CHICAGO – Even when I’ve eaten whole hog barbecue, I haven’t really eaten the whole hog. Sure, I’ve eaten snout at Petty’s in Starkville, Miss., but most of my swine dining has come from the popular cuts. Wednesday, I set out to change that.
The Purple Pig wastes none of the noble animal for which the restaurant is named. Pork neck bones are refilled with marrow to be spread on bread. When they have them, they serve the ears. Alas, ears did not make the menu for my visit. Tail did. So did jowl. So did the thymus glands, better known as sweetbreads.
The Purple Pig serves small plates, so the volume didn’t shock the bartender too much when I asked for tail, jowl and sweetbreads along with an order of broccoli with roasted garlic and Anchovy vinaigrette. She was a bit taken aback by the specificity of my requests. After all, the place serves a mouth-watering turkey leg confit, Wagyu beef tips and a host of other meaty delights. But I wanted pig, and I didn’t want the pieces of the pig they sell at my local grocery store.
I’m not sure why I expected an exotic flavor from the tail. At the end of the day, pork tastes like pork. Tail meat is similar in taste and texture to pork belly, but what makes the tail at the Purple Pig special is the pool of braising liquid that soaks up all the best bits from the tail as it cooks. At first, I wondered why the server brought me a spoon. After a bite, I understood. Every taste bud on my tongue begged, but it simply isn’t socially acceptable to chug braising liquid in mixed company. Fortunately, the spoon allowed me to scrape up every last drop without getting escorted to the door.
Next came the jowl, which arrived underneath a fried duck egg. The duck egg tasted spectacular on its own, but the jowl tasted like the best piece at a pig-picking. Crispy skin covered moist, tender meat. I had to remind myself to take smaller bites. Otherwise, the entire thing would have disappeared in 10 seconds.
My tour of porcine anatomy concluded with the sweetbreads, which are neither sweet nor bread, served with fennel and a dollop of pureed apricot. Sweetbreads seems a perfectly appetizing name, but it fails in every way as an accurate descriptor. Endocrine nuggets describe the dish better, but that probably wouldn’t inspire many diners to order it. If I ever run a restaurant that serves sweetbreads, I shall call them Glandular Flavor Bombs. The trick? Making them explode on the palate the way The Purple Pig does.
The wallet probably can’t take too many exotic pig parts. All that with a quartino of Chianti ran me about $60 before tip. I’ll return to the world of pulled shoulder meat and spare ribs, but I’ll know the truth. The whole damn thing tastes incredible.