Going whole hog, apart from being a blast, is no easy feat. That might be why no barbecue restaurants in town offer it on a regular – or irregular, for that matter – basis. But starting this weekend, whole hog barbecue fans can have their piggy dreams fulfilled at Fat Head’s Brewery
(17450 Engle Lake Dr., 216-898-0242) in Middleburg Heights.
In preparation for the launch, owner-brewmaster Matt Cole has added some new cooking equipment to his already impressive arsenal. In addition to the workhorse Oyler 700, a wood-fired beast that smokes 1,000 pounds of meat at a time, the kitchen brought in a Backwoods Pro Competition Hog Cooker. This outdoor wood-fired water smoker is designed specifically to cook whole hogs weighing up to 260 pounds in a low, slow, moist and smoky environment.
Chef Nate Sieg (left) with Heath Riles
But more important than the equipment is the expertise. For that, Cole turned to his buddy on the competition barbecue circuit, Heath Riles. Since 2013, as Pitmaster for Heath Riles BBQ, Riles has amassed a staggering number of Grand Championship Awards, including numerous top-10 finishes at the famed Memphis in May. In addition to appearances on the Food Network, Travel Channel and Destination America, Riles has his own line of BBQ rubs, sauces and injections.
Whole hog barbecue, which originated in Tennessee and the Carolinas, is a true challenge owing to the fact that you’re simultaneously cooking various cuts of meat with different thicknesses, fat contents, and collagen levels. In the real world, hams, shoulders, loins and bellies do not cook at the same pace, and ending up with meat that is neither undercooked nor overcooked requires finesse. When it’s done, the meat is chopped, blended and dressed with a thin vinegar-based sauce for a pleasant tang.
“There’s more white meat and less bark – just succulent old-school traditional barbecue,” explains Riles. “Everybody wants to go back to what barbecue was way back in the day and whole hog is the mecca of that. Nobody cooked just pork shoulder back when, they cooked sides of hog. Chopping that up and putting it on a sandwich just brings that comfort back.”
At 11 a.m. on a recent day, Riles, Cole and chef Nate Sieg extracted a practice hog from its smoky chamber and marveled at its crackly, copper-colored exterior. When cracked open, a plume of heavenly porky perfume immediately permeated the kitchen. The 100-pound hog began cooking at 5 p.m. the previous evening. When picked through and chopped, the yield should be around 60 pounds of meat.
Diners who order the whole hog special this Sunday (beginning at noon and running until it’s gone) will receive a half-pound of tender, flavorful, succulent chopped meat ($13.99) and two sides. Cole says that if the item sells as well as he expects it to, it will be a regular Sunday dish clear through fall and perhaps year-round.
For a well-travelled competition barbecue cook like Riles, what Cole is attempting to do at Fat Head’s is a rarity.
“This is not something that most people would do – Matt’s going the extra mile,” he says. “Whole hog was all about gatherings with family and friends. And that’s what barbecue does anyway; it brings people together. I think Matt’s trying to make this place a destination and I think doing good barbecue will help.”