Handsome Hog: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

Handsome Hog, Twin Cities Agenda

Lowertown is changing. Where once the streets were quiet and food was hard to find, the opposite is now true. While there are plenty of reasons to lament the gentrification of St. Paul’s premier arts district, that’s not what this article is about: This article is about the wholesome goodness that has come out of one of the newer kitchens on the scene.

Handsome Hog
203 6th St E
Saint Paul, MN 55101
(651) 340-7710

First, before the food arrives, come the drinks.

The cocktails are awesome. It might be a restaurant first and foremost, but you could certainly come here for sips only and leave just as satisfied. Bourbon is the specialty (100-strong), and the Old Fashioned ($10), Manhattan ($11), and Mint Julep ($8) do not disappoint. The Bourbon slushy is fun as well, and they do a sort of bourbon Bloody Mary that might make you rethink your classic morning drink. They also offer a beer made special by nearby Tin Whiskers, aptly named the Handsome Hog Smoke Ale that might be the smokiest beer in the world.

The space around us, where Bin Wine Bar once sat, is certainly handsome;earns its name. Where Bin was dark, cavernous, and cold, the Hog is open, warm, and inviting. The awnings are gone, letting in natural light before the sun goes down and making way for the glow of streetlamps after dark. The bar has been moved to the back of the space; no longer along the windows where you could hardly pass by when it was full. The small space makes much more sense as it stands now, and it is much more comfortable. Be warned, however, there is only one table that accommodates large groups, and it’s in the no-reservations bar area. Plan on keeping it intimate unless you have Vegas luck and get there at the right time.

But it is really all about the food.

This is where the article title becomes especially relevant. There’s the obvious correlation between smoke and fire from way back when we first learned to stop, drop, and roll, and there’s the modern day straight fire interpretation thanks to hip hop culture that describes something so good (hot) it caught fire. The food might make you want to stop, drop, and roll if that’s your celebratory dance move of choice, but it really is fire if we’re talking about one of the Twin Cities’ most exciting new culinary destinations.

The pork belly ($11) with a mustard glaze, quail eggs and crisp chicken skin dotting the plate, and a maple pork jus to tie it all together, was a standout. You can also get this in tofu form, which, while the pork is much better, is an awesome choice for vegetarians*.

*Vegetarians can also be really excited about the squash panzanella ($11), and the cobb salad ($14), but at Handsome Hog, you’re really missing out if you’re not willing to sink your teeth into a little fauna.

Poutine ($9) is now seemingly on every menu in the Twin Cities, but this one earns its place. If you’ve ever had the Canadian original, this version will be virtually unrecognizable with jojo-style potatoes and crispy cheese curds smothered in a glossy sausage gravy and chives. It’s a dish all it own, and, while a little heavy for an appetizer, one of the most fun and tasty items on the list.

Their hush puppies ($9) are elevated by crawfish, roasted corn, and a smoked green tomato relish that ends up being the star of the plate. This is a little more snack-sized to keep you hungry enough for dinner, and a really nice option for a starter.

The Whole Roasted Pork Jowl ($22) is more than worth a try as well.

For an entree, the Head, Shoulders, Peas, and Toes ($16) is a great choice, and a great value. A little kitschy in name, maybe, but the dish delivers and is actually as fun as the name implies. The plate consists of smoked jowl (head), braised shoulder (duh), and trotter (toes), and from the pig, supplemented with black-eyed peas, fried okra, and red eye gravy. Nothing wrong with a little tongue in cheek when done right. The best okra had before this was Hickory Hut on University, but that may have just been supplanted the Hog and I found myself wishing I could have an order of it as a side.

The Beef Short Rib ($24) was fall-off-the-bone tender and juicy. The meat gets a little lost among the enormous potato wedges, but it’s still awesome. It also comes with mustard greens, pickled watermelon rind that adds a nice acidic bite, giant trumpet mushrooms that were cooked perfectly and were awesome all by themselves.

The Smoked Beef Brisket ($18), which has received rave reviews from everyone we’ve talked to, has been sold out the three times we’ve gone. While that’s something of a good sign for the restaurant, hopefully one of these time it will last a little longer so we can finally get my hands (teeth) on it.

The “meat bar” is a fun concept, and a novel way to do charcuterie in a city with plenty of awesome charcuterie (St. Paul Meat Shop, Ward 6, et al.). It’s also really great for late night munching, as it’s served until close and cured meats are a perfect complement to beer and cocktails. With a $14, $22, $32, it’s perfect for groups of all sizes (if you manage to get the bigger table mentioned before).

Was it perfect? The beans in the Franks and Beans side ($6) were a little underdone. The Chicken and Waffle ($15), while delicious, was a hard to eat; there was no perfect way to get a bite of the bone-in chicken and the waffle at the same time. The braised greens ($5) were fine, if forgettable. And the Cubanos, the other late-night food option, are also just fine (especially when compared to the awesome Cubano you can get until close at Dark Horse around the corner.)

But these are nitpicks; fairly superficial qualms that did little to take away from the quality and enjoyment of our meal.

Handsome Hog is a welcome, and much needed, addition to a neighborhood that has started to feel a little over saturated with pubs and pub food. This is more than a pub, but still casual and fun; a place to revel in good food in drink in the “come as you are” style that makes St. Paul such a special city. The price point reflects that perfect in-between for when you don’t want to dress up (though you wouldn’t feel out of place if you did) but don’t want to settle for a burger. More than that, it offers a unique menu and experience that was for many years missing from the Twin Cities in general.

An experience like this in Lowertown is not only a welcome change, it has helped to solidify the neighborhood’s cred as a dining district, and St. Paul’s growing (and overdue) reputation as a food town.