Austin’s SXSW conference is going strong, and so is our week-long look at Latin food and chefs in the Lone Star capital, which also happens to be one of America’s foodiest cities. Today: It’s not surprising that Austin is home to what’s been hailed one of the country’s best sandwiches, nor that one of the two chefs behind the restaurant that makes it—The Noble Pig—is a homegrown, south Texas, Mexican-American kid inspired by the lengua tacos he grew up eating.
Brandon Martinez was raised around food and cooking; his grandmother owned a catering company in Corpus Christi, where Martinez grew up, and everyone in the family was expected to help in large and small ways. “Instead of going out to play on the streets,” he recalled. “I’d be working with my grandmother putting ham and cheese into little sandwiches. I was there every weekend working quinces and parties.”
By the time he was a teenager, ready to make his own way, Martinez had fallen in love with food. But he wanted to explore what was beyond Texas. He enrolled in culinary school in Vermont — “I wanted to get as far away as I could” — and after graduation worked in high-end kitchens in New Mexico and San Francisco. “I never thought I would move back to Texas,” says Martinez, now 33 and married to a pastry chef wife with whom he has a 15-month-old daughter. “But every time I would come back to visit, it got harder and harder to leave.”
Eventually, it became impossible. He wanted to find a way to return to south Texas. So he reconnected with John Bates, a friend from culinary school who also happened to be a fellow Corpus Christi native, and together they set out to create something of their own in Austin. “We wanted Austin because it’s such a great food town that supports our kind of creativity,” Martinez said. They decided they wanted was to create the ultimate sandwich. “I couldn’t remember the last time I had a truly great sandwich,” he said.
Thus The Noble Pig was born. Tiny in square footage— “our kitchen is 100 square feet! and it can barely fit us both cooking at the same time” — it is huge in ambition. “We make everything here,” Martinez said. “We cure the bacon ourselves. We brine the hams. We make our own sausages, our own pickles, our own mustard, our own bread. Everything you can make…we do.” Far from the usual turkey-and-cheese affair, the Noble Pig’s menu, Martinez said, is totally driven from the chef side of the restaurant equation. Duck pastrami, smoked pork belly, homemade relish—everything on the menu has artisanal roots. Even the seared beef tongue, inspired by the lengua tacos Martinez ate growing up in Corpus, has been elevated. It’s served with smoked green onions, red pepper relish and aioli.
Such attention to detail has paid off. The restaurant, open since the fall of 2012, has been featured on a Travel Channel special that named its beef tongue one of America’s best sandwiches; and the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” included the spot in one of host Guy Fieri’s great sandwich restaurant round-ups last year.
While Martinez is thrilled with the fanfare, he says sometimes it’s hard to believe. “We never imagined we could be this successful so quickly,” he said. “Our first year our goal was to not go bankrupt, so all of this still blows my mind.” It seems to be blowing everyone else’s mind—and taste buds—too. The Noble Pig is at 11815 620 North, Suite 4 in Austin, TX.
If you’re in Austin for SXSW, tweet a photo of what you’re eating or drinking @NBCLatino.