Before I could write about the sandwiches John Bates and Brandon Martinez make at the Noble Pig, I had to run a few questions past Bates to establish a baseline, like a polygraph test.
Sandwiches have the unfortunate habit of canceling out their own finer points with ingredient avalanches. What are you doing to fight that menace?
"We try and keep our sandwiches minimalist. Our sandwiches don't come with the standard mountain-high pile of shredded iceberg lettuce and underripe tomatoes. We try to build the menu around simple pairings. I think that's a very Italian approach to cooking in general, trying to find the right combination of three, four, five items and then leaving it alone."
Who are you guys and why should we listen to you?
"We're both sandwich aficionados. We've been cooking for forever, and when you've got two guys who've got 35 years' worth of cooking experience, it's not a bad idea to listen to them when they talk about food."
(Both men are from Corpus Christi, with culinary detours to Portland, Ore., for Bates and San Francisco for Martinez, who cooked high-end Italian there. In Austin, Bates cooked at Wink and was executive chef at Asti, and Martinez made sausage for Whole Foods Market before conspiring on the Noble Pig, which opened in September.
So, this sandwich thing. An exercise in underachievement?
"I think it's actually an exercise in overachievement, because you put two overqualified guys in a restaurant who probably shouldn't be running a sandwich shop, and they want to do everything from scratch."
What they do from scratch includes baking bread, grinding sausage, pickling vegetables and curing meat. What they do with all that is make sandwiches with respect. And respect breeds respectability.
Brasher, Livelier, Totally unorthodox, the BLT ($7) here is almost a bait-and-switch, an interloper letting pork belly do the bacon's work. But what you give up in crispiness you gain in depth, the kind that comes from overnight curing, slow smoking over pecan wood and portioning by the handful rather than the slice.
The tomato in this sandwich belongs to the animal kingdom, the roasted flesh and ribs exposed in halves, its dappled ruby lifeblood spilling over terrain wholly unrelated to the diner BLT, a waif that shares nothing with its Noble Pig rival but an acronym. Speaking of acronyms, throw in another "B" for "bread," which Martinez bakes in wheat or white. It's all crackle and flour outside, densely honeycombed inside.
Bates said he does the BLT with pork belly simply because it tastes better that way. "Honestly, that sandwich and the duck pastrami were two of the inspirations behind the entire concept," he said. "They're things that I did for family meal, for friends and co-workers but could never really put on a menu anywhere, because everywhere I've worked, they've always been a little more high-end, and the sandwich usually wasn't appropriate."
That duck pastrami ($8) is a more subtle beast, doing its work with a mild Russian dressing and leisurely ribbons of sour rye pickles, like a Reuben that dropped out of art school. The curing process takes some of the daffiness out of the duck and replaces it with a more familiar salty-smoky-peppery flavor. Whether that's a plus or minus depends on how gamey you like your game bird.
No matter how porky you like your pig, the signature Noble Pig sandwich ($8) has something for you: thin and crispy bacon, luscious pulled pork, spicy ham. My kids liked this one best. I thought some of the individual trees got lost in the forest. But when the forest tastes this good, who cares about the trees?
A Creole catfish sandwich ($8) tests the shop's made-to-order skill. Sure, they can slice something they cured yesterday and toast a little bread for it, but what about pan-searing it fresh? The fish is blackened with spice and fire on top, soft and plump underneath, dressed simply with lettuce, a little onion and tomato-tartar sauce. These cats have worked with catfish before.
The sandwiches come with just enough extra: a few vinegar-rich pickled carrots and cucumbers and a scatter of waffled potato chips, the kind you get from a bag, dressed up here with garlic, sea salt and black pepper. Sides of peppery slaw and chunky potato salad are solid, but beside the point. For every $2 I spent on a side, all I could think of was how I could have been $2 closer to another BLT.
I'd also pool that money for two distinct desserts ($3.50 each): a half-sandwich of crisp, buttery French toast with warm Nutella and blueberries or a petite Mason jar of chocolate pudding with five-spice powder as aromatic as a clove cigarette.
The Noble Pig is a tiny place, wedged between a nail salon and a computer shop. True to its name, it's crowded cheek by jowl with tables, booths and chairs that butt right up against the front counter. The guys installed most everything themselves.
Martinez calls the menfolk "brother"; Bates goes with "boss." Both expressions seem at home in this space, where the blue-and-white tiled floors and the glass display case full of pickles, sodas and sausages will put you in a small-town market state of mind.
Small towns. Deviled eggs. There's a sandwich for that, too, expressed not as a paprika-dusted egg salad but as true slippery halves of boiled eggs packed with creamy, curried yolk. It's a sandwich you have to cradle like a newborn to hold together, and you'll love it almost as much.
Almost. It's a sandwich. Let's not get carried away.
The Noble Pig
11815 RM 620 N., Suite 4. 382-6248, www.noblepigaustin.com.
Rating: 8.9 out of 10
Hours: 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays. 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays-Sundays. Breakfast served until noon. Lunch available at 10:30 a.m.
Prices: Breakfast $3 (five-spice oatmeal) to $5 (waffle with sausage and scrambled egg). Sandwiches $7-$8. Sides $2. Desserts $1 (cookie) to $3.50 (pudding, French toast) to $6.25 (Austin-made Cake Jars). Kids' menu $3-$3.50.
Payment: All major cards
Alcohol: None. BYOB allowed while the owners work on their beer and wine license.
Wheelchair access: Yes
What the rating means: The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value, with 10 being the best.