Arguing about barbecue is a dangerous sport in the South. Voicing an opinion feels like picking sides in a foodie version of the Hatfield-McCoy feud — loyalties run deep and someone’s going to be furious. Debates proliferate: a vinegar-, tomato- or mustard-based sauce? Beef or pork? Which part of the animal do you prefer, or are you into cooking the animal whole? Dry rub or wet mop?
Americans can get overly invested in the superiority of their regional styles. That’s one reason the concept behind the Cultured Swine is exciting. It not only promises to provide multiple barbecue styles under one roof, but also expands the inspiration beyond the United States to include Asian, Caribbean and Latin American perspectives.
Co-owner and chef Corey Johnson formerly managed the kitchen at Alamo BBQ in Church Hill. Before starting his own restaurant, he traveled widely, taking notes on different styles. After piloting his recipes with a food cart, Johnson and co-owner Eric Freund opened a permanent location on Second Street’s small restaurant strip.
The collection of restaurants along the street is a thrilling development — both for its culinary diversity and its revitalization of an old retail corridor. All of the restaurants are small with no frills, and most focus on the lunch crowd. The Cultured Swine is no different, offering a handful of tables, a chalkboard menu and laid-back staff. The vibe feels like a food truck that’s moved indoors, with all the simplicity, casualness and culinary innovation that implies.
Its menu focuses on the kinds of meat that can be placed into a taco or sandwich, plus tamales and sides. Traditionalists can opt for a North Carolina-style pulled pork sandwich ($6) — served with coleslaw, of course. While it doesn’t win any awards, the sandwich is a solid take on a classic, with subtle smoke flavor and a light vinegar tang on pork that’s cooked to just the right tenderness.
The jerk ($6 sandwich, $3.25 taco) — Jamaican-inspired chicken with a mango salsa — unfortunately lacks the heat and intensity I expect. The Go Go Gogi ($6 sandwich, $3.25 taco), on the other hand, has too many flavors. The Korean-style bulgogi beef thoroughly soaks up the soy-based marinade, which ends up fighting with the strong flavors of a somewhat bizarre salsa-kimchi hybrid.
The Belly Mi sandwich ($7), loosely inspired by a Vietnamese bahn mi, features pork belly that on my visit is chewy and tough. The bread, however, is an even bigger disaster. Instead of crusty french bread, the so-called baguette is limp and undercooked with no discernible connection to its namesake. Sadly, the same bread features in a couple of other sandwiches.
The tamales ($2.75) similarly suffer from improper technique. The hand-pressed masa comes out too dry and detracts from the fillings, which are available as pork and vegan options. Sides ($3), including tomato-laced macaroni pie from Barbados and curried potato salad, all are adequate but not particularly noteworthy.
The Cultured Swine’s concept has enormous potential that allows both focus and variety. Connecting a Virginia favorite with foods that share similar historical traditions offers both comfort and exploration. It needs to improve its quality, however, if it wants to gain the attention the lofty idea deserves. S
The Cultured Swine
317-A N. Second St.
Tuesdays–Saturdays 11 a.m.–9 p.m.