For years, pork chops got a bad rap. They were the stuff of childhood dinnertime nightmares — limp white discs brightened only by applesauce or stuffing.
“They were chewy and dry, and no fat whatsoever. You’d put some sauce on them to try to combat it. I held this against my mom and dad for a long time,” says Tony Maws, chef and owner of Somerville’s Kirkland Tap & Trotter and Cambridge’s Craigie on Main, and a self-confessed pork fiend.
Today he serves a rosy pork chop for two at Kirkland that compensates for any adolescent misadventures. His chop is 20 ounces or more, brined overnight, slowly fire roasted, then finished on a grill. “We get gorgeous, marbled, well-fed Berkshire pigs,” explains Maws. The result? “This chop is redder, richer, fattier, with a stronger porky flavor,” he says.
Shareable pork chops — pink, husky, fatty, and juicy — appear on Boston’s most exciting menus: Audubon Circle’s Mei Mei, Somerville’s Bronwyn, Newton’s Sycamore, and Cambridge’s Commonwealth and West Bridge, to name a few.
Why the popularity? Chops are a familiar vessel for experimentation. The recognizable dish is a way for chefs to introduce diners to a thicker, rosier pork 2.0, without alienating a more traditional eater.
At Il Casale, chef and co-owner Dante de Magistris serves pork chops as a rotating special. “The chops sell,” says the Belmont restaurateur. “And, if you cook them properly, you’ll never eat pork so tender. It’s a flavor you might not be used to, different than everyday pork.”
His preparation is traditional: de Magistris marinates his double-bone pork loin chops overnight in rosemary, garlic, sage, and toasted fennel, then he grills them and serves them family-style with polenta and greens.
What sets the chops apart from mass-produced pork, or the meat available at most supermarkets, is a high-quality pig. The animals that local chefs are using come from farms they have a relationship with, where they are able to track the animal’s diet and maturity. A more mature, well-fed pig is fattier and more flavorful.
“The marbling in some of these pigs we use now is great, and they have dexterity,” says Matthew Gaudet, chef and co-owner of West Bridge, who serves shareable chops and shoulders. “My recollection of a childhood pork chop is that it’s big, it’s white, and it bounces,” he says. “Now we’re improving on these recipes. I work with whole pigs, I’ve been to the farms, and I see how they live. I know what breeds they are.” He often gets whole pigs from Brambly Farms in Norfolk.
Thanks to a greater connection between restaurant owners and vendors, “chefs and farmers together are revitalizing pork,” says Irene Li, co-owner of Mei Mei. She serves a 48-ounce, double-cut pork chop and belly, accompanied by steamed buns and dipping sauces. “Pork isn’t just that ‘other’ meat that tastes like chicken,” she says. “There are a lot of farmers in the Boston area who care about how they’re feeding and raising their pigs, which is bringing pork back to something that’s exciting.”
Li takes pains to source pasture-raised, humanely slaughtered local pigs, which she then butchers in-house. She buys them from John Crow Farm in Groton. “They’re very transparent about how they raise their pigs. They have a much better life than industrial pigs, grown in crates. These pigs are allowed to roam; they eat apple cores, fruits, and vegetables. It makes a difference in how they taste,” says Li.
Chef Tim Wiechmann, who co-owns Cambridge’s T.W. Food with his wife, Bronwyn, and the restaurant Bronwyn, is a pork virtuoso. Bronwyn is known for German and Central European pork dishes; he also offers a 20-ounce pork chop, kasseler rippchen, as a special.
Wiechmann, who has also sourced pigs from Brambly Farms, favors pigs that are raised outside, with space to explore. “The best pigs eat bugs, roots, carrots, proteins — the meat is darker and tastes more like pork,” he says. Brined overnight, the chops are “extremely juicy, sweet, and salty,” he says.
For many chefs and diners, this is a revelation.“I blamed my parents for their pork chops, but it’s really that the supermarket pork we were getting just wasn’t high quality,” says Maws. Now he buys pigs from Savenor’s Market in Cambridge and continues to prowl for properly fed pigs. “The best pork I ever ate came from a farmer in Bourne. He fed his pigs barrels of stale Iggy’s bread, vegetables, fruits. They were these rich, fatty pigs, infused with rye and sourdough,” he says.
These well-fed pigs taste delicious — and, just as important, they make economic and ethical sense. “Pig has a far better price point than something like beef,” says chef Nookie Postal, whose 3-pound pork chop at his new restaurant, Commonwealth, is a top seller. “I love pork, and I really wanted to do a shareable, larger cut of meat. This is easy to split, and we can use the whole animal.”
At the North End’s Prezza, chef-owner Anthony Caturano has served a breaded pork chop with vinegar peppers, potatoes, and roasted red onions since opening in 2000. It’s a menu mainstay, and it’s a sensible choice for chef and diner alike. “It’s about 20 ounces at $28. People share it. After all, not everybody is 240 pounds like me,” he says.
Behind the scenes, he cooks with the whole pig, sourced from his longtime purveyor, T.F. Kinnealey & Co. in Milton, known for their antibiotic- and hormone-free animals. “There’s more you can do with pork. You can cook with the whole animal, for sausage or belly. There’s a lot of fat, a lot of flavor. You’re more limited with something like beef,” he says.
It wasn’t always this way, even at restaurants. “The lowly pork chop wasn’t much a few years back,” says David Punch, chef and co-owner of Sycamore in Newton Centre. “People were used to thin, wickedly overcooked supermarket chops. Now we’re getting away from that ‘other white meat’ stigma, and I think this probably originated with frugal chefs trying to market something more affordable than beef, and more versatile,” he says.
Sycamore’s kitchen receives a 225-pound pig every two weeks or so from Brambly Farms. “We make trotter, sausage, head terrine, pig’s blood cake, belly. It’s disrespectful to the pig not to use the whole animal,” says Punch. “As much as my wife and cardiologist hate it, I’m going for this charred, smoky, fatty flavor. Pig fat really melts in your mouth, unlike other kinds of fat.”
Even if traditionalists are intimidated by such indulgence, it’s easy to cut losses when a plate is shareable. “When you raise pigs properly, they have more fat, and you want to split it with people anyway,” says Mei Mei’s Li.
“At Il Casale and at many neighborhood restaurants, you see couples and families, and they want to share,” says de Magistris. “It’s more fun to eat that way, and it feels like you’re in someone’s living room,” he says.
But perhaps not your mother’s. “My mom,” says Postal, “would never recognize today’s pork chop.”Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com.