Several weeks ago, I had a chat with a friend who has been a long-standing chef in the city. We discussed the annoying trend of eating in the dark and the difficulty of reading menus, the majority of which are printed in tiny pale type.
“Right now, it has become all about pork and beer,” he said with a grin.
Pork belly has been the darling of American chefs for a number of years. The barbecue craze took center stage when Percy Street opened on South Street a few years ago. The Texas-style fare was uncommonly good.
I’ve eaten barbecue throughout most of the South. When I read Stephen Starr opened Fette Sau (German for “fat pig”), I had to pay a visit. The restaurant does not take reservations.
Located on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown, Fette Sau is a casual spot well-suited for families. Berkshire pigs and steer are raised without hormones, antibiotics and steroids. Craft beer and whiskies are the libations of choice.
The menu is written on a blackboard, so if you are nearsighted, don’t forget your glasses. The friendly staff was eager to please and explained all of the meats are ordered by the pound.
Edward and I slid onto bar stools and looked over the drink selection. He ordered a pint of Teuton ($6), a rich, dark beer, while I decided it was time to try a Bourbon Rob Roy ($17). The barkeep showed us a bottle of McCarthy’s produced in Oregon. He said it had the flavor and aroma similar to single malt Scotch. It did, indeed. He mixed it straight up and it imparted the flavor of good Scotch whiskey, but I was shocked at the price.
We stepped up to order and knew we had to try the brisket ($18 a pound). It was, hands down, the finest I’ve tasted anywhere. This is not Jewish deli brisket or your mother’s variety served during Rosh Hashana. It was smoky, succulent, tender and sliced thick. There was a choice of sweet, spicy or vinegar sauce. I did not care for any of them, but it didn’t matter. The brisket spoke for itself. Martin’s dinner rolls are 35 cents each, so you can build a small sandwich.
Berkshire pulled pork ($16) was too bland for my taste. It was properly shredded, but I’ve enjoyed more flavorful versions in South Philly.
Short ribs are another restaurant mainstay. Fette Sau’s version ($23 a pound) was smoked on the bone and virtually fell off it with one cut of the knife. I am used to short ribs braised in liquid such as beer or wine, but since these were simply smoked, it imparted a tasty but different mouth feel.
St. Louis-style spare ribs ($22 a pound) were a disappointment. Not much pork on the bone, and I found them underseasoned.
The star of the side dishes was the German-style potato salad ($5) tossed with a bit of oil and whole-grain mustard that added a piquant flavor. I like mayonnaise-free potato salad, as it is a welcome change from the run-of-the-mill variety. It did need a bit of salt.
Half-sour pickles ($2.50) took me straight back to my grandmother’s homemade crunchy pickles. They had a briny taste that married well with the assortment of meats we sampled.
Broccoli salad ($5.50) was inedible. It was bursting with too much vinegar and hot pepper flakes. I don’t know where it fits in with barbecue.
Baked beans are another barbecue mainstay ($7.50). The right balance of slightly sweet and tart is sometimes difficult to achieve. Bits of burnt ends of pork are added as the beans simmer. The texture was good but taste wise, the beans did not wow us.
I mentioned Fette Sau is a fine place for families. There were a number of children tucking into ribs and brisket, seated at the long, wooden tables, enjoying a casual dinner.
Two-and-a-half tips of the toque to Fette Sau.