Yes, the tiny cottage on White Bridge Road with the unassuming sign out front and a plume of hickory smoke out back is that Pig & Pie — the same one that used to be out Charlotte Pike, before owner John Hamilton bought out his partners, including the son of former Sheriff Fate Thomas, and moved to Bellevue Mall. And if you've been wondering where Hamilton went after the mall closed in 2007, he's been hauling his butts around town, building a catering business on the foundation of his family's longstanding reputation in the restaurant industry.
Hamilton's grandfather ran The Fox restaurant in Jackson, Tenn., and his father and uncle ran The Hut, the Jackson establishment where Hamilton got his first taste of food service as a young boy. After laying claim to the former location of Hot Kabobs last year, and getting barbecue fans' hopes up for a long time, Hamilton finally reintroduced The Pig & Pie as a stand-alone restaurant in late June.
In transforming the erstwhile Middle Eastern eatery into a no-nonsense roadhouse, Hamilton set up a buffet-style lunch counter where he dishes out the hickory-smoked-meat-and-three, and he festooned the room with red-and-white-checked tabletops, newspaper articles about his family's restaurants, college football memorabilia and Coca-Cola Americana. (Don't let all that Coke paraphernalia fool you, though — The Pig & Pie is a proud purveyor of Pepsi products.)
There's a lot to like about The Pig & Pie — not least of all Hamilton himself, who brings an endearing enthusiasm and just the right level of intimacy to the dining experience. The Pig & Pie is a place where everybody knows your name but nobody invades your personal space, which is particularly important in a tight room with just a handful of tables and booths. Order a bunch of food, and he'll help you get it to your table. Buy supper for your kids, and he'll cut the meat into bite-sized pieces for them. That friendliness counts for a lot on those occasions the food misses the mark.
When it comes to the classic canon of Southern barbecue, The Pig & Pie has got chops. When it's fresh off the smoker, Hamilton's pulled pork butt is tender and crusted with sweet-and-salty caramelized bark. His signature sauces, laced with bourbon, honey and habanero, deftly balance sweetness and tang with varying levels of heat.
Enormous chicken breasts emerged from the smoker plump and juicy, textured with a rub of herbs and spices. Over three visits, we found enough promise in the pork butt, pork tenderloin, chicken breasts and pulled chicken to warrant a return trip someday when Hamilton is preparing ribs.
As for sides, there are enough good items to fill out the zones on your partitioned plastic plate. Baked beans stole the show, threaded with strings of pork and layered with unexpected depths of sweetness and faint heat. If you prefer your beans savory and on the more piquant side, go for the pintos, stewed with a trinity of onions, tomatoes and peppers that nudges the side dish from mild to hot. The P&P's black-eye peas, stewed with brown sugar, bacon and cumin, elevated the New Year's Day staple from a necessary cardboard-flavored superstition to something worth eating any day of the year.
You need slaw if you're going to eat barbecue, so if you don't see any on the hot bar, ask Hamilton to get you some from the back. His fine-grained cabbage salad has a hint of mayonnaise along with the apple cider vinegar, so he keeps it in the refrigerator, especially on the infernal days when the window-unit A/C has to work double-time to keep the joint cool. If you're really living well, you'll arrive on a day when Hamilton has baked a batch of low-slung biscuits reminiscent of golden sweet muffin tops.
Follow the prescription above and you've got a barbecue platter worth wallowing in. But not everything lives up to the high bar of The Pig & Pie's butts, beans, biscuits and slaw. Among the nine or so items in the hot bar, more than half fell far short of expectations. On one visit, spinach casserole had cooked to the extent that neither the iron-gray hue nor the gluey texture recalled anything resembling a leafy green. Diced potatoes in thin cheese sauce were overwhelmed by salt. Pale squash casserole was soupy, bland, and on one occasion, marked by the near-absence of squash. Mac-and-cheese with penne had the familiar feel and flavor of bright-yellow processed cheese. (That said, our kids devoured it, as they did the sheets of sliced turkey soaked in barbecue sauce — a disappointingly far cry from the pulled poultry the adults hoped to find under the heading "smoked turkey.")
In some cases, the shortcomings in the fare were consequences of timing. By dinnertime, for example, baked chicken breast stuffed with spinach and crusted with panko breadcrumbs had surrendered all traces of moisture.
Meanwhile, Hamilton will be the first to tell you when he has been cleaned out, either by the lunch crowd or by a catering job. (Take a look at The Pig & Pie's Facebook page and you can imagine that Hamilton's got his work cut out for him balancing both a cafeteria line and a catering agenda.) At lunch one day, the brisket was down to a few dried beefy straps that looked like jerky, though on a subsequent visit, the ropy meat was generous and moist. Thus far, it must be said that Pig & Pie suffers from a lack of consistency.
But Hamilton was consistently eager to please, and his effort goes a long way toward satisfying customers. On one visit, he showed up at the table mid-meal with an unsolicited serving of pulled pork fresh off the smoker, which rescued our meal. Furthermore, Hamilton and baker Tana Foster have got the kinks worked out just fine when it comes to dessert. Chess pie, Coca-Cola chocolate cake (made with Coke, not Pepsi), blueberry pie, chocolate-pecan pie, peanut-butter chocolate-chip pie and strawberry cake with pecan glaze were all excellent, drawn from Hamilton family recipes handed down through generations of restaurateurs. So even if it takes a while for Hamilton & Co. to get the hang of running lunch and dinner service in a fixed location, there's plenty of promise at The Pig & Pie — especially when it comes to the pig and the pie.
The Pig & Pie is open Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.