The grass is green in Mears Park. Any minute now, the St. Paul Farmers’ Market will move back to its outdoor home, and the crowds will be cheering for the Saints in their second season in downtown St. Paul. As the signs of summer return to Lowertown, the St. Paul neighborhood’s perennial boom shows no signs of bust. Enter Handsome Hog (203 E 6th Street, St. Paul): the latest chef-driven, semi-upscale eatery to open its doors with a burst of exuberant hype in the streets of Lowertown.
The Twin Cities have seen a expanding trend of Southern style restaurants in recent years. Both locations of Brasa are always packed, Revival is preparing to open a second location in St. Paul, and after years of accolades in Champlin, Q Fanatic has just opened a second location in Richfield. The trend of deconstructed food has passed, and now we seem to be crazy for smoke and spice — we want our food to be whole again.
We try not to be swept up in the hype, but in this case, it was very hard to contain our hopes. Billed as contemporary Southern food with a world-class bar, and helmed by chef Justin Sutherland, a veteran of the superb kitchens at St. Paul’s Meritage and Minneapolis’ late Brasserie Zentral, Handsome Hog made us giddy with expectation.
Compared to other recent openings, where an eternity might go by between the announcement, the pop-ups, the rumors, the months of radio silence, the hiring announcement, and the eventual opening, Handsome Hog opened relatively quickly. A spring opening after an announcement last fall is fast, and dadgummit, they might have benefited from a little more time to allow some of the promising aspects to fully gestate.
Over the course of a couple of visits, Handsome Hog left us impressed with a few things, and left us scratching our heads about a few more. Take, for example, the first item on the lunch menu, The Tator ($12). With a choice of meat (we chose brisket), jalapeno sour cream, cheese curds, and mustard greens, it sounded like a winner.
We could chalk it up to an ordering error on our part, but what we were served was a disappointing baked potato topped with scant brisket, cool cheese curds, and barely blanched greens. Whereas a fluffy baked potato with melted cheese and sour cream can be some serious comfort food, this tater was just on the fork-piercing side of crunchy, and with the lukewarm toppings, the dish just didn’t come together.
Somewhat better was the Skillet Hot Brown ($13), with shaved pork loin, Mornay sauce, and bacon over griddled Texas toast. The deep smokiness of the bacon and the richness of the Mornay saved this open-faced sandwich from the white meat’s blandness. We had to double check the menu to verify whether the meat was pork or turkey. And while it was brown, it was definitely not hot, despite the torch-browned bubbles on the top.
Our sides at lunch were similarly unimpressive. Both the Hushpuppies and the Mac N Cheese were served in tiny cast iron skillets, though neither was cooked in the cast iron. By the time the Mac N Cheese reached our table, it was at room temperature. Otherwise, it was a decadent version of the dish, and it probably would have been excellent served hot. The three large hush puppies were piping hot, though the generous pieces of crawfish were a distraction from the golden-brown batter (or perhaps vice versa). Tomato relish added some acidity but couldn’t save the overly complex dish.
Overall, we fared better at dinner. We started with a small plate from the meat bar ($14) [that’s what they call it; it’s right next. to the regular bar] and the Bourbon & Smoke Wings ($6). The daily charcuterie selection included an excellent white-wine salami from Red Table Meat, addictively spicy Tasso ham, and a house ham, that while the most delicate of the three, was by no means the withering flower of the plate. The three large wings were hot, crisp, and smoky.
Handsome Hog touts its prowess with the pig (“snout to tail,” “pig-centric,” the very name of the restaurant), and what is more pig-centric and quintessentially Southern than ribs? We were heart set on ordering ribs, but in the negotiation that is ordering from a knowledgeable server (How are the ribs? What’s your favorite dish?), the server countered our order with this perplexing advice:
1. Obviously, our best dishes are the pig dishes;
2. Our best dishes are The Farm [oxtail] and the Chicken N Waffles.
We took the second piece of advice and despite the scant pig on our table (there is some crispy pig’s ear in The Farm), we were pleased with our (server’s) selections.
The Farm ($21) is braised oxtail ragout served with an enormous and dense biscuit and topped with a duck egg and a pickled squash blossom. It is a plate so fine to behold that the restaurant made it the first thing you see when you land on their website. The oxtail was well browned, slightly sweet, and supremely beefy. The duck egg was crisp on the bottom, with the large yolk still runny. Mixing the yolk with the oxtail and sopping it up with a biscuit — that is the essence of soul food. You could eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or all three in the same lucky day.
The Chicken N Waffles ($15) was also an impressive sight: three small waffles straining under the weight of a fat piece of fried chicken (two wings flanking a thigh), each topped with a dollop of cayenne butter. The chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender and coated in flaky, spicy batter, and while good, it won’t topple the reigning king of fried chicken in the Twin Cities. The waffles were excellent, light and fluffy. Notably, one of our favorite things about the dish was the little gumdrops of roasted pear that dotted the plate.
Unlike our lunch sides, the side of grits ($6) with dinner was another highlight — buttery, creamy, and with corn nuts to add a crunchy textural element. Despite being served (but again, apparently not cooked) in a cast iron dish, the grits were hot.
On both visits, we were saddened to hear that they were out of (or didn’t yet have, depending on the server) their smoked beer, specially brewed by Tin Whiskers. We took solace in a Sazerac ($9), made with a mysterious smoked absinthe. The smoke was all on the nose, an illusion by the time it hit the tongue. Also mysterious were the facts that the drink was not chilled and the promised lemon peel had disappeared.
Handsome Hog’s space is relatively small, almost intimate. The bar is striking, with illuminated shelves showcasing an expansive bourbon selection. Around the corner is a corridor, with windows overlooking Sibley Street, that is lined with tables and booths; it doubles as a hallway to the kitchen stairs. There is a lot of movement in the galley-like space, and on both visits, the staff seemed to have a hard time staying out of each other’s way.
Like a Minnesota native awkwardly dropping “y’all” into a conversation, certain visual elements give Handsome Hog the gimmicky and inauthentic feel of a theme restaurant: serving what ought to be hot food in cool cast iron skillets, plastic plants on the tables, wall decorations that look like they belong in a hotel hallway or corporate boardroom. The service was decent, on average. One server was knowledgeable and checked in often. The other seemed as puzzled as we were, and he hardly ever stopped by to visit.
Southern food encompasses a lot of things, and from Cajun to Cubanos to the Carolinas, Handsome Hog is trying to cover them all. This is not a simple meats-and-sides Southern restaurant. The scope (four different menus throughout the day) might be too broad for a restaurant of its size so soon after opening. The menu could certainly benefit from some focus. Despite our strikeout at lunch, the food at dinner was spot on. There are many dishes on the menu that have the potential to become a new favorite, so we’ll certainly be back, and we’ll bring our high hopes with us.
Contemporary Southern cuisine in Lowertown, St. Paul
203 E 6th St
St. Paul, MN 55101
OWNER: Madison Hospitality
CHEF: Justin Sutherland
Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-midnight
Fri 11 a.m -1 a.m.
Sat 2 p.m.-1 a.m.
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $9-$24
NOISE LEVEL: Festive
PARKING: Street, public lots