Going Whole Hog

“First, peel the skin back.”

“Then, dive into the cheeks.”

“The flesh just behind the ears is the most tender.”

While it sounds like Hannibal Lector giving tips to carnivorous Hannibal Junior, it’s not. It’s chef Denver Atkins of The Top telling us how to go about carving and eating the pig’s head that was to be the centerpiece of tonight’s dinner table.

A pig’s head. A culinary bucket list item for some, a squeamish nightmare for others. Either way, partaking in Atkins’s pig’s head special is an adventure. Sunday through Wednesday, the head is served with warm tortillas and make-your-own-taco accoutrements, from sliced avocado and rice and beans to scratch-made salsa fresco and sour cream.

Sounds easy, yeah? Basically, a carnita extravaganza, right? That’s what I told myself until the actual head arrived on the actual table. Cut in half and presented with snout, ear, eyeball, and fat, fleshy cheek all laid out on a platter with citrus halves and parsley, it’s a bit intimidating… it’s kinda like, wow, that’s a head and I’m gonna eat it. Like, the eye is sunk in its socket because so much of its moisture evaporated during the hours of cooking and the grayish-brown tongue, flaccid and defeated, peeked out from between the rows of teeth and under the impertinent snout. The ear stands straight up, looking so much like the treats I give my dog.

“Once people get past their jitters,” said Atkins, “they love it.” Rubbed down with garlic, chili, cumin and other spices and chilled in the walk-in for a day or two, the head is then braised for two and a half hours with pineapple and citrus, followed by roasting for another five to five and a half hours.

“Slice the tongue, it’s a better part,” he advised. “The texture is like pot roast.”

After acknowledging the obvious “heady-ness” of the head, it’s time to eat. The skin is a glowing burnt umber with a sheen of fat that promises crunch and flavor and quest. Peeling the skin back is a misnomer—it is more like cracking the top of a porcine crème brulee. It is so crispy that the snap sounds like a lightning strike. Especially on the cheek, the skin breaks off to reveal a sweet salty layer of pork fat that glistens and catches the light like that one sunbeam that shines out from behind a dark cloud in the late afternoon. Seriously, that first skin crack was a religious experience—a voice booming, “Behold, I bestow unto you the porkiest of pork fat.”

Fingers are slick, and the moment is a glimpse into for-real, back-in-the-day meals, sitting in a circle, eating with your fingers, picking apart the head of a beast taken down on the plain.

Taking a bite of the skin crunches so hard it echoes inside your head, but the layer of fat is pillowy and the combination of the opposites is so delicious, people’s eyes rolled back in reverie. After that first bite, after breaking the pig’s head seal, everything was a blur—hands reaching to pull off the ear, forks and fingers grabbing for the cheek meat, tongue meat, the secret behind-the-ear meat.

Fingers are slick, and the moment is a glimpse into for-real back-in-the-day meals, sitting in a circle, eating with your fingers, picking apart the head of a beast taken down on the plain.

Except, not really. Atkins sources the heads from an Ohio farm, and there are shots of Avion tequila making the rounds; impeccable silverware is lined up like a marching band, and the lovely notes of Sonia Modes on piano hover in the air. What is the same as our hunter-gatherer brethren, however, is the community nature of the meal. Instead of each person with her own plate, her own fiefdom of food, this is a complete shared experience for the table. And for Atkins and his kitchen crew, it’s a chance to go outside of The Top box. “We serve so many steaks,” he said. “This is a fun outlet for us. This is the kind of meal that should make a paper napkin stick to your face.” There is also a wink of naughtiness in leaving greasy fingerprints on a shot glass at The Top, the oldest steakhouse in the city that radiates a well-deserved patina of class.

With the head basically broken down, skin shards littering the white tablecloth, there was but one morsel left—the eye. Atkins explained that he packed the eye socket with rosemary and garlic for a more savory orb. He even brought out a little cocktail fork to fit into the cavity better while instructing us to make sure to sever the tendon that keeps the eye put.

I’ll admit it, I couldn’t do it.

Hell, I’d just been through snout, ear, tongue, and skin, wasn’t that enough? Would I lose my culinary card if I didn’t go for the ocular dare? Couldn’t do it. Too much of a mental leap. Someone at the table ate it, popped that blind bugger right into his mouth like a grape. Props to him. Not for me.

“Wow. That was crazy good.”

“I can’t believe we ate that.”

“Can I take the rest home?”

The Top Steakhouse is located at 2891 E Main St. in Bexley. The pig’s head special is served Sunday through Wednesday, with advance request required. Call to make reservations, (614) 231-8238, or check out the website, thetopsteakhouse.com.