Pigs, pigs, everywhere! Concrete pigs loll about in the planters out front. Paintings of sultry sows hang on the walls, and a well-bristled member of the genus Sus squints nearsightedly from the restaurant’s sign. Pig figurines (or is that pigurines?) line shelves in the back room. There are swinish screen savers at the servers’ stations, and pig silhouettes adorn the business cards. This East Austin restaurant has gone whole hog with its decor and even more so with its menu. While I awaited my Hogwash cocktail (rum, watermelon, pineapple mint, lime), I did some counting. Of 35 savory, i.e., non-sweet, offerings that night, pork was involved in 15. Yes, indeedy, pig is king—or, rather, queen—at the Salty Sow (1917 Manor Rd.,512-391-2337).
To tell you the truth, that surprises me, because I thought the pig-and-pork-belly craze had leveled out. Apparently not, though, because the Sow has been a huge hit since it opened, in May. If you don’t believe me, just try to get a seat at a peak time in the main room (the larger of the restaurant’s two modest rehabbed buildings), where chattering diners perch on padded black-leather seats around butcher-block tables. Although this space is obviously the place to be, introverted guests tend to prefer the two-tops and rail seating in the back room, which houses the Trough bar (who knew there were so many swine-related tropes in the world?). Here, casual meets posh in the form of shabby-chic curtains and white-leather chairs. The Sow’s most Austin-esque area is the breezeway, which should soon be equipped with toasty heat lamps in readiness for November’s usual five days of truly cold weather.
Wherever you sit, it would be contrarian not to order a porkish dish from the eminently shareable menu. One such is the Niman Ranch blade steak, lavished with a Moroccan-style honey sauce. Another is the Italian-leaning milk-braised shoulder on white beans with pecorino cheese. But for pure fun, I love the Green Eggs and Ham. Served in a canning jar (all the rage these days), this appetizer starts with a layer of soft grits, adds bits of smoked ham hock, and tops it all off with a grass-green swath of basil-Parmesan cream. Suspended surreally amid the goodness is a quivering soft-cooked egg. You can plunge a spoon in to get everything in one fell scoop or you can spread the mixture on the small biscuits that come alongside (although ours were a bit tired). After several samplings and much cogitation, I have concluded that the Sow’s success can in fact be summed up by the Green Eggs and Ham. First, it’s luscious. Second, it’s lush. Third, it’s a slam dunk (see one and two). With sophisticated techniques backing up a highly approachable menu, the Sow is going for the gusto, not going out on a limb.
If my analysis is on target, credit goes in no small part to the surprisingly non-Texas orientation of its kitchen, which is headed up by chef-partner Harold Marmulstein and executive chef Richard Velazquez. The two blew into Austin less than a year ago after spending much of their frequently overlapping careers in Atlanta and other Southern cities. (Actually, Marmulstein, who is 51, did work in Texas from 2008 to 2010 as a key player in the restaurant empire that included the Roaring Fork, whose two owners are bankrolling the Salty Sow. But his basic culinary ideas were formed long before that.) “We are pig-centric,” declares the graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, adding, “I love old-school techniques—slow-roasting and braising especially.” Like many if not most chefs, he’s a control freak, so he’s picky about product. For special occasions the restaurant butchers its own pigs. His back-to-basics orientation is shared by Velazquez. “We definitely have similar ideas about straight-up, honest food,” he says. A graduate of the Florida Culinary Institute, the 39-year-old had never been to Texas except for layovers at DFW, but he’s catching on quick.
The twosome’s culinary philosophy is something to keep in mind when you’re at the Sow, nibbling on a wickedly good deviled egg pumped up with crisp bacon and chives (and a little too much truffle oil), wondering what to order next. A good plan: go with the robust, saucy creations that Marmulstein and Velazquez are keen on. The Petite Bone-In Filet with bone marrow–red wine sauce has been astonishingly good, and the beyond-fantastic slow-cooked beef cheeks (pictured), with buttery Yukon gold mashers, seduced me both times I tried them. That said, my absolute favorite two dishes on the list are vegetables. The brussels sprouts—delicate individual leaves that are lightly crisped, touched with agave nectar, and tossed with golden raisins and pecorino cheese—could be vegetable candy. And I was blown away by the cauliflower and wild rice casserole, a brilliant funky, nutty fusion united by Parmesan-garlic cream and slivered almonds (you’ll feel piggish once you inhale every last bite).
As you waddle out at the end of a meal, you can’t help but admire what Marmulstein and Velazquez have accomplished here. They came to Austin from afar and took it by storm. And they did so without resorting to the usual suspects, namely a plethora of beef and Mexican-oriented dishes. Instead, they appealed to the Southern part of Texas’ sprawling culinary heritage while still keeping things contemporary and eclectic. Not bad for a couple of boys who honed their chops in Dixie.