Going Whole Hog at Arrogant Swine

by Caroline Hatchett and Joe Sevier
Aliza Elizarov
February 2015

Restaurant

New York is flush with Texas-style barbecue. It’s home to superlative slabs of brisket and smoked sausages thanks to spots like Fette Sau, Mighty Quinn’s, and Delaney Barbecue. But until Pit Master Tyson Ho opened Arrogant Swine in Bushwick, New Yorkers weren’t privy to the pleasures of whole hog barbecue.

There’s pulled pork aplenty, sure. But the stuff of sandwiches is generally smoked and derived mostly from shoulder meat—and it’s usually, unfortunately, coated with slick sticky sauce. Ho’s technique relies on hot embers, a whole pig, and centuries old traditions.

Ho, who’s Chinese-American and grew up in Queens, is an unlikely candidate to fly the flag for traditional Carolina-style barbecue. He worked in fine-dining restaurants early in his career and then abandoned restaurants for a college degree and career in finance. When he wasn’t fulfilled by a desk job, he nursed the dream of opening up his restaurant. Then he ate at Hill Country in Manhattan.

“I’d been to college in Texas and had never seen barbecue like [Hill Country] before,” said Ho. “They said, ‘We’ve got a specific style from a region. We’re not going to interpret or stylize it, just present it as is.’ My goal was to travel and find my own regional style.”

He booked a plane ticket to North Carolina because it was the closest and cheapest region to visit, and he fell in love. “I took my first bite of whole hog, and that was it.” Ho worked with Pit Master Ed Mitchell in Durham and Chef Elliott Moss in Asheville before eating his way through the rest of the hog-cooking South. “My style is a conglomeration of every place I’ve eaten,” he says.

But his hog cooking is more substance than style. Out back in Bushwick, he loads up a smoke box with wood (whatever local variety he can get), burns it down to embers, and then lays a whole, eviscerated Chester White hog down on it belly, directly on top of the coals. Ho’s smoke box is completely enclosed to diminish oxygen flow (red hot coals + dripping pork fat + oxygen = grease fire). To the side, he keeps a separate “burn barrel” that he uses to replenish those coals every few hours, shoveling them, again, directly under the hams and shoulders. This direct heat roasting and smoking is what truly distinguishes Southern barbecue from its Texas and Kansas City cousins, who barbecue meats with indirect heat and smoke.

After 12 hours atop the coals, Ho flips the beast onto its back and begins to baste it with traditional “Lexington” tomato-vinegar dip (a condiment that hails from the Appalachian foothills). The pig takes about three hours to finish cooking, after which Ho rests the meat for another three to four hours. He then removes the bones and chops the meat, getting about a 40 percent yield on the animal. Ho says the trick is to make sure the chopped pork is thoroughly mixed so that one person isn’t getting too much lean or too much fat. “In every bite you want a little loin, a little ham, a little shoulder.”

All those little bits add up to a lot of complex flavor, which Ho dishes into deli boats on butcher paper-lined aluminum trays and tops with house cracklins. It’s a preparation that’s succulent, juicy, supremely smoky, vaguely tangy and subtly sweet. It’s the taste of tradition.