Pulled pork sandwich $4
Pulled pork plate with 2 sides $10
Full rack of ribs $21
Brisket taco $2.50
When Patrick Martin relocated his barbecue joint this spring, he worried folks might not find him, tucked back off the main road, a few yards south and across the street from his original store. But when he flung open the lid on the whole-hog pit that divides the indoor kitchen from the outdoor patio of his new establishment, the hickory-scented smoke billowing above the latter-day roadhouse was better advertising than a thousand neon signs. People quickly found the new spot.
There are lots of reasons to love Martin's Bar-B-Que, many of which Guy Fieri enumerated on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives this spring. And standing in the ordering line, you just might find yourself next to an enthusiastic patron who wants to list the high points while you wait: ribs that cling to the bone with just the right resistance; chicken wings whose bronzed crisp-fried skins snap across tender smoke-infused meat; a $4 hamburger; and a convenient drive-through.
But the most compelling reason to visit Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint is — hands down, without a doubt — the whole-hog sandwich, piled with pork that's been slow-cooked for 25 hours in the pit in the middle of the restaurant. That's the claim to fame that earned Martin, a former corporate bond trader, an invitation to the Big Apple Block Party in June, where he was one of two pitmasters invited to represent the whole-hog tradition at the annual barbecue confab in New York City.
"Whenever Lelan Statom says it's going be under 85 degrees, I'm going to be scrambling for a hog," says Martin, who ponied up an extra 20 grand to build a furnace and barbecue pit as the centerpiece of his restaurant. When the forecast looks favorable a day out — meaning it won't be too hot to open the garage doors between the dining room and patio — Martin preps a hog with a simple rub of salt, pepper, brown sugar and other spices. (Martin's pigs are the crossbred progeny of China White sows and a Berkshire hog from Viola, Tenn., who goes by the studly name Wild Bill. On the menu board, Wild Bill gets a nod of gratitude for his work.) Some days Martin "mops" the pig with a beer, other days with some cider vinegar. It's more an art than a science. When the heat gets to 200 degrees, he throws the hog in the pit, closes the lid and waits.
Around sunset the next day, pitmaster Martin pulls on a pair of thick, black rubber gloves and steps up onto the brick pit. When he lifts the heavy metal lid, hickory-scented clouds puff into the bustling dining room and patio, and guests break ranks from the ordering line to see what all the fuss is about. About that time, Martin's Twitter audience gets a message that says something like "Hog gettin' close to being ready ... y'all come on!"
In case you were confused about what exactly might be inside a whole-hog pit, it's a whole hog, y'all. It's lying on its back, deader than hell, and it has been cooking for a day. This seems obvious enough, yet a few folks standing in line were appalled by the sight of a dead animal at a barbecue joint. After viewing the carcass, the man next to me in line said he was going to change his order to a burger. (Damn, son! Where do you think that comes from?)
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and, behold, that headless caramelized porker, splayed over a bed of smoldering coals, with sweet-and-salty hog liquor steaming in the fleshy pockets of its belly cavity — well, it was gorgeous. Those of us with a stomach for whole hog all but swooned as the pitmaster hunkered over the body, plucking unabashed handfuls of steaming pork from the crisped walls of bronzed pigskin. Grown men gazed upward toward Martin, pleading silently — some not so silently — for a bite.
For the rest of the night, pulled-pork items on the menu came straight from the pit, and the atmosphere of the restaurant morphed into something of a party, the kind of family-friendly Southern gathering that makes for good country songs, complete with draft beer and bottles of Cheerwine cherry soda.
So far, whole hogs have been limited to Saturdays. The rest of the week, the pulled pork comes from shoulders prepared in smokers in the back or in the rig often parked in front of the store. Once everything's piled on a fluffy potato bun, with vinegar-based Eastern Carolina sauce or a tomato-based Sweet Dixie sauce and slaw ("God meant for you to have slaw on your sandwich," Martin says), the shoulder meat and whole-hog meat are not vastly different. But the excitement of the hog pit, with all its sights, sounds and smells, makes for a much more memorable meal.
"When we cooked hogs in Mississippi, we stood around the pit all the time. That's what we tried to re-create," Martin says. "It's all part of it — the smell and the smoke getting in your eyes. That goes into the sandwich as much as the pork or the rub or the mop."
Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Whole-hog barbecue is available on Saturday evening, weather permitting, and will be available on Monday evenings during football season, when the hours will be extended.