There’s nothing expensive on the menu at Patillo’s Bar-B-Q in Beaumont. A pound of brisket is $12. A sandwich with one of their famous beef links will set you back just $5. But the best deal is a specialty you won’t find at most any other barbecue joint in Texas: hog head cheese.
Hog head cheese isn’t cheese at all. It’s an aspic made with ground bits of meat and spices suspended in gelatin. The gelatin is harvested from the head by boiling it for hours. The version at Patillo’s is made with just a smidgen of head; the gelatin-rich pig ears are the key ingredient. Owner Robert Patillo quit using the whole pig heads long ago. “Too many bones. Too much to fight with,” he told me.
Patillo starts with well-trimmed pork butts. “You don’t want any fat on them,” he says, because you’ll just have to spoon it off later. He boils the pork butts along with pig ears and leftover bones from the smoked hams served in the restaurant. After all the ham has been trimmed off the bone for serving, he adds the bone into the pot. The whole point of this recipe, of course, is to not let anything go to waste. The ham bone provides a little meat, but more importantly, it provides the smoked marrow and more gelatin.
After boiling, the gelatin-infused water is strained out and chilled. The fat that rises to the top and solidifies is discarded. The meat is chilled as well, and then it’s mixed with seasonings as it goes through the grinder. Patillo uses his mother’s recipe, which includes red pepper flakes, green onion, cilantro, and fresh, seeded jalapeños. Despite the peppers, I wouldn’t call it spicy. The mixture is then recombined with the liquid gelatin and chilled back down in long loaf pans to form the finished product, which is served cold.
Hog head cheese isn’t on the menu board. It’s advertised in Sharpie on sheets of paper taped to the walls. At just $3 for a half pound, it’s worth trying, along with the rest of the barbecue menu. It’ll come out sliced on an unadorned plate. Request some of the yellow mustard and hot sauce that Patillo keeps behind the counter. If you’ve had hog head cheese before, you’ll notice the ratio of meat to gelatin is much higher in this version. “If you make it with more liquid, when you put it out, it melts,” Patillo said. He likes it with crackers, but he doesn’t carry them at the restaurant. Potato chips work in a pinch, but most folks take the hog head cheese to go. It’s the only way to enjoy it with the proper pairing: a bottle of beer.