When Canadians want a protein that sticks to their ribs, they turn to pork. Chefs, restaurateurs and QSR company heads agree — pork remains popular because it’s the protein equivalent of the little black dress. It can be caramelized, pulled, smoked, roasted, braised, fried or barbecued, and transformed from an umami-rich burger topping to the headline attraction. Its various cuts provide a great fat cap to keep things moist, or remain so lean it can rival chicken. Today’s chefs across Canada are putting pork front and centre on the plate, dressing it up to suit diners’ tastes.
An Increasingly Popular Protein Choice
Jill Failla, associate editor of Consumer Research at Chicago-based Technomic Inc., says the menus of 177 of the Top 200 Canadian chains (or 89 per cent of them) feature pork in some way — and those that don’t are likely a dessert or beverage establishment. “Pork is a versatile protein, featured in a wide variety of dishes — from sausage on pizza, to bacon on just about anything. It’s also less expensive than beef, making it an appealing option for operators,” she adds.
The team at South St. Burger agrees. “As we are primarily a burger restaurant, our pork offerings consist of bacon and our recently launched Oktoberfest pork sausage ($5.25 solo, $9.95 combo),” says company VP Thomas McNaughtan. “Bacon is a staple in any burger shop and we are no exception, with over 25 per cent of our customers ordering — even our
While bacon atop a veggie burger might seem like a contradiction, McNaughtan believes there’s a real comfort food element associated with the salty strips. “Bacon can literally make anything taste better and really seems to make people happy,” he says. South St. Burger serves crispy, Applewood-smoked bacon sourced from Maple Leaf Foods atop its four-ounce True North Burger, along with cheddar, maple-infused onions and a house-made signature sauce ($7.15 solo or $11.85 for the combo). The recently launched Secret Menu features the Chicken Club, a grilled chicken breast topped with applewood-smoked bacon, Swiss cheese and the customer’s choice of toppings ($10).
Michael Young, VP Technical Programs and Marketing Services for Canada Pork International (the parent company of Canada Pork) says pork’s underutilized cuts — including bellies, jowls and offal (entrails and organs) — have become more popular in the marketplace, both domestic and for export. Another trend he sees gaining momentum is domestic chef and retailer interest in export quality pork that’s specifically selected based on its marbling scores, fat colour and meat colour (as well as texture and firmness). “This is excellent, high-end pork meat that’s being exported primarily to Japan and Korea,” says Young. “For this kind of meat to stay here, it has to compete with the export market. When demand increases, it will give producers and processors the signals they need to get that quality to the domestic market.” And it seems those most receptive to trying new iterations on the pork theme skew towards a younger demographic. Failla says “Two in five younger consumers (aged 18 to 34) want to try more pork dishes made with ethnic flavours and ingredients.”
Liz Smith, owner/manager of Halifax-based Indochine Banh Mi, agrees. Her clientele skews a bit older (24 to 40), and she describes them as “adventurous eaters — people who have travelled or lived in other places,” and hence seek out flavour-forward offerings. Her traditional Vietnamese menu features 30 per cent pork-based items in everything from banh mi Vietnamese sandwiches to the bun, or rice noodle bowls. “No Vietnamese menu would be complete without pork,” she says, adding, “Our most popular banh mi filling options are pork.” These include using local, lean ground pork combined with fresh basil, garlic, fish sauce and chilies in the pork meatball bahn mi, a marinated local pork belly that’s caramelized, or a traditional Vietnamese pork sate and oven-grilled pork option. And finally, there’s the recently introduced Spicy BBQ Pork banh mi, which combines Korean Gochujang chili paste with a chili flake marinade (all banh mi sell for $7.48). The sate and BBQ pork also make their way in the rice bowl or bun dishes ($9.95 to $11.95). “These are growing in popularity to the point that, someday, we hope people will order pork as much as they order the chicken options,” says Smith.
At The Stockyards: Smokehouse and Larder in Toronto, owner Tom Davis offers a taste of home-style barbecue on a menu featuring 45 per cent pork. It makes its own sausages and terrines and the team is even developing its own Spam, which will be used on its version of an Eggs Benedict — featuring a seared slice of Spam, served over a grit corn cake and topped with a deep-fried poached egg and red-eye gravy Hollandaise ($13 to $14). Most of its breakfast items feature pork (house dry-cured smoked bacon or sausage) and the burgers are often topped with bacon. One of its sleeper hits is Brussels sprouts roasted in bacon fat, served with crisped bacon slivers and tossed in Sriracha ($6).
Davis says while pork remains less expensive than beef and lamb, its price has increased 25 to 27 per cent since last year. The price of pork bellies, used to make bacon, replete with what Davis calls bacon’s dopamine inducing scent, has increased in particular. “I’m seeing corporate QSRs quick to pick up on pork trends and independent chef-owned restaurants, too. There’s a Korean pulled pork at Subway and I see a rise in Korean-style barbecue sauce. Pork products are versatile and cheaper than beef or chicken, which makes them a popular choice.”
Going Whole Hog
Instead of choosing less expensive cuts, the team behind Toronto’s Richmond Station buys a whole hog and breaks it down in-house, once a week. “We are constantly working on new methods for the cookery and butchery of pork. Since we only buy the whole animal, we have a great deal of freedom to play around with our technique,” says chef/owner Carl Heinrich. The restaurant’s most popular conduit to selling pork is its charcuterie plates ($16 with preserves from the pantry). Chef Guillermo Anderson is the in-house charcutier and cured pork is featured in several of his preparations. “Charcuterie is the enduringly popular choice as it’s an artisan product that’s difficult to prepare and is well respected; charcuterie strongly reflects the quality of the base ingredient.”
The type of pork used is crucial to the final product, says Heinrich. Richmond Station only buys antibiotic and hormone-free whole hogs from small, local producers and ideally heritage breeds such as Berkshire or Tamworth. Larger, older animals, whose meat has what the chefs assert as “more flavour.” are preferred. A healthy fat cap on a hog means other, usually leaner meats such as chicken or venison get confited in pork fat. Heinrich says it’s common for ground meat in stew, sausage or a pâté to contain pork as well. Its pulled pork ravioli ($25) served with romesco sauce, kale and baby leeks is on high rotation right now, but Heinrich’s favourite is the Presskopf, or “press head.” “We take the pig’s head and poach it until it’s falling off the bone, then pick off all the meat and skin and mix it with mustard, pickles and herbs before pressing into a terrine,” he explains. The sliced “headcheese” can also be breaded and fried to be served on a salad, in a sandwich or with a chutney on the charcuterie board ($16).
Any way you slice it, restaurateurs are making good use of every cut — from the lean bits such as tenderloin to the animal’s fat cap — putting flavour first and giving diners an infinite number of ways to enjoy this versatile protein.
Written By: Mary Luz Mejia
Volume 48, Number 11