SXSW IS LIKE THE SUN: huge and gaseous and best viewed indirectly. Don’t stare straight at the Austin Convention Center, where Oreos Brand Ambassadors are incinerating what was left of the tech-rawk-film convention’s indie credibility. Don’t burn your retinas on the blinding orb of anti-awesome that is the Fleishman Hillard corporate communications “lounge” at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Instead, enjoy the shady corners of the festival: the side conversations at Clive Bar on Davis, the serendipitous reunions on South Congress, or the chance to bump into Bassem Youssef and DJ Spooky in the same random hallway. It’s cheap and easy to criticize what a brand bazaar the festival has become, but there’s no need to make yourself a victim. Just walk away from all the parts you don’t like.
The hunt for food should be guided by the same principles. Don’t wait in line for that free taco. Avoid any meal that has a launch partner. Turn your back to the carnival of handouts and cross under the freeway to East Austin and see what chef Paul Hargrove is doing on East 6th Street.
Roads & Kingdoms has a history with Hargrove. Those readers who were with us when we started—at this selfsame festival in Austin last year—will remember the transnational powerhouse he put on at our launch party. He took our three early obsessions—Spain, Southeast Asia, and Peru—and made a menu out of it. That meant, in part: pimientos del piquillo con bacalao, open-faced bánh mì and ceviche with Gulf snapper and grapefruit.
Relationships like this can get messy. A man who cooks like that is someone you just want to be around. So this year I found myself, along with my brother, sitting at a table in Hargrove’s Travis Heights home, while Hargrove’s wife—it was her birthday—poured deep drams of George Dickel laced with ginger beer, simple syrup and lime. We drank until we began falling out of our chairs, and then we walked home.
SxSW ended on Saturday with a double pop explosion: Prince brought to you by Samsung, Justin Timberlake brought to you by the new MySpace. My own finale came on the way to the airport, when I made a second stop by the East Side Show Room to catch Hargrove putting together this singular dish, Roasted Richardson’s Pork Belly.
Richardson Farms is in Rockdale, Texas, an old Alcoa town (and home to Pee Wee Crayton) some 50 miles from Austin. The dish is named after the pork belly they deliver. But it’s really Hargrove’s dish, a polyglot bowl the size of a hubcap with European inspiration and ratios like an inverted ramen: a little bit of broth, a ton of tender pork belly.
It’s worth interjecting here that Hargrove does not go for the word ‘fusion’. He’s not alone in this. The savant of Central Restaurante in Lima, Virgilio Martinez, got somewhat tongue-tied in our conversation with him when he tried to find a polite way to disavow the term.
Hargrove’s problem with the word is that it’s just imprecise. “Fusion” is not a style, he says. “Just like farm-to-table: That’s not a style of cooking, [that’s] a supply chain.” Richardson’s pork belly came from a local farm to Hargrove’s table, but that doesn’t tell you much about what he’s going to do with it.
For Hargrove, French cooking is a style, and it is has been his style ever since he cooked at Daniel in NYC. For this dish, that means curing the pork in brown sugar and salt and spices for six hours. Then he poaches it in white wine, water and a mirepoix for another four hours at 325°. The salt turns the liquid into a broth. Strain and add grace notes of parmesan and mustard.
That’s the French twist. But on top of the poitrine de porc comes a wholly Italian innovation, the uova da raviolo. Note the singular: This one raviolo is the size of a fist. There is herbed ricotta and a single egg yolk inside, and the whole thing gets cooked for just an instant—merely threatening the thin raviolo with boiling water is almost enough to get it there—so that the yolk remains runny and as golden as the sun.
All of this is topped with a Spanish touch. On a trip to northern Spain, Hargrove didn’t just remember the Basque pintxos, but also the way that every restaurant and café in San Sebastian seemed to serve diners a fistful of thin-cut fries. So Hargrove’s pork belly is ringed with black-eyed peas and mushrooms and then crowned with a golden haystack of fries.
Hargrove’s best explanation for how he came up with the dish is: “I cook what I like to eat.” Good words to live by, and the reason his dish makes for a fine anniversary meal. If there’s one thing we can say about the first year of Roads & Kingdoms, it’s that we cooked what we liked to eat. Stories about legendary chili sauces, mapped-out dispatches of a heavily-armed dash for Mogadishu ice cream or a minibus journey through the heart of Armenia: this is the menu we’ve chosen.
The East Side Show Room is, rather self-consciously, a speakeasy. The bar is the centerpiece, all class and brass, with devil-red accent lighting. But an honest dish like this, where egg yolk spills over pork belly into a darkening broth, isn’t meant for pairing with cucumber martinis. Give it a local beer—maybe a Pearl Snap pils—and begin. The carnival barkers and bacchanalians to the west will have to wait.