In terms of timing, it could not have worked out worse for the guys from Proper Pig. After months and months (and months) of setbacks, Michael Symon finally announced the opening for his rabidly anticipated barbecue concept Mabel's – and wouldn't you know, it was the very same week as the Pig's debut.
But don't feel bad for owners Shane Vidovic and Ted Dupaski, the team behind the Texas-style barbecue food truck of the same name. While they might have surrendered a little pre-opening buzz to the Iron Chef, their Lakewood restaurant has been balls to the wall ever since its April opening. Daily, the colorful, casual and festive 35-seat shop flies through 500 pounds of barbecue, twice the amount the smoker can bear at any given time.
The lines at Proper Pig (and Mabel's) is proof that for far too long Cleveland diners have been starved of quality barbeque. In a city weaned on crock-pot pulled pork and boiled, grilled and sauce-slathered ribs, the proliferation of authentic barbecue is a blessing, because wood-smoked meat is a gift from the heavens.
The Pig boys have been honing their craft as proprietors of the portable Pig rig for the past three years, but they've been making barbecue much longer than that. It takes practice and patience to transform a lean, unforgiving saddle of meat like brisket into a quivering mass of juicy barbecue instead of a really costly piece of beef jerky. Capped in black, ringed with fat, and bordered by a crimson smoke ring, the tender and supple meat is a joy and revelation to eat.
Because so many of us didn't grow up eating the real thing down south or out west, there seems to be a bit of a learning curve when it comes to barbecue. If you're talking about the sauce, the restaurant is doing it wrong. If you describe the ribs as "falling off the bone," the restaurant is doing it wrong. If the meat has zero smoke flavor, too much smoke flavor, or artificial smoke flavor, the restaurant is doing it wrong.
At Proper Pig, the meat is the star of the show. That brisket gets a straightforward rub of salt, coarse black pepper and a dash of paprika before heading into the humid hothouse of a smoker for the better part of the day. The same for the St. Louis pork ribs, which arrive pink, peppery, meaty and glistening with fat. The meat does come cleanly off the bone, but it still requires the teeth in your head and only where you bite it. There's more to pulled pork than mushy, pudding-soft meat and Proper Pig's version shows that off in long ribbons of sweet meat studded with bark, those dark and crusty bits that are the hallmarks of low and slow smoking.
All of the above barbecue comes naked – as in, no sauce. On the tables are bottles of a thin tomato and vinegar based elixir that adds a pleasant tang if you're looking for a little lubrication.
While the brisket, ribs and pulled pork are the main attractions, one shouldn't overlook the Texas hot links and the turkey breast. Spicy and smoky, the beef hot link sausages burst with juiciness when you snap through the natural casing. If you're going to get turkey at a barbecue joint, it should at least be as good as Proper Pig's.
Brisket, pulled pork and turkey are sold by the half pound ($10, $8 and $9 respectively), ribs by the half or full slab ($13, $21), and links by the link ($4). The best way to go is to order a two-, three- or four-meat combo platter, which include sides and are served on the traditional butcher paper-lined tray accompanied with white bread, pickles and sliced white onions. Use the bread to make little sammies with the meat or to sop up all the drippings. The sides – potato salad, coleslaw and smoky baked beans – are all fine.
Proper Pig offers a handful of sandwiches, some straightforward fabrications built around pulled pork, chopped brisket or turkey, while others are more extravagant in size and scope. The Proper Slopper ($12) is a jawbreaker piled high with brisket, pork, hot links, bacon, slaw and sauce. To drink, there's soda and a short selection of beer, including Texas-based Southern Star.
As diners in the First World, we have come to expect that our restaurants will have the food we desire. That's not the case in Barbecue Land, where it's common practice to run out of certain items until the following day. That's why Proper Pig is dinner-only until they add a second smoker and up their output.
At least in Cleveland we're not forced to stand in line for hours praying that there will still be brisket at the other end – yet.
Proper Pig Smokehouse17100 Detroit Ave., Lakewood