Pork: Perfect For Appetizers

Pork barbecue appetizers

Appetizers are tailor-made for today’s experimental diners-from dim sum to tapas, mini-entrees to shared platters. It’s all about sampling: Starters offer a wider view of the kitchen’s talents, or they can make a meal, in the tapas tradition. Appetizers are a boon for operators, too, because the add-on sales build checks and perceived value. According to the 1995 National Restaurant Association Menu Analysis, in fact, the percentage of restaurant operators offering appetizers was 90%, up from 82% in 1990. Moreover, two-thirds of the operators polled agreed that appetizers are “very important to the menu mix.”

Showcasing pork upfront in the meal can make a real signature statement, offering customers an unexpected treat. Pork appetizers are a pleasant change of pace from the traditional spectrum of fried cheese or chicken wings. What’s more, pork’s adaptability to cooking methods like smoking and marinating and its affinity for different kinds of sauces and seasonings means it delivers palate-stimulating flavors.

“Using pork puts a little twist on the menu,” notes Thomas McNeil, chef of The Golden Rose, Mason, Mich. His Coconut/Cashew Crusted Pork Tenderloin with Raspberry Coulis-which took first prize during a recent Michigan Regional Taste of Elegance competition sponsored by the National Pork Board-might sell 80 or more portions on a weekend night when it’s featured as a special.

“People just love to try new things,” says David Casper, chef-owner of Casper’s in Brookings, S.D., an eclectic-menu restaurant. “They love pastas, smokehouse dishes, and ethnic foods.” Sous chef Chad Bergjord capitalized on that culinary curiosity by creating Cashew Curried Pork Tenderloin, a menu special that was featured in the recent National Taste of Elegance. He developed the unusual coating of peanut butter, Dijon mustard, curry powder, and crushed cashews after much trial and error, and customers loved it.

Appetizers raised to the nth degree-that’s the idea behind Cafe Tu Tu Tango, a grazer’s paradise with locations in Atlanta, Orlando, and Coconut Grove, Fla. Each sports a 50-item menu broken into categories like Skewers & Sticks, Empanadas & Egg Rolls, Cosas Frias (“cold things”), and Pizzas. On average, customers order three dishes a piece to share at the table. The concept is much broader than tapas, says chairman and founder Bradley Weiser. “We borrow from Oriental, South American, Mediterranean, from all over.”

Grilled pork tenderloin

Pork stars in notable items like Cafe Tu Tu Tango’s open-faced sandwich of grilled pork tenderloin, smoked Gouda, pears, lettuce, and tomato; croquettes of ham and crab meat with corn and chive sauce; grilled pork loin with chimichurri sauce; Barcelona stir-fry with shrimp, chicken, and andouille sausage; and Rustica Pizza topped with proscuitto. “There’s lots of flavor going on there,” says executive chef Monica Schatz. Another hit is Tango’s Friday Dim Sum Happy Hour, with its rolling cart serving up tidbits like pork satays, skewered strips of flash-grilled pork loin marinated in soy, sesame oil, and ginger; rice-wrapped pork balls; wontons with pork filling; and empanada pastry stuffed with ground pork and Asian vegetables.

At Arroyo Grille in Manayunk, Pa., an appetizer of house-smoked loin of pork with habanero orange dressing and grilled corn succotash typifies the lively but approachable fare that has introduced Philadelphians to Southwest cooking. “I never thought I’d be in the pork business, serving a couple of thousand pounds per week,” says chef proprietor Derek Davis, who also has a big following for his real pit barbecue. “Because the perceived value is so high, I can always get a dollar or two more than I could for a chicken item.”

The bone-in loin gets a rub of crushed coriander and tellicherry peppercorns “for a nice flavoring edge,” says executive chef Edwin Hepner. It’s smoked over applewood, boned, thinly sliced, and fanned across the plate, then finished with a drizzle of habanero orange sauce and a dollop of corn and lima bean succotash. The 2- to 3-oz. portion of pork whets the appetite for following courses. “Because it’s a lighter meat, it doesn’t fill you up as fast as red meat would,” he says. “It’s definitely a great beginning for a Southwestern meal.”

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