A lot of people ask Tyson Ho how he got into barbecue. "I went to a Santeria ceremony and was possessed by the spirit of an ancient North Carolina pitmaster," he likes to say.
He's kidding (we think), but his meat is serious business.
Queens-bred Ho is the owner and pitmaster of Arrogant Swine, a new barbecue restaurant and beer hall in industrial Bushwick. It's pretty much the only place in the city serving eastern North Carolina-style barbecue, which is focused squarely on whole hogs—smoked, roughly chopped and doused in a tangy vinegar-pepper sauce.
It's a style Ho discovered on what was supposed to be a road trip across America's great barbecue regions. That adventure started and ended at his first stop, the Skylight Inn, an Ayden, North Carolina institution—one plate of chopped pork was all Ho needed to know he'd found his raison d'cue. He arranged to shadow Ed Mitchell, another legendary Carolina pitmaster at The Pit in Raleigh, and dragged a smoker back to New York. "It takes a day to learn how to do it," Ho says. "Then 50 years to perfect it."
Top: sausages; bottom: Tyson Ho (L) and beer on tap
At Swine, the path to perfection runs on a 24-hour cycle. Around 2 a.m., Ho and his crew start firing the hard wood in what's known as the burn barrel, essentially a giant metal fireplace. As the wood burns down, they start shoveling the hot coals into the bottom of an adjacent smoker, which is really just a big metal box with a rack to hold the 180-pound pig on top. The pig will smoke and roast—an important distinction in Carolina 'cue, Ho explains, describing it as "pig flavor squared"—until about noon, when it's flipped over and mopped regularly with vinegar-chile sauce for another three or four hours.
An hour or two before the restaurant opens at 5 p.m., the pigs are taken off the smoker and chopped by cleaver-wielding staffers. Do not, under any circumstances, refer to it as "pulled pork": Ho takes pains to chop each section of the pig differently, each cut designed to maximize the flavor of that particular section (the fatty shoulder, for example, gets finely chopped, while the lean loin is left in larger nubbins).
The pork is mixed together with more of the vinegar-pepper sauce, and at this point, Ho borrows a technique from his mentor, Mitchell, that seems obvious but makes a huge difference: He tastes every batch. "A lot of old-school barbecue places don't taste their meat," Ho explains. "They've been doing it so long they think they don't have to. But tasting is so important."
Indeed, the finished product ($15 per half pound) shows evidence of Ho's attentive care—the pork is deeply, well, porky, ringed with an effervescent halo of smoke and kissed with a puckery hit of vinegar. Ho's also cutting pork shoulder into bite-size chunks and smoking them in homage to the beloved layer of "outside brown" favored in the western part of North Carolina ($13 per half pound).
As for the rest of the menu, there's a thick smoked pork sausage ($7), spare ribs ($12 per half pound) and smoked pork belly ($14 per half pound), plus macaroni and cheese ($4) fused together in a waffle iron (yes) and 40 beers by the glass. The walls are covered in graffiti and the space feels raw. The focus here is on the meat, a belief system that falls firmly in line with the vision of Ho, a New York City kid moved by the spirit of barbecue.
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