As humble dish beginnings go, it’s tough to top pig ears. Though the fervor for all things porcine has reached a crescendo the intensity of which few would have predicted a decade ago, the more exotic bits, like the ears, can still be a tough sell. And so it surprised everyone in town, including Chef Cullen Campbell of Crudo himself, when Phoenix fell in love with his Crispy Pig Ears.
The natural question, of course, is why pig ears? With a shrug, Cullen explains that he was reminiscing on his time in the South, eating plates of boiled pig ears with gravy, and seeing jars of whole pickled pig ears sitting on shop counters. “I wanted to make something for my chef friends,” he explains, and in his desire to give the dish his own spin, he decided to make them crispy. It wasn’t easy. A month of experimenting with different techniques finally led him to the texture he was looking for. But it was a moment of kitchen serendipity that took the dish in a completely different direction and made it such a hit. He’d originally planned to smother the ears in a spicy, creamy gravy. But on the day he finally got the crispy texture right, excited to give them a try, he grabbed the nearest accompaniment at hand — some pickled Fresno chiles that he uses on Crudo’s squid ink risotto — and dressed the ears with that, instead. “I threw on some of the Fresnos, we took the dish out to the bar, sat down, had a taste and said… yeah, I think we’re done.” The creamy, spicy gravy never even saw the light of day. When he put the pig ears on the menu, he expected a few industry friends and some of the more hardcore food geeks in town to order a few plates. What he did not expect was for it to become Crudo’s best selling dish in a matter of just a few weeks.
In terms of ingredients, there’s almost nothing to it. The action was all in the puzzle of figuring out how to transform a tough, cartilaginous pig ear into a crispy treat. The first step is to season and roast them. A lot. They cook in the oven overnight at low temp until the next morning, when Cullen turns the oven up for the rest of the day. The result, after 16 hours of roasting, is a pile of tender yet resilient pig ears swimming in a pool of the astounding amount of fat, gelatin, and other liquids that cook out of them. Once cooled, it’s like a tub of pig ear Jell-o. The ears are later removed from the gelatin and deep fried, resulting in an even softer texture and a deep brown color. At this point, they’re sliced into strips and held until ready to fire. When the dish is ordered, the sliced ears go back into the deep fryer for a second pass — no coating of any kind — and though they furiously spit and cackle on the way in, they come out delicate and crisp, and ready to finish. Into the dish they go, sprinkled with a little salt and chopped scallion, and dressed with thinly-sliced Fresno chiles and a healthy splash of their pickling liquid, made with white balsamic and sugar.
The result is one of the best bar snacks you’ve ever had. Between crispy, salty pig ears, sweet balsamic, and spicy Fresno chiles, it gets every single one of the “I must eat a bucketful of these and drink alcohol” receptors in your brain standing at attention. Unless you want to pace yourself, ordering two to start may save some time. But the world isn’t lacking for sugary, crispy, salty snacks. What makes this dish truly exceptional are the textures of the pig ear, pluralization very intentional. The long cooking process breaks down the cartilage in the center to the point where it yields to the teeth, but still has a little bit of chewy bite. Surrounding the cartilage is a slightly sticky layer of rendered fat and connective tissue, that’s rich and flavorful. And on the outside, the skin gets brittle and crisp, deeply browned with a delightful texture that would make you swear it had been coated with something. And that ever-so-faint hint of variety meat funk smooths right out under the touch of the sweet and sour pickling liquid. It is a testament to the dish — not to mention downright humorous — to see those who never imagined they might eat something like pig ears becoming instantly hooked on their first bite. And Cullen has had the good sense to make them available in the dining room as well. They are expertly prepared, perilously addictive, and I will fight you for them. Try me.
Crudo is deviously hidden, but find it you will at 3603 East Indian School Road, in Phoenix, Arizona 85018, around the back of the building. 602-358-8666 is the way to reach them by phone. Current favorites include the Ahi Crudo with Grilled Lemon, the always fabulous Squid Ink Risotto, and anything that’s new because, to be frank, Cullen has been killing it lately. The bar, run by Micah Olson, also happens to have some of the best drinks in town, and bonus… you can eat there too.