At Union Pig & Chicken, the fried chicken is first-rate
Tucked away in East Liberty is Union Pig & Chicken, a barbecue joint serving some of the best fried chicken around town.
There are two seating options when you dine here. Downstairs is family-style with large, communal tables that will have you sitting with and making friends with strangers, while upstairs has more intimate seating, a bar and televisions.
Start your meal off with a cocktail from the list currently inspired by the movie “Mean Girls.” (The last iteration of the cocktail menu featured Seinfeld-themed drinks.) There’s the “You Can’t Sit With Us” rum-based cocktail and the “It’s Not My Fault You’re Like in Love With Me” gin fizz. Cocktails start pouring at 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and at noon on the weekends, so plan your trip accordingly.
Now, onto the meat. Union Pig & Chicken is a barbecue restaurant, but the star of the show here is not the pig, but the chicken. The fried chicken is a showstopper, arriving at your table piping hot, moist with the right amount of seasoning and with the crispiest of skin. Order it by the quarter (your choice of dark or white), half or whole bird and dive right in. Those fried chicken chain restaurants have nothing on this place.
If you stop by for Sunday brunch, you’ll find the fried chicken on fluffy waffles. You can order the bird barbecued or pulled, but your best bet is getting it fried.
As for the barbecue, if you want to try all of the house-smoked meats, order the Try-It-All combo plate for $19 that gives you a quarter pound of each of the following: cubed pork shoulder, brisket, pulled chicken and two Love Balls — homemade, slow-smoked pork and beef meatballs topped with a smoky tomato sauce.
Of all of the options on the platter, the best item was the brisket. It was tender to the touch and melted in your mouth. Top it with the “Alpha” BBQ sauce that’s on each table. The pork also was very tender and juicy and is even better topped with the Carolina chile-vinegar sauce located on the table. If you love a spicy sauce, your server can bring out the habanero hot sauce from the kitchen.
In addition to these smoked meats, ribs can be ordered by the quarter, half and full pound. I was hopeful that the ribs would be tender and delicious, falling off the bone, but these were dry and disappointing. Another dish I didn’t love was the Love Balls. They, too, were very dry. My server told me they are working on getting the balls smoked just right, so hopefully they will be better in the future.
For vegetarians, opt for the smoked tofu that is known to really absorb the flavor of the smoker. A pro tip from the kitchen I learned is to drizzle a touch of the habanero hot sauce on top to really give it an intense flavor profile.
Now that we have the main meats down, it’s on to the sides. A definite must-try is the mac and cheese, made with elbow macaroni that will take you back to childhood. You can order a side of it, but if you’re really hungry or want to share it with a friend or two, order off the Big Mac menu that features two varieties. The Pickle Mac combines macaroni with a creamy cheese sauce, briny pickled vegetables, crumbled blue cheese, wasabi oil and ranch breadcrumbs. If you really love pickles and briny flavor, this is your best bet. The other option is the Mighty Mac made with smoked marinara, fresh pearl mozzarella and crispy shallots. Brisket, pork, chicken or Love Balls can be added to either one for an extra $4.
Other sides include cole slaw, greens with bacon (that was too salty on the night I dined, but had a great briny flavor), rice and black beans, baked beans, macaroni salad, strawberry slaw, brisket-and-pork chili, and a smooth and creamy bowl of mashed yams topped with charred, tiny marshmallows that was perfect because it wasn’t too sweet. The yams provide a nice balance to the smoky meats.
If you’re on a carb-free diet, toss that out the door because you are going to want to order a slice of the moist cornbread with butter and honey on the side, and at least a handful of the flaky cream biscuits with butter and jam. Order extra for the next morning to make an incredible breakfast sandwich. They are that tasty.
If you are less interested in ordering a tray full of smoked meats, Union Pig & Chicken also offers a few sandwich options, including a cheesesteak made with brisket and house whizz, a muffaletta and a banh mi: tender and toasted baguette filled with brisket and pork cubes, liver mousse, pickles, jalapeno-cilantro aioli, jalapenos and a sweet soy sauce. The flavors were there, but the sandwich was messy to eat. If it’s even possible, there was too much meat and filling in the sandwich to pick up and hold, but cutting it with a knife did the trick.
End your meal with a plate of three bourbon-chocolate-chip cookies and milk or with a scoop of Millie’s Ice Cream from up the street in Shadyside. Another pro tip: Order both and make your own ice-cream sandwich or cookie sundae!