include smoked wings, smoky meat and bean chili, and a fryolator fab five featuring chili cheese fries, hush puppies, crispy pimento cheese stuffed jalapenos, fried half sour pickles and the aforementioned donuts.
For main event, there's babyback and St Louis cut pork ribs, sliced brisket, pulled pork, smoked chicken, smoked pork belly and smoked fennel hot pepper pork sausages. Sandwiches include the boneless meats as well as burger creations using 3-ounce and 8-ounce patties. If that's not enough, there's smoky fried chicken and three different salads.
I hit the Red Eyed Pig once for a weeknight dinner and once for a weekday lunch, both within the joint's first month of business.
Pork belly donuts: It's a shame that these were stuffed into a plastic container rather than plated artfully, because there's some real potential here. Five Munchkin-sized (and -shaped) "donuts" ($6.50) straddled the line between actual donut and cornmeal fritter, studded with the promised pork belly and green chiles. The creamy aioli was a wecome addition, tying all of the flavors together, and the light sour notes provided a refreshing antidote to the potential heaviness. Would I order this again? You bet.
Wings: A half dozen wings ($5.95) came tightly packed into a clear plastic tub,
brushed with just enough sauce to keep things moist. These were plump wings, as tight
of crisp skin as the group was in the package. Smokiness was
apparent as soon as the lid was lifted. Flavor had
good use of spices on top of the smoke, though they were very different
from the usual barbecue profile. The main weakness, at least on this
night, was the lack of tenderness. The wngs had just a little too much
snap. Overall, a nice attempt, but shy of making my wings list.
Ribs: The first visit's half rack of St Louis cut spares ($14 with two sides and cornbread) was served unsauced (as are all the meats) and uncut, with tenderness such that the bones separated easily with a plastic knife. The surface brought some hints of pink and some char from a grilling effort that got just the right amount of crisping and no more. The grill taste from that finish didn't overpower the overall flavor, but it was the predominant element in the mix. Smoke was light. The ribs didn't need any sauce for moisture, but mandatory sauce dippings definitely coaxed the timid flavor along.
The second visit delivered the same coloring and light smoke, but yielded a better doneness, texture and overall flavor. Whatever rub was in there might not have been detectable on the surface, but the meat this time had some flavor. Still, the ribs with or without sauce never scratched that barbecue itch for me, nor did they bring full-on juiciness.
Pulled pork: Supplied as part of the first visit's 3-meat combo ($16.95 with two sides and cornbread), the grayish pulled pork with minimal bark had good moisture but subtle flavor. Smoke was much lighter than on the wings.
Pulled pork sandwich: Served open faced to showcase the pork and the automatically included cole slaw, the pulled pork sandwich ($7.95 with one side) impressed more so with its shiny brioche bun. The meat was again mostly gray with only flashes of pink and bark. It had a slightly steamy quality with less natural moisture than the first effort. The North Carolina vinegar sauce was completely absorbed, requiring a little extra sauce to combat the dry. Cole slaw was crisp and flavorful, more so than the meat. With sauce added, this sandwich worked.
Pork belly: Ordered on the first visit's 3-meat combo, the pork belly had the right "piggy" feel, with crisp skin, tender meat and just the right chewiness, but the long strips of meat were too white in every sense. There wasn't much smoke, rub, pinkness or porkiness. Red Eyed Pig's rendition might be a little cheaper than the one at Boston's Sweet Cheeks, but it's nowhere near as compelling.
Brisket: The first visit brought moist, chewy slices with good texture, and just the right amount of fat, but not much color or flavor. The second visit continued the same characteristics, but upped the flavor significantly. There wasn't much crispness or feelable rub on the surface either time, but that second visit had very noticeable rub presence throughout the flavorful meat. On both visits, smoke was very light but moistness was never an issue and doneness was right on the money.
Sausage: Probably the best thing on the menu. By its nature, sausage is fatty, so it's going to be moist even with little effort. But here the effort was evident: this sausage had a dark casing, the perfect snap, a release of fresh juices and a good mouthfeel to go along with intensely porky flavor, a strong fennel component and pleasant spiciness that wasn't blow-you-away hot. This one's definitely among my favorite Boston BBQ sausages.
A quintet of sauces supplied in 5-ounce plastic cups span the well established barbecue spectrum with a North Carolina vinegar, a South Carolina sweet/spicy mustard, a sweet sauce, a hot sauce and a cross ("Open Pit") between the two. Most were typical, but the sweet sauce had the same slippery mouthfeel as the classic artificially red Chinese-American sweet and sour sauce.
Sides have been mostly good.
Mac and cheese: An outside-the-box rendition looks nothing like what comes in the box, instead filling perfectly cooked shells with a creamy but dense cheese sauce. At first I thought the few crumbles of cornbread on top were an accidental spill, but as I dug deeper and found more, I realized they're intentionally integrated for flavor and textural contrast.
Baked beans: Definitely a homemade version, these have large beans and a thick, semi-sweet condiment with a strong oniony essence that I really liked.
Cole slaw: Crisp cabbage gets a dressing that's neither sweet nor creamy, nor vinegar too. Somehow there's no lack of flavor though, so I like it.
Collard greens: A very simple treatment showcases the natural flavor of the vegetable but dresses it nicely with the most finely chopped meat and other goodies.
Cornbread: This is a weak spot: too sweet and too dry.
The Bottom Line
Red Eyed Pig is the kind of place I might visit somewhat regularly if I lived in the 'hood, but the Cook Shack profile (low smoke levels, subdued flavors, slight steaminess) and lack of a true dine-in experience hold it back from being a destination joint. That said, there's some passion in their sides and some serious creativity all around, so this is a spot well worth watching in the months ahead.
Other Opinion and Info
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