Thursday, March 15, 2012

Union Pig and Chicken in East Liberty

Highland at night.
Veteran Pittsburgh chef Kevin Sousa has opened Union Pig and Chicken on Highland Avenue in East Liberty, just a stone's throw from his Station Street Hot Dogs and not far from his other place, Salt of the Earth. Kevin took the time to show me around and talk with me about his food. I will be adding more to this post as I'm able and as I enjoy more of the food here.

It can't be easy opening your third signature restaurant in two years while nominated Best Chef (Mid-Atlantic) by the James Beard Foundation. The limelight shines narrowly in the culinary world, and one must seize opportunity when there's momentum. Scrutiny is intense and there's no soft open in this situation. All eyes were on this place, and Mr. Sousa opened quickly, preferring to get the ball rolling than spending months fine-tuning everything. Any cuisine is a work in progress, or it's staid. Barbecue is full of emotion, memory and prejudice...and everyone seems has an opinion on "the right way."

A friend of mine (let's call him NYCGourmand) and I decided to go on the first Monday night after opening weekend. We cut a wide swath through the relatively small menu and enjoyed everything , though a few things were off. The cornbread was a little dry, the ribs were not what most people would expect, and it's odd eating food from a steel tray. (I have never been incarcerated.) Nothing that I could complain about, really, and a lot that I enjoyed thoroughly. However, the reviews have been mixed:

Union Pig and Chicken  on Urbanspoon

Kevin said it took a few weeks of settling in and re-tooling the recipes, equipment and cooking processes to be happy. (Which is humbly documented on his blog.) I've tasted changes over the course of four eight meals, and they're mostly positive. One key change was the ribs. Initially, they were a bit challenging. I bit into one expecting the meat to fall into my mouth. It didn't--it was firm--like chewing ham from a bone. Delicious and different, but not what I had expected. And apparently not what people really wanted.

Half rack of ribs. Get the full rack; it's a better deal. They will get eaten.

Reviewing initial feedback, and still exploring this new craft, Kevin retooled the process for cooking ribs. They are still brined and smoked (for many hours), but there are additional steps that I think have improved them greatly. The dry-rubbed bark is thicker, spicy and sweet, and the meat is more tender and separates from the bone easily. It reminds me of bbq potato chips, cloyingly sweet, and this may be my personal issue at play but I prefer a less sweet, more savory chili bite in a rib rub. The meat is great, however.

Beef brisket sandwich combo for lunch. Slivered onion, coarse mustard, horseradish oil on a Cellone bun. 
Price is at issue in some of the user-posted reviews. This was addressed, as shortly after opening $7 and $10 lunch combo specials were added. (A great move.) No barbecue is cheap. There's the cost of quality meat, and that's never going down. If you've traveled around, you know that even ramshackle barbecue pits charge top prices for good smoked meat. Barbecue is a labor intensive cuisine, with preparation stretched over long hours. There's a smoker around the back of Union Pig and Chicken that was imported from North Carolina, which is fed with a steady diet of oak and maple throughout the day (and night.)

Maple, oak and some cherry wood.
Fried Chicken. Kevin said he can't take credit; the recipe came from a guy he used to cook with.
Keeping it local, Union's beverage list features beers on tap from East End Brewing and two white whiskeys from upstart Wigle Whiskey in the Strip. Cheerwine is my drink of choice, but a Rock & Rye is a nice finish to the meal. I'd never heard of the drink before; it's a traditional liquer made by sweetening rye whiskey with rock candy and steeping with herbs, spices and citrus. Union offers three versions, all using Old Overholt, which hails originally from near Pittsburgh. (Try the one with smoked onions.)

My analysis: Union Pig and Chicken is serving up some of the finest barbecue you'll find in the region. The service is friendly and approachable. The room is functional, smartly designed and makes it fun to eat with a group. If you're looking to judge Mr. Sousa's barbecue against Max and Erma's ribs, you will be sadly disappointed. If you're looking for the dramatic presentations found at Salt of the Earth, save yourself a trip. But if you're looking to taste some delicious smoked meats (and fried chicken) with some tasty sides, haul ass immediately. 

This is a restaurant I will continue to support, in part because I respect the way it's transforming. I fully expect it to transform further. Specials have been added throughout the weeks, including tartare, smoked fish and one-off condiments like smoked brisket fat mayo.

Transformation is happening to Pittsburgh; to East Liberty in particular, and Kevin Sousa has invested his life in it. He's opened three restaurants in transitional areas in Pittsburgh's East End. That's something that no other chef can take claim to, as yet. I couldn't agree more with his simple tagline on Twitter: "I believe in Pittsburgh."

Insert wood, light. 
Beef brisket smoking. Lots of smoke. 


  1. Very impressive, but does not help with my chicken or ribs decision ;))). I hope I can have my friend and me ordering both and sharing both :)

  2. love this review! we have to get there pronto - thanks for offering your recommendations (such as the smoked onions Rock & Rye)

  3. love this review! we have to get there pronto. thanks for offering your recommendations (such as the smoked onions Rock & Rye)

  4. Anonymous8/12/2012

    Finally got around to checking out UP&C yesterday. My wife and I talked about it long after we left. Can't wait to get back.


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