Review: The Stellar Hog in South City
The Stellar Hog is a South City neighborhood barbecue joint straight out of central casting, complete with a glowing neon pig sign, a jukebox blaring Bob Seger tunes, $2 cans of Natural Light and a backyard beer garden littered with picnic tables. A devout crowd of locals line up outside the ramshackle old tavern in Holly Hills to devour chef-owner Alex Cupp’s stripped down menu of staples. Cupp, an Adam’s Smokehouse alum, gives all his attention to a handful of basic plates that will leave you smiling and stuffed.
Ribs are the measuring stick for any good barbecue joint, and The Stellar Hog does not disappoint. Tender meat easily tears off the sticky-sweet baby back ribs, which are patted with a garlic-heavy dry rub then slow smoked for four hours in a thick haze of cherry wood, which is milder than harsh hardwoods like hickory. The smokiness hits you first, but it’s the chipotle-honey glaze that locks in moisture and imparts a distinct but subtle sweetness to every bite. Extra barbecue sauce is available (each table has a bottle of sweet tomato-based sauce and a spicy, sweet mustard-based chipotle sauce), but the glaze makes adding anything almost a sin.
I wasn’t expecting to fall so hard for the burger at a barbecue joint, but it’s easily one of the best things on the menu. Simplicity is the key: A half-pound of 100 percent Angus beef is prepped with just salt, tossed on a grill for a few minutes and then finished with a brush of compound butter infused with garlic, herbs and a red wine reduction. The thick patty has a fantastic char, and its lightly toasted Vitale’s Bakery bun remains crisp despite the meat’s delightful juiciness. It’s dressed with lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion and, if you’re in the mood, a house-made rib jam for an extra buck and a half. Similar to bacon jam, this is a savory and sweet amalgamation of brown sugar, balsamic, caramelized onions and bits of pork rib cooked down into a thick stew of candied meat.
Cheesy Pulled Pork Fries
I almost laughed at the massive mound when it slid onto my table. The half portion is big enough to serve as an entire entree. The medium-thick french fries somehow retain crispiness beneath the onslaught of a creamy five-cheese sauce (cheddar, American, smoked Gouda, mozzarella and Provel), a generous amount of the mustard-chipotle barbecue sauce and a layer of house pit beans, laced with bits of brisket and slow-smoked overnight. But the real treat is the incredibly moist and smoky pulled pork, which is dry rubbed and smoked 14 hours, a portion of which is spent in a pan stewing in its own drippings.
The Stellar Hog brisket (available in a traditional barbecue style or as corned beef cured more than two weeks) is a masterpiece. Try the traditional first – it’s treated to a rubdown with coffee before slow smoking 14 hours. The gloriously thick slices have a crispy charred edge and tender middle that tear effortlessly into deliciously smoky bites. The brisket was especially good paired with the house slaw, featuring a citrusy sweet vinaigrette made with lemon, lime and orange juice.
The Stellar Hog isn’t a spot for a quick weekday lunch. Similar to the cooking process, the service can be a bit slow. Settle in with a tall beer and get ready to wait.
Matt Berkley is a longtime contributor and critic for Sauce Magazine.