Twice in about 30 minutes on Tuesday, two customers came to the door of the Juicy Pig, Denton’s newest barbecue joint.
One was a UPS driver with a hungry look in his eye. The other was a motorist who got his hopes up as he drove down Locust Street.
“You want the good news or the bad news?” said owner Ken Currin, who has two other busy restaurants within walking distance of the Juicy Pig.
“The bad news is that we’re out of barbecue. The good news is that we open 11 a.m. tomorrow.”
The second visitor nodded, and looked past Currin into the modest but modern restaurant with its three indoor tables, wood panel walls, gleaming counter and ready-for-business menu board. He was likely looking for the source of a certain smoky scent back in the kitchen. There was a telltale tang in the air, too — maybe a concoction of oak chips, seasoned tomato sauce and traces of fruit. He probably couldn’t hear Willie Nelson singing the old hymn “Down by the Riverside” with Wynton Marsalis on trumpet piped through the speakers.
“We’ll serve our full menu by Thursday and this weekend,” Currin told him.
The drop-in thanked him, cast one more longing look toward the kitchen, and promised to be back soon.
“One of things I hate to say to anyone is ‘we’re out,’” Currin said. “I know for some people it’s a badge of honor, but I want to be able to sell much as I can. I want to stop having that conversation, ‘I’m out’ or ‘I’m not open.’”
The Juicy Pig is a walk-up barbecue restaurant. Currin calls it “a food truck without wheels.”
“This entire place is 900 square feet,” he said. “It’s a delicate dance we do back there.”
Customers can sample chopped or sliced beef or pulled pork, get their fill of ribs, sausage or chicken, and take their pick of traditional Texas barbecue sides — potato salad, sweet or spicy slaw, borracho beans or deviled eggs.
And all that food? It’s the careful work of Denton culinary mainstay Pam Chittenden. She’s spent time in a lot of local kitchens, but for the past couple years, Chittenden has planned and executed multi-course smorgasbords at Paschall Bar. She’s cooked and served there under the moniker of “Pam Food.”
Pam Food is a simple concept — several courses of adventurous, gourmet fare served without a whiff of pretension.
For the Juicy Pig, Chittenden said her menu is a balance between tradition and experimentation.
“All of our sauces are fruit-based,” Chittenden said. “The house sauce is pretty traditional. It uses tamarind, which has that depth of flavor with a little tang to it. The chipotle peach has the peach of course, and the Carolina sauce is made with apples. I’m not a fan of the typical strong vinegars in the usual Carolina sauces. We’re looking to something that’s a step above your usual barbecue.”
Chittenden said she feels confident about her skills in cooking Asian and Mexican dishes. Barbecue represents a challenge. She’s an accomplished eater of ’cue, but making it? Not totally in her wheelhouse. Since she and Currin shook on the project, she’s been sharpening her skills. She’s brining the chickens, whipping up pork rubs and trying to make nice with brisket.
“Brisket is the prima donna of them,” she said. “She needs loving care and stroking, and if you’re looking, you ain’t cooking. If you open that lid too many times, it won’t come out right. You have to set the temperature and let her cook. I cried when I first tried it. Ken took me aside and told me, ‘There’s no crying in barbecue.’”
It feels like a barbecue venture between Currin, Denton’s master of casual fine dining, and Chittenden might have been a touch of destiny. The two have known each other since their college days. Currin said he’d already decided he wanted to open a barbecue joint in the 700 block of Locust Street, not far from the Greenhouse Restaurant and Loco Cafe. He told the property owner that if the small space was ever available, Currin had an idea.
The building became available over the summer, and Currin pounced.
“I’m part of a book club that meets every month at the Greenhouse,” he said. “Pam came one month and she sat down right next to me. I took that as a sign from above. I asked her if she wanted to come take a look at my latest project, look at the building, and by the end of book club, she said, ‘I’m in.’”
Currin knew he could yield the menu to Chittenden, he said, and that she’d honor the barbecue tradition and then some.
“Pam takes everything she does on the culinary side of things seriously, whether it’s deviled eggs or whatever it is. She’s gonna give 100 percent of herself,” he said.
She’s making the barbecue sauces in house. The meat will be Texas barbecue, with St. Louis-style ribs, too.
“Now the sides, that’s where Pam’s going to do some things,” Currin said. “It’s not going to be just potato salad. It’s going to be really good potato salad. And it won’t just be cole slaw out of a bag. It’s going to be really good cole slaw, something she whips up here.”
Currin acknowledged that the restaurant business is hard. But he’s worked in restaurants for most of his adult life. He spent a short stint as a journalist for United Press International news wire before it closed its print outlets. He doesn’t claim to be a self-made guy, either. Keeping a restaurant in business is a mix of luck, hard work and people, he said.
“I’ve always been blessed with a lot of good people,” he said. “Most of the good things I attribute to my success are either somebody else’s idea or somebody else’s hard work.”
The Juicy Pig will draw on Currin’s talent pool at the Greenhouse and Loco Cafe. Greenhouse staffers Fredy Hernandez and Nicole Probst are part of the new venture, and Greenhouse waiter and local playwright Kevin Wickersham will work at the Juicy Pig. Janita Peabody, the baker at Loco, will make fried pies for barbecue finishers.
An offset pipe smoker, fabricated in Denton by local machinist Mark Marshall, will be the landing spot for all the meat.
The restaurant will serve just one beer — Lone Star, by the bottle or six-pack — and should have sangria by summer. The most expensive menu item, a plate called “The Whole Pig” that includes three meats, two sides and two deviled eggs, costs $15.
“When I opened the Greenhouse, I could count the restaurants in Denton on one hand, almost,” Currin said. “Now, that many have opened in the last year. I’m looking forward to Denton’s exciting, growing culinary landscape.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.
THE JUICY PIG
Address: 708 Locust St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. or until sellout daily
Fare: Brisket, pulled pork, ribs, sausage and smoked chicken, sold by weight or on plates and sandwiches; side dishes, tea, bottled sodas and Topo Chico mineral water and beer; fried pies.