Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, June 12, 2003
That’s the Trick

If a waiter asks you how you want your pork, don’t be afraid to say “rare.”


Folks who order pork in upscale restaurants these days are likely to encounter a frightening question from their waiters: “How would you like your pork chop cooked?”

It’s a horrifying query to baby boomers and their children, who were brought up to believe that undercooked pork is riddled with microscopic critters just waiting to make you sick. Very sick.

Although trichinella spiralis, a parasitic infection with flu-like symptoms contracted from eating undercooked pork, was literally eradicated in the mid-1980s, old habits die hard. Restaurateurs who serve pink pork insist that it’s safe. “Only once a month or so does someone scold us for even asking how [the patron] would like their pork cooked,” said Jon Bonnell, owner of Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine.

Bonnell wants people to eat pork medium-rare because he says it’s juicier and much more flavorful than even medium-cooked meat. “It’s perfectly safe,” he said. Kevin Maloney, general manager of the Nutt House in Granbury, said that if a restaurant serves quality meat and handles it right, “it’s almost 100 percent safe.”

Although rare pork is safe, most people I know (myself included) gasped the first time we gazed at a tuna-tataki-rare pork tenderloin. The mindset that says, “rare pork is a no-no” is strong.

Even those in the trade may initially balk at rare pork. Maloney was among the non-believers when he worked for Angeluna. “I became aware of [rare pork] two years ago,” he said. “The chef served a pork tenderloin seared on the outside and rare in the middle.” He said the flavor was a revelation — “it tasted so much better than an overdone chop.”

Fine restaurants are using their reputations to convince people to try rare pork by serving pork tenderloin with a rosy pink, barely-warm center and pale pink chops that ooze with juicy flavor. (The really rare pork tenderloin I tried at the Mansion in Dallas was delightful. It had a velvety, smooth texture and a juicier-than-normal finish.) No one is forcing diners to eat rare pork, but servers and managers are asking diners to try a more lightly cooked product. The Nutt House’s Maloney uses logic. “If you eat rare steak and raw fish, you’ve got to try your pork rare or medium,” he said. Chefs recommend ordering pork the same way you’d order beef. Cuts with bone or heavy marbling (like a pork chop or a porterhouse steak) should be one step less rare than a filet or pork tenderloin.

Even if a person were the statistical anomaly who contracted trichinosis, it’s not usually a killer. Between 1993 and 1997, there were only two trichinella spiralis outbreaks in the United States, totalling19 cases, and no deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The outbreaks came from improperly fed, home-raised hogs. In the same time period, salmonella and E. coli outbreaks claimed many more lives (16 and 8, respectively) and caused suffering for thousands of people.

Initial symptoms of trichinosis, usually appearing a day or two after the unfortunate meal, mimic those of the stomach flu or a really bad hangover. It may be two weeks or more before additional symptoms appear, including fever, chills, eye swelling, and itchy skin.

Trichinella spiralis’ disappearance is attributed to an overhaul of hog raising techniques. Pigs are no longer fed —slopped — with garbage. They eat specially formulated feed made from soybean meal and corn fortified with vitamins. Hogs from some pork producers, like Iowa-based Berkshire, are bred as carefully as any Kentucky racehorse or prize bull. The breeders seek to produce animals with fine-fibered meat, which retains more water and fat, creating a tender, flavorful finished product.

Brian Olenjack, executive chef at the Chisholm Club, said the education process is working. “It’s a learning process,” he said. “People are trying it.” The Chisholm Club serves a porterhouse pork chop, a cut that includes chop and loin. He said the response has been positive because the pork is moist. “A lot of Fort Worth [diners] are stuck in their ways,” he said, “but they trust that we’re not going to harm them. If they trust you, they’ll try anything.”

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