For all of the incredible dining options in Portland, you just don’t hear a ton of news about good barbecue. The Portland Food Coma blog made a mission of driving all over creation to find some good barbecue, ultimately coming up with only some passable options. We’ve even been known to take a trip to Bethel, to Shaw’s Ridge Farm once in a while during the warmer months, to engage in a wholesome, gut-busting day of miniature golf, homemade ice cream, and eating barbecue in a barn. The in-town options are few, however, which is why when you combine the words “Portland” and “barbecue,” it’s destined to get a buzz going.
Deux Cochon opened this week on the second floor of the Portland Public Market House, in the old “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” space (’cause, c’mon). It’s not at all what we expected. Where we were prepared for miles of red, gloppy, sticky-sweet barbecue, and dozens of meat choices that would leave us in a lunch-coma for the rest of the day, we instead found a small menu, in a restaurant stall being manned by two people. In my mind, I had prepared myself to be forced to choose between brisket, ribs, chicken, sausages, and other barbecue staples, and was surprised to see just one barbecue option on the handwritten menu, a pulled pork sandwich ($6.00), hiding among other breakfast and sandwich items like Biscuits and Gravy ($4.00) and the BAT sandwich (bacon, arugula and tomato, $6.00).
Instead of preparing 200 pounds of barbecue, and then hoping the restaurant finds an audience to buy it, Deux Cochon owner Adam Alfter seems to be taking a more reasonable approach, and preparing small quantities of made-in-house specialty items, while he gauges response. The small-batch bacon toffee ($3.00) is delicious, and proudly preservative-free, with big chunks of crispy bacon folded into crunchy, stick-to-your teeth layers of toffee. The homemade pickles are unlike any we’ve tasted from a store, with a fresh snap and a spicy, half-dill flavor that gets in your head.
The star of the menu, however, is the pulled pork sandwich. The pork is slow-smoked for 12 hours, before being sliced and shredded right before your eyes, while you wait. Two halves of a soft (potato?) bun are grilled lightly in butter, and then heaped with piles of the freshly carved pork. Instead of being doused in gloppy, overly-sweet Kansas City-style tomato-and-molasses-based barbecue sauce (which, incidentally, is also available by request), Adam explained that he prefers more of a Carolinas-style vinegar-based sauce. He squeezed a healthy portion onto my sandwich, and suggested that I add more of the red pepper-flecked sauce myself, as I like it.
And boy, did I like it. This is barbecue unlike any we have seen in the Portland area, with big, pull-apart chunks of moist, mouthwateringly slow-cooked pork shoulder piled high on a warm, fluffy bun, and speared with two pieces of pickled okra. The sauce (which I insist you add by the ladleful) only enhances the natural flavors of the meat, with the mustard, the acid from the vinegar, and just a tiny bit of heat combining marvelously with the fat and the smoky flavor of the pork.
During this week’s soft opening, it’s too soon to say what the full Deux Cochon experience is going to look like. Blank chalkboards wait to be filled by daily specials, as the booth’s customer base expands. There is a minimal amount of equipment: a warmer for the pork, an electric griddle for the buns, and a few stools set up at the counter. What is clear right from the start, however, is that Adam is dedicated to perfecting the techniques he uses for each of his dishes, whether pickled eggs, sweet tea, boiled peanuts, or slow-smoked pork, and delivering textbook-perfect, authentic versions of each, one item at a time. It’s how you find that one, special, killer item that everyone will talk about. It’s a reasoned approach to starting a new business, and one we can’t wait to watch develop.