(10/24/14) (04/01/15) (04/19/15)
Starting as a series of pop-ups in the summer of 2013, Arrogant Swine brought Carolina style whole hog barbecue to New York City five seasons later as a brick and mortar enterprise. Owner/pitmaster Tyson Ho has built quite the space, with much emphasis on the bar and the street art. Outdoor picnic tables galore have heaters to make outdoor dining an option even in winter.
You order over the counter from a chalkboard menu, receive a numbered stand, and wait for the counter attendant to bring you the order when ready.
The meat that started it all is the East Carolina Whole Hog, but there's plenty more to choose from: outside brown shoulder, pork ribs and pork belly. There's also sausage, chicken wings and chicken legs.
A brunch menu is available on weekend afternoons.
I followed up a Friday night solo visit in the fall of 2014 with two early spring 2015 visits: a Wednesday night with two well versed barbecue mavens and a Sunday night with Young Bride. These yielded four, seven and two meats, respectively.
Wings: The first bites I had from my first Arrogant Swine visit didn't exactly get things off to a roaring start. An easy order at 50 cents apiece, these smoked wings disappointed by being undercooked, undertender, overseasoned (a rare feat) and over-rubbery.
These struck me as an item that wasn't as much an integral part of the joint's overall theme as it was a necessity of doing business. Maybe that's why on my next try, the wings had a new format, name and price: Vietnamese Wings ($10).
At first glance, the Vietnamese Wings had attractive caramel coloring and a heavy dose of a compelling sauce, but the doneness was again off: no crispness on the surface and a soft, almost liquid feel even under the sauce. Caramelly is exactly the flavor here, with some Southeast Asian ingredients duking it out in the background to add bitter balance. I liked them in the abstract, I liked the effort and I liked that they're different from any other wing around town, but I didn't like the resulting texture (limp) or flavor (very busy) enough to down more than two. But if you're in a group, they're well worth a try.
Sausage: I gave the sausage ring ($7.00) a try on the first two visits, and the results were identical: very little snap, very little smoke, very mild flavor. Both times it reminded me of bologna, or as I said in my First Look review, "bland bologna." This phrase, along with my take on the early wings, ruffled the feathers of owner Tyson Ho, who in his next installment of his series on Serious Eats made reference to it. (Interesting that he did so without mentioning this site's name or providing a link, as he did with the other references in the piece.) He defended his sausage by claiming that critics and guests loved it, so why change? Shortly after my second visit, he did change it: the link is now a longer, uncurved chicken tikka masala sausage. I'm looking forward to trying it.
But stay with me, the 'cue gets better. Just as you don't go to IHOP for the steak, you don't go to a Carolina barbecue joint for wings and sausage, even if they're on the menu. (You also don't go to a waffle house for pancakes, a pancake house for barbecue or a barbecue joint for waffles. Or do you?)
Whole Hog : This is what you come to Arrogant Swine for, and this they do quite well. It's Carolina barbecue: chopped pork from every part of the animal, very lightly sauced with a thin vinegar concoction and topped with crunchy cracklins (think pork rinds). Silky, hoggy, smoked just enough and no more, sauced just enough and no more, moist even under the tart sauce.
The first visit's serving ($12 per half pound; add $3 for cornbread and slaw) was ideal, bringing a smooth and velvety feel to the delicate meat. The bite was buttery and the flavor robust, with more hoggy intensity than your everyday pulled pork.
The second visit's step down in moisture required extra sauce, as the meat was more flaky than buttery. Flavor came pretty close, perhaps just missing the pop of the noticeably fresher first batch.
The third try swung the pendulum in the right direction, coming in about halfway toward the impressive first visit. The meat was closer to moist than the first's full-on juicy, but it had a much fresher feel than the second. This time, the cracklins were AWOL ("We ran out"), lending creedence to my theory that the cracklins might not be coming from the same animal that supplied the meat under them. But no matter, it's what's under them that matters more.
Outside Brown: If there's a Carolina pork equivalent to Kansas City's beef burnt ends, this ($11 per half pound) is it. Taken exclusively from the shoulder, this pork—tried on visit 2 only—takes the form of cubes with one or more sides completely covered in flavorful bark. It's a little smokier than the hog, but lighter in overall flavor. Moisture came through, but closer to a sweat than a flow or trickle. The meat had some give with a little stiffness too, making me wonder if it was a reheat. A bright, sweet dip brought the meat up to par, but I'm hoping the outside brown will be able to stand on its own on another evening in my future.
Ribs: These are some very large full cut spares, not skimping on meat or quantity of bones—on the second visit a quarter rack ($12.00) yielded four ribs, not three. But this is a tale of two very different visits. The first try brought hulking, red glazed bones with rubby bumps of flavor poking through. The pinkish meat was fresh, juicy, tender and alive with flavor, getting an assist from mustard as a contrasting element at the end. I'd rank these ribs among the best in the city.
The second visit had more of a black surface all around, with less rub, drab gray cross sections and a more distant flavor. Tenderness varied bite to bite: some stiff, some wiltingly tender. The ribs I saw on other trays during visit 3 looked similar, so I passed.
Chicken Legs: This makeshift appetizer ($13.00 with cornbread and slaw) on visit 2 threw in some thighs as well. All of the poultry had well crusted skins with some light glaze flavor contrasted by a green onion topping similar to chimichurri in appearance but with a very bold ginger presence. Firm inner meat had residual moisture and noticeable smoke.
Pork Belly: Tried on the second and third visits, this item ($14.00) showed the potential to be the menu's hidden gem. Pencil-thin slices of belly had decent moisture, minimal fat content (you could down the entire slice with no trimming necessary) and a somewhat porky flavor elevated by a thin "tamarind dip" most likely also comprised of soy, vinegar, sugar and fish sauce, with sesame seeds adding both texture and flavor. Fried shallot slivers add even more light crunch and contrasting flavor.
The edges were more droopy than crispy, but the majority of each slice was tender and fairly tasty on its own (pork and smoke; I think no cure) and even better with the sauce. A tad long in the tooth on visit 2, like much of the menu that night, the pork belly rebounded on visit 3 with fresher slices that proved much more enjoyable.
A cup of meat-appropriate sauce gets provided with every order. If you want more, plastic dispensers at the ordering counter supply three different varieties: a thin brown vinegar for whole hog, a sweeter brown sauce for the outside brown and a tangy South Carolina mustard for anything else. All are good.
Cornbread Waffle: If you upgrade your whole hog order to a plate, the extra $3 gets you a boat of cole slaw and a mini cornbread waffle. The use of waffle irons here for various sides has been a source of controversy, but I'm going on record as saying I like it—for the cornbread, at least. The corniness is there, but it defers fully to a donut feel and flavor, with just enough greasiness to be a plus. As a lover of all things donut, I'm on board.
Mac and Cheese Waffle: I might be jumping ship with this one ($9.00), but still give props for the innovation, uniqueness and presentation (served with cups of melted queso and hot sauce for DIY dipping). The mac and cheese gets warmed in a larger waffle iron, making it crispy on the outside (good if you like that, not so good if you don't; I'm in the latter camp) and dry on the inside (I'm afraid there's only one camp here). The dunking and dipping eventually gets the moisture right while turning mac and cheese into finger food.
Sweet Potato Waffle: I take a middle ground here. A near-liquid sweet potato mixture stands up a little better to the waffle iron treatment, and the sweet bourbon syrup is a dessert-worthy topping. What I don't like is that they're cooked ahead of time and sitting in racks behind the counter. Served as such—and that's how they were served on visits 2 and 3—they result in a colder, firmer product that could benefit greatly from being cooked to order. Not only might it be worth the wait, it might be worth an extra beer while waiting.
Collard Greens: Very green, very plain and studded with poultry.
Cole Slaw: There are two slaws to choose from. Although both are worth trying, my only stab at the Red Vinegar Slaw was vaguely Mediterranean and slightly watery. The real star is the Apple Mustard Slaw, made with fresh sliced apples and mustard, and the not-overpowering mustard yields nicely to the fruitiness of the apples and raisins. It may not be traditional and it may not be for everyone, but it's cool, crisp, refreshing and quickly becoming one of my favorite slaws.
Legal street parking is hard to find on Morgan Avenue, but the nearby side streets more than accommodate.
On a warm summer evening, the outside picnic table seating is spacious, comfortable and includes a free art show: some of the best murals in the city are right here.
The Bottom Line
Someone once said that Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson was more exciting striking out than many other players getting a hit, and the same could be said about Arrogant Swine. Not that they strike out—there are some hits, especially for lovers of pork off the bone—but the misses are valiant and interesting. I love what they're trying to be, and if they can improve the consistency and freshness, I might just love the execution too. But make no mistake: if Carolina style pork or barbecue innovation is your thing, Arrogant Swine is a must-try.
My 2014 "First Look" review of Arrogant Swine
Tyson Ho's Serious Eats Rebuttal of my Wings and Sausage Comments
How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn (Tyson Ho series)
The Infatuation's review of Arrogant Swine
Yelp reviews of Arrogant Swine
Urbanspoon reviews of Arrogant Swine
Tabelog Reviews of Arrogant Swine
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