Emeryville's Pig in a Pickle Serves Fired-Up Fare
The new barbecue joint Pig in a Pickle steals the show at Public Market Emeryville.
The smoked chicken, tossed in an Alabama white sauce, is offered in quarters, halves, or whole birds.
Photo by Cali Godley
Damon Stainbrook has true chef cred. He went from shucking oysters as a teenager at The Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, to dodging hot pans thrown by an intense (and sometimes angry) chef at the four-star French restaurant The Heights in San Francisco, to eventually training and working at Thomas Keller’s legendary The French Laundry. There, he started as commis under chef de cuisine Grant Achatz (one of the pioneers of American molecular gastronomy) before eventually ascending to a sous chef role.
And although Keller played a major part, it was Mom who would be the first to inform Stainbrook’s culinary character: The whole lambs she spit-roasted in the Greek tradition transfixed him and turned him on to the transformative power of fire. After his late-night shifts at The Lark Creek Inn and The Heights, Stainbrook would often light up the grill and cook some chicken.
“It was primal and peaceful,” Stainbrook reflects. “Grab a beer, and light a fire.”
Not surprisingly, the most critical job at Emeryville’s Pig in a Pickle (the original launched in Corte Madera in 2013) is tending to a clean-burning fire—for up to 16 hours at a time—to make Stainbrook’s heavenly brisket. Nearly a quarter of the 430-square-foot space, located inside Public Market Emeryville (a food court to end all food courts), is devoted to the smoker and stacks of dry oak. The result speaks for itself: The chicken and the links, the ribs and the pulled pork, and the brisket especially are the bomb.
Working as a private chef, following his stint at The French Laundry, allowed Stainbrook to travel the country, seeking out restaurants wherever he landed. But his aha moment came during an extended layover in Dallas. After wandering into a random barbecue place and tasting his first bite of real brisket, Stainbrook recalls telling himself: “So that’s what good is.”
Completely self-taught through reading and trial and error, Stainbrook has no allegiance to any particular style of ’cue. He relies on his palate and food knowledge, and uses only the best local ingredients, right down to the California oak that perfumes his meats. “I didn’t grow up with anything [other than the chain eatery Tony Roma’s], which is why I ended up with a hodgepodge of barbecue from around the country,” Stainbrook says.
And what a hodgepodge it is. Each of the sustainably sourced meats gets its own dry rub. The chicken has a sweet note of coriander; the ribs are more herbal, with a salt cure working the rub deep into the meat before it sees a lick of smoke. That brisket (Stainbrook literally goes through a ton each week between his two restaurants; that’s 2,000 pounds of meat!) tastes peppery and a little garlicky, with a hint of paprika. The pork for the Andouille-style links—stuffed as tight as a balloon that’s ready to pop—is emulsified for a smooth texture, the fat lingering in every bite.
There’s also an assortment of sauces, including one based on world-renowned barbecue joint Big Bob Gibson’s famous Alabama white sauce—which is designed for chicken, but Stainbrook has been known to swipe a slice of brisket through it on occasion. For his not-too-sweet red sauce (hot or mild), he ferments fruity habaneros. So if you want a little tang to your ribs or a hit of mustard for your sausage, there’s an array to choose from, but trust me: This barbecue is just fine naked.
The sides best reveal Stainbrook’s California-chef side. Among the clean, bright, and deeply satisfying options are savory pink beans, sourced as fresh as dried beans can be and flavored with roasted pasilla peppers and a little brisket spice. The coleslaw is light, coated with a touch of mayo, red sauce, and a pinch of celery seed. And the collard greens are the real deal: Braised in a ham hock broth, they’re hearty, nutritious, and as delicious as Grandma’s soup.
As for the pickles, Stainbrook makes his own bread and butters and fermented dills. But the restaurant’s name isn’t meant to showcase cucumbers; it’s a play on the word’s origin. Pickle stems from the word pekel—which is thought to refer to the acidic condiments used on big game and fowl in medieval England.
When Stainbrook tosses his well-shredded pulled pork with a little vinegar and spice, it’s literally a “pig in a pickle.” (Besides, the name Bubba’s was taken, and “Damon’s” just wouldn’t cut it.)
So grab a beer (Stainbrook recommends pilsners, sours, or an oyster stout when eating some ’cue) from The Public Bar next door or The Periodic Table on the far side of the market, and get yourself a taste of what a carefully tended fire can produce.
5959 Shellmound St., Emeryville, piginapickle.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Pick Your Pleasure
Try these other grilled (aka barbecued) options at Public Market Emeryville.
C Casa: With a commitment to sustainably sourced ingredients, C Casa serves an array of tacos, including a grilled shrimp version, which we tried to round out our meat-heavy recommendations. Thin but large blistered corn tortillas came with oversized prawns and a thoughtfully balanced combo of raw chilies and cabbage. myccasa.com.
NabiQ: As the capital Q implies, this spot specializes in Korean barbecue. Of the several dishes we sampled, NabiQ’s classic Korean short ribs—cut thick and more sweet than spicy—were our favorite. nabiq.com.
Paradita Eatery: This casual restaurant from chef Carlos Altamirano (who owns Parada in Walnut Creek and Barranco Cocina Peruana in Lafayette) is located directly across from Pig in a Pickle and offers decadent barbecue dishes, including mega chunks of skewered and grilled pork belly (a mere $13.50 on our visit) and sweet-spicy, Inca Kola–marinated pork spare ribs served over piquant Peruvian rice. paradita.com.
Wazwan Indian Cuisine: With colorful Le Creuset–style pots filled with ready-made classics, this Indian wonder features dual tandoor ovens (or Indian barbecue) that turn knobs of marinated chicken into tender bites. Choose the mild lemon-honey version or the more familiar red tandoori, with its flavorful chilies. wazwan.com.