IF THEY EVER decide to tear down Lula Parker's brick barbecue pit, I'll be the first one to shackle myself to the door, wailing, flinging sauce, and clutching a rib in each fist.
Parker hung up her smoke billows late last year at age 90, closing Tropicana Barbecue, which she opened in 1957. But she isn't selling the land, which means this corner will remain free from high-rise condos and boutique eateries—for now. This dark, funky, low-ceilinged shack will stand.
Happily, its soul remains. The People's Pig, a downtown food cart specializing in great sandwiches, is in the space now, putting out ass-whupping meals that top out at $12. Served on metal plates with paper, this is barbecue stripped of pretension, riding just on its smoky flavors. This is the real business.
It's a basic menu, scrawled on a chalkboard with specials written on order tickets taped up below it. There's a very devil-may-care attitude—not in a "fuck you, I'm a twee Portland restaurant" way—but more like you're stepping into a meat den. If you want it, they're really stoked to serve it to you. To wit: On a recent Monday, we were the only customers when chef Cliff Allen pulled a huge bone-in rib eye from the grill for a staff meal. A few exceptionally rare and glorious slices were also sent to our table to sample.
Ribs ($12 for a large portion) are haloed in a pink smoke ring and slide off the bone with a slight tug. A tangy sauce is served on the side; there's no hiding this beautiful dark bark under condiments. A thunder thigh of boneless chicken ($10) is smoked before it's fried. Christ is that ever a good idea. Plates all come with two sides, which are the basics: macaroni salad, coleslaw, potato salad, and spicy beans. None are jaw-dropping; all serve their duty as accompaniments. The beans are the best.
Don't forget the sandwiches, which are the best way to eat the roast-y, tender, slightly fatty smoked pork shoulder. Recent specials included pork prepared with peaches or peppers. The latter was piled onto a perfectly textured bun (baked onsite!) that's dipped in garlic olive oil and grilled. It's then topped with peppers, caramelized onions, and pimento cheese. It's like the South invaded a Philly cheesesteak and totally won. It should probably stay on the menu forever. (P.S. Thank you, Portland chefs, for your recent infatuation with pimento cheese.) The inspired fried chicken also appears on a bun, with jalapeño jelly to add spark and depth to the flavors. Each sandwich ($10) comes with one side. Oh, and if you're feeling paleo, or eating some lettuce or whatever, everything can also be made as a salad.
The People's Pig is still waiting for its liquor license. Until then it's BYOB, so walk a block to New Seasons while you wait for your order to select your drink of choice (a Ninkasi Oktoberfest was great with the chicken).
There's no way to get out of there without smelling like the smoky pit from whence your meal came. There's also no way, if you like down-home barbecue, you're going to leave dissatisfied.
Mon-Sat 11 am-9 pm. No reservations and a few outdoor tables. Liquor license impending.