Handsome Hog’s 'contemporary Southernish' refuses to be boxed in

Smoked chicken wings are contenders for best in town.

Smoked chicken wings are contenders for best in town. GRF

I first met Justin Sutherland deep in the basement kitchen bowels of Brasserie Zentral, the Eastern European fine dining behemoth by Russell and Desta Klein that lived a short, brilliant life in downtown Minneapolis.

This was as close to a brigade kitchen as it gets around here. The crew was always in crisp, starched chef’s whites, falling into militaristic rank, toiling in concentrated silence.

The last place I expected to find him after Zentral was running a Southern restaurant, smoking meat and folding Benton’s bacon into macaroni and cheese. But Handsome Hog isn’t the Southern restaurant of your imagination, and Sutherland’s fine dining background isn’t going to waste.

“I wanted to eat this food in a different environment,” he says. He’s in a stocking cap and short-sleeved chef’s shirt, relaxed as anything. “Without shit hanging off the walls and garbage can lids all over the place. [That’s] fine, but I wanted something different.”

His something different is a sleek, contemporary room in St. Paul’s trendy Lowertown, where the menu zooms from Muffulettas to Cubanos. A “meat bar” showcases an extravagant Mangalitsa ham, the pig equivalent of gold. Banana pudding takes on a modernist edge with buttermilk espuma.

Of course Southern food, soul food, and barbecue are all red hot right now, and have been for some years. When those foods get fancied up, they’re subject to all manner of cultural commentary. Should French technique be applied to some of the most survivalist of American cooking traditions? Should biscuits and gravy be tall-plated? Should they cost $21? Should white folks be profiting off it?

Sausage gravy poutine with pickled Fresno chiles

Sausage gravy poutine with pickled Fresno chiles GRF

Sutherland has a grandma from Mississippi, and another from Japan. His mom is white. His dad is African American. He identifies as his own thing. And like anyone growing up on fried chicken and collards, he found they stayed with him all throughout his adulthood and culinary education. Southern food is his first love, Japanese cooking his second, but when I push to get a categorization on Handsome Hog, the closest I get is “contemporary Southernish.” Like Sutherland, Handsome Hog is its own thing.

Though he bristles at categorizing Handsome Hog as a barbecue joint, smoking is where the kitchen does its best work, and it is nice to eat such food in a room without a bunch of shit hanging off the walls. Sutherland won’t describe the brisket as a house specialty, but I will. Beautiful, fat-striated slabs of cherry and hickory smoked beef are layered on Texas Toast with a pot of vinegary sauce at the side. The whole of it crackles with sweet, sour, salty, and tang. It’s perfect.

Ditto the deeply smoky, elaborately seasoned dry-rubbed wings, an eye-widening home run. When I tell the chef that theirs are contenders for best in town, he asks, “Yeah, how can I get in the wing game?” Kid, you’re in.

These chicken champs are only available at happy hour, when you’ll also be eyeing the most excellent brisket and pork belly sliders. A mashup of scraps from entree preparations of the two dishes are pressed into squishy buns and served with pickles and a housemade jalapeño sauce hot enough to make you jump out of your chair. These are the very essence of soul food: using what’s left to make something brilliant.

My biggest problem with Handsome Hog is that there’s nearly too much to contend with on its menu. In their effort to evade definition, I fear that they do just that. A blue cheese wedge salad, while properly executed, can be had anywhere. A “BBQ Chopped Salad” is a strange amalgam of kitchen-sink ingredients from black-eyed peas to grilled corn to grape tomatoes. And while they do chicken and waffles with expert grace, I’d like that once distinctive, now overdone dish to die a quiet death. Even White Castle is onto it.

When pork shank osso buco or a whole fried snapper gets invited to the party, things start to get a little weird. It’s like too much memorabilia on the walls; the magic spell of a truly great restaurant starts to get a bit muddled.

Besides, easy sellers like chicken and waffles obscure the flashes of often dazzling cooking here. The smoked cioppino with an ocean of seafood and smoked tomato broth sets an elegant, understated tone for future courses. A sausage gravy poutine boasts big, meaty batons of potato that stand up to the bombardment of cheesy, curdy gravy. Pickled Fresno chiles cut through the fat like a firecracker through muggy July air.

For sheer drama, turn to the pork Porterhouse, where a bludgeon of pig rests over juicy braised cabbage, apple, and Cipollini onion, all of it doused in bourbon-infused sorghum and mustard butter. It’s dinner turned dessert and a meat treat you won’t soon forget.

As at any truly good Southernish place, you can make a joyful, freewheeling meal out of the sides section. Sutherland’s grandma’s greens, mile-high flaky biscuits, and a cucumber salad that’s a nod to any Minnesota kid’s picnic table — I could die happy with these and little else. Well, these, and any selection from HH’s “Brown Bible” where a hundred labels of bourbon, whiskey, rye, and Scotch are treated with high reverence. Order a house Manhattan or a Vieux Carré with tobacco and Benedictine for smooth drinking proof.

Much of the thrill of eating “next generation” cooking is finding out what the kids will do next. Purity in food cuts both ways. We all love a classic, but we’ve all had those classics before. When a young, black-Japanese-white guy with a French cooking background opens up a contemporary Southernish place, it’s cause to perk up and take notice.

When Sutherland offers a taste from a pot of gumbo he’s been working long and hard on, I perk up again. The roux is dark, chocolate brown, and he says it takes an hour and a half to get that way. “Gumbo is so easy, yet so easy to mess up,” he says. It’s true. You can scarcely get a decent bowl in this town. Sutherland’s is a work in progress, and it won’t go on the menu until he gets it just right.

Mastering the classics, then refusing to be confined by them. It’s the age-old path to greatness. We’ll be watching.

Check out more photos from Handsome Hog here.

Handsome Hog
203 E. Sixth St., St. Paul