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At times, Salty Sow is hog heaven

Contrary to its name, restaurant excels with non-porcine dishes

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Business partners Larry Foles and Guy Villavaso have created one of the great track records in the Austin restaurant world over the past few decades. They have opened and expanded incredibly popular restaurants that have proven remarkably enduring thanks to solid conceptualization and consistent execution.      

A ritzy seafood-centric steakhouse in landlocked Central Texas (Eddie V's, which they recently sold for millions), a Tex-Mex treehouse that nods to the South and has expanded to a dozen locations (Z'Tejas), and most recently, a gourmet hamburger joint that helped set the bar for imaginative burgers made from scratch with quality ingredients (Hopdoddy, now in South and North Austin).

Their latest invention, Salty Sow, capitalizes on food culture's continuing fascination with humble (cheeks and pork blade) and hip (pork belly) cuts of meat that have ascended to the tops of menus at restaurants across the country.

Commanding the space formerly occupied by a number of restaurants, including the Red House Pizzeria, El Gringo and John Mueller Barbecue, the Salty Sow sprawls across two buildings, a sizable patio and large outdoor dining area.

The main dining room features large paintings of romanticized pigs, wood ceilings, wrought iron, candles in wire baskets and heavy linen curtains that give the place a warm and refined country feel. Servers shuttle between the tight spaces, wearing seersucker mock chef coats. The low-lit space radiates with energy, and ebullient crowds make the room feel like a dinner party in the crowded foyer of a dazzling ranch house.

The building out back serves as the "lounge," a second dining room that has a frenzied feel. The space features several communal tables and crams people into rail seating along banks of windows. If you get stuffed in the middle of a communal table, seated high above the surrounding tables, or at one of the window seats, the lounge can make for an uncomfortable dining experience.

Yes, there are charming touches such as chandeliers made of old utensils, but despite the aesthetic touches, the lounge space can feel more like a waiting room than a dining room. It seems the restaurant is trying to maximize every square inch of space by putting as many seats in the room as possible.

The seersucker half-coats are cute but don't necessarily confer chef-level knowledge on the servers, proven one evening as our overwhelmed server struggled with the pronunciation of the word sturgeon when delivering a wonderful charcuterie and cheese board ($13).

Highlighted by a smooth chicken liver mousse that carried hints of iron and sweetness and creamy Mt. Tam cheese, the board is indicative of one of Salty Sow's biggest selling points: the price points. From the top of the menu, through desserts and cocktails, the Salty Sow delivers value on a level with few peers in town.

Pastrami salmon ($10) carried solid kicks of pepper balanced by the bright and tart mustard-dill crème fraîche. But I feel like it should not have required a consultation with four staff members to confirm our hunch that the salmon was farm-raised.

The J.L.T. sandwich ($9) from the hors d'oeuvres menu simply didn't translate to dinner. If Salty Sow had a brunch, I would imagine the sandwich could be a hit, but the unwieldy mess of a fried egg, crispy pork jowls, lettuce and tomato on thick, buttery brioche filled us too easily too early.

A dish of massive, splayed-out crispy, boneless chicken thighs with a peppery skin and meat juiced up on white wine goes for only $13, though the fried smashed potatoes (more pressed than smashed) were slightly undercooked. I liked their spin on the ubiquitous roasted chicken, though I missed the white meat and the flavor that comes from the bone.

A rosy duck breast with turnips in a tangy cardamom-orange sauce cost $16. I could imagine the same dish at some of Austin's more precious restaurants going for $26. And though the price was low, the dish was anything but cheap. Crisp and pliant on the outside with no fight on the inside, the tender duck breast was as rare as any I've eaten, a tribute to the bravery and confidence of chefs Harold Marmulstein and Richard Velazquez.

Slow-cooked beef cheeks ($15), drunk on red wine and given character from cardamom and thyme, tasted like succulent pot roast. But the intense beef essence one expects from roasted bone marrow ($12) was lacking in the gelatinous offerings of the relatively small bones.

OK, enough with the other animals, you say. What about the pork? The place is called Salty Sow, after all.

As it turns out, the name seems to be as much marketing tool as culinary promise, though that is fine with me. Beyond the charcuterie plate, the piggy offerings are limited to a few dishes.

Darkened by an impressive bark of pepper and brown sugar, the thick pork belly ($12) looks like a carnivore's candy bar, smoky with notes of oak, though the fat needed to be rendered down a bit more. And I am starting to think that pork belly is the most overexposed and overrated cut of meat. Sorry.

The massive thin-cut pork blade steak ($16), drowned in a viscous Moroccan-honey sauce, was a bit too sweet though nicely cooked.

Vegetable sides must be ordered individually, and they are not just role players here. The collard greens ($5), rich with smoked ham hocks, zing you with vinegar, but the firm, mineral greens can stand up to the attack. Crispy Brussels sprouts leaves ($6) have a smoky, caramelized sweetness helped along by golden raisins. The leaves were fantastic, but I was left wanting more of the vegetable's meaty core.

A small roster of well-priced specialty cocktails intrigued with description, but a puckering Salty Sow'r ($8) of Baby Blue whiskey with agave nectar, lime and tamarind and an overly sweet, tricked-out old fashioned ($8) featuring Maker's Mark with maple syrup and pomegranate left me retreating to the wine list. There we found more value in the form of a dry Sicilian blend from Planeta, a $39 bottle at Salty Sow that might go for $50 elsewhere.

Dessert is an exercise in overindulgence. Bananas Foster beignets ($6) with cane syrup, honey and an excellent nutmeg ice cream would be nice served as smaller bites, but Salty Sow overwhelms you with huge slices. A chocolate peanut butter crunch ($6) was advertised as flourless, which just means more butter, and we could feel it, laying down our spoons halfway through the jar.

With its large amount of seating in several dining areas, the Salty Sow at times teeters on the verge of being unmanageable. Servers swarm from one building to the next, doors constantly swinging, and though I spotted them often helping each other out, on one visit our table sat littered with empty plates for entirely too long, as servers passed without so much as a glance.

Servers were quick to find answers to the few questions we directed at them, but it would certainly free them up to service their tables if they knew the answers without having to resort to asking a co-worker each time.

Though they still need to work out the kinks of service in the bustling setting, Foles and Villavaso seem to have struck on another successful restaurant formula. Some of the rustic dishes at Salty Sow may lack a bit of finesse, but they deliver robust flavors at excellent prices. With more and more people getting turned onto ranch gastronomy, it's easy to imagine the Salty Sow following in the footsteps of some of its predecessors and expanding beyond Austin.

Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986 Twitter: @Odam

Salty Sow