Not one to argue with an opportunity to gorge myself on swine, I never really questioned the whole "eat ham on Easter" tradition. That is, until I was the one that had to lug that hog's ass around the kitchen, trying to make heads or curly-tails out of how to cook the damn thing. Ham will do just fine for a family gathering, when someone else is doing the heavy lifting, but Chicago is rife with tasty pork alternatives. This year, I've decided to explore other parts of the pig.
Pulled pork at Smoque BBQ
Ham, like loin, was once considered high-brow meat; it's where the term "high on the hog" came from. But when it comes to good Southern eats, the cheap cuts have always prevailed. Take for example, Boston Butt, which is the go-to cut for authentic barbeque.
Smoque, a restaurant built on the concept of low-and-slow cooking, smokes its pork over applewood for 12 hours before plucking it by hand. The result? Pure pork bliss. Ideal in the sandwich ($5.95, $7.95 with sides), where the charred outside pieces mingle with the juicy insides in an exquisitely proportioned pile of BBQ, this meat is so good you might not even put the side of barbeque sauce to use. Ordering up the platter version allows you to better appreciate the tinge of peppery vinegar that keeps the pork's sweet, smoky flavor in check.
Pork belly sandwich at Blackbird
We all know about the magic of bacon, but still so many of us wrinkle our noses at the notion of noshing on pork belly. Even the squeamish should be able to appreciate that this full-flavored, fatty cut is—for all purposes—just a slab of unsliced bacon.
Chef Paul Kahan has long been one of Chicago's most visionary pork innovators. Newbies should go for the organic pork-belly sandwich ($13). Served with a spicy cabbage slaw, a touch of dijonnaise and side of garlic frites, this impossibly tender sammy packs a flavor that ham can't touch. Pork bellies have reached new popularity recently, with ambitious chefs trying to up the gourmet factor with fancy frills. But Kahan knows that there's still something so quintessentially blue-collar about the pork-belly — something that begs for it to come served on bread.
Lechon jibarito at Borinquen Restaurant
Nothing says "celebration" quite like heaving a pig onto a spit and lighting a fire. Few pork dishes can hold a candle to that old-fashioned charcoal-roasted flavor that comes from it, and Chicagoans are lucky to be surrounded by Cuban, Filipino and Puerto Rican eateries that serve up lechon, a crackling, flavorful meat that's heavy on the fat and has a depth of flavor unmatched by even the best cuts of ham.
It's tempting to just pile a roasted pig's tender meat high on a plate and go to town, but Borinquen had a better idea: It claims to have invented the jibarito ($6.95). This untidy meal features smoky piles of lechon between two garlicky fried plantains. Slippery, sloppy and dripping with fatty juices, it's basically a heart attack on a banana.
Honey jalapeno pork chops at Cafe 28
Once a mainstay on American dinner tables, pork chops now conjure up visions of clogged arteries and love-handles, and the embarrassment of gnawing on a bone in front of strangers sway many diners toward more refined entrees.
But Cafe 28's honey jalapeno pork chops ($19.50) are worth the hassle. Two gargantuan chops of pork are marinated in honey and jalapeno sauce, grilled, baked and served over a generous pillow of honey-mashed sweet potatoes. The high fat content in the chops brings out that salty flavor that pork-fiends crave; the honey glaze makes for a sweet counterbalance and the jalapeño adds a Cuban kick.
Dye-ing for more Easter fun? Peep these features:
Ethnic Easter Eats
Easter Egg Hunts
Easter Dessert Recipes