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Pigging out is in

Pork populates menus beyond the breakfast daypart, across segments

From the fire-grilled ribs at Burger King to the whole roasted pig head at The Bristol in Chicago, pork has had a good year.

Long the dominant meat at breakfast, America’s third-most popular protein is getting top billing in all dayparts these days, particularly as carnitas, barbecue and a certain type of salted, smoked belly.

“What we’re seeing everywhere is bacon, bacon, bacon,” said Stephen Gerike, the National Pork Board’s director of foodservice marketing.

Noting that bacon was once viewed simply as a commodity, Gerike said many restaurants now are reevaluating it and treating it as a premium item, particularly as an addition to hamburgers. 

He said Wendy’s recently revamped its bacon with much success, moving away from a precooked item to a better quality, raw, thicker variety. He said that has spurred other quick-service giants to revisit their programs.

Burger King expanded its pork offerings by making use of its new batch broilers to launch fire-grilled ribs. With an eight-piece meal costing $8.99, BK’s rib roll out further underscored pork’s new premium cachet.

In fine dining, Gerike said, “it’s salumi, salumi, salumi” — the Italian term for cured meat.

Dinner sausages also are making a comeback in casual dining, he added.

Lowell Petrie, chief marketing officer and senior vice president for Real Mex Restaurants, which operates the Chevys Fresh Mex, El Torito and Acapulco Mexican Restaurant y Cantina chains, said pork is performing well for them.

“It holds up really well on the line,” he said, adding that carnitas have long been a standard on Mexican menus and are available at all Real Mex restaurants. However, instead of slow-cooking them in lard, as is the tradition, his restaurants sauté or bake them, or fry them in vegetable oil.

Chris Pandel, chef of The Bristol and creator of its whole roasted pig head, said he got the idea after he had tired of preparing traditional Italian porchetta di testa. Since Pandel butchers whole animals, he had to do something with the head, and it occurred to him that because the cheeks, jowl, snout and ears are all delicious, it made sense to cook it whole. 

He brines the pork for several days in a mixture of salt, sugar, water, pepper, rosemary and garlic, and then slow-cooks it for several hours.

He generally serves it with some sort of sweet-sour glaze, such as sherry and maple, or orange juice and jalapeño.

“We don’t offer it too, too often, but when we do it sells like wildfire,” he said.

Lee McGrath, chef of Pó restaurant in New York, said he likes pork for its versatility. He brines the tenderloin in apple cider, black pepper and clove, grills it and then serves it with apple- and onion-braised cabbage, accompanied by an apple-cranberry mostarda.

He uses the trim from the tenderloin to make a ragù, with either sage or cinnamon, that he serves with a ribbon-style pasta like pappardelle. 

“And that’s pure profit, because it’s already been paid for by the tenderloin,” he said.

He charges $19 for the pasta and $22 for the tenderloin.

RELATED: How one chef uses an entire pig

Notable recent additions of pork items on chain menus

  • McDonald’s announced the return of its McRib sandwich, featuring
  • a boneless pork patty, slivered onions, pickles and barbecue sauce on a toasted bun.
  • Taco Bell launched a line of street-food-inspired “Cantina” tacos as a limited time offer, including one with carnitas, served on a tortilla and topped with chopped onion, cilantro and a lime wedge.
  • Houlihan’s added two pork items to its small plates menu: Asian Style Ribs with a sweet Thai chile glaze and peanut-ginger slaw and an Italian sausage flatbread with fresh mozzarella.
  • Sister chains Village Inn and Bakers Square expanded their Perfect Pita line, adding, among other items, a barbecue pork pita.
  • Sizzler added a pork chop with applesauce, served with a baked yam and maple butter.
  • Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar unveiled its winter fixed-price menu, which includes an entrée of crackling pork shank with mashed sweet potatoes, Asian barbecue glaze and cilantro oil drizzle.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].

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