Back in February, on an unseasonably warm winter afternoon, Standard chef and co-owner Tad Curtz chatted with Y&H about what new to expect this summer at his 14th Street NW beer-and-barbecue hangout. He wanted some of last year’s specials—the smoked half chicken, the Flintstones-sized bone-in beef short rib—to become everyday offerings. And he was eager to barbecue “more exciting meat”—lamb shoulder and crispy pork cheeks, for example.
But he never mentioned that he would be smoking a whole freakin’ pig’s head.
“I was planning to just offer the jowls with some cheek meat,” said Curtz, “but when we got the heads in, I thought, Why not just smoke the whole thing?”
The heads, from Horst Meats, an old school Amish butcher shop in Hagerstown, Md., are seasoned with Standard’s pork shoulder rub before shacking up in the smoker for 14 hours. Each is served in full trophy form—whole head, snout up—on an aluminum sheet tray. On a blisteringly bright, fully crowded weekend afternoon, its appearance makes for quite the scene.
I was fortunate enough to reserve one last week, and, come Saturday afternoon, amid gasps and ahs, Curtz navigated the prize through Standard’s crowded garden and positioned it on our sliver of a communal table near the street-side Donut Robot fryer.
“There are a couple ways to approach it from here,” he said. “First, get the camera. Then the best thing to do is flip it over, dig in, and get messy.”
Indeed, the task of removing meat from head is thrilling, but messy. The first move is a no-brainer. Pluck off the two lobes of cheek meat that sit tidily on the surface of the jowls, loosely attached to the jawbone. Dip the meat in the sweet and spicy barbecue sauce, and pop it into your mouth. The real treasure comes next.
The jowls, which initially look like to two blubbery wings of fat, give up thin layers of slick, ropy meat with a texture not unlike that of skate wing. Keep digging; beneath each half-inch layer of jowl fat lie more strands of delicate, delightful muscle.
Other meaty chunks are hidden in the crannies of the skull. One trick is to pull off the ears—having been smoked, they are tough and leathery—and find the muscles that, as Curtz said, “make the pig’s ears wiggle.” These slippery golf ball-size gobs are as supple and delicious as a slow-cooked pork shoulder. Smaller pockets of meat are embedded near the top of the skull and around the base of the neck.
For those fully dedicated to the pleasures of face meat, there is the snout and the tongue. The former contains a gelatinous, deviled ham–like substance; the latter has a chewy, not-nearly-as-funky-as-you-might-think meatiness.
The price tag for this sensual experience? A mere $18.
“I kind of get a kick out of people being excited about stuff like this,” Curtz said. “A big part of our restaurant is people enjoying each other’s company. It’s more important, for me, to have that going on than to make ten dollars off the pig head.”
So how often will the pig’s heads be on the menu?
“Nothing that ever happens at Standard is really that well planned out. But there’s been a lot of interest and it’s something we’ll continue offering,” said Curtz. “I only have room in the smoker for one a day. They take up a ton of room. And I can only get a delivery from the supplier once a week. So we’ll only offer it on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.”
But don’t expect to walk in and order one of these suckers at your leisure: “Enough people have emailed now that I’ve got a little bit of a backlog. It’s very short, but there is a waiting list.”
My advice: get on it now. This is the dish of summer 2012.
Photos by Laura Ball
Standard, 1801 14th Street NW, www.standarddc.com