I discovered chef Raymond Tatum on the TV show Great Chefs of the West back in 1985. Unfortunately, I was in Boston, but I came back to Austin as soon as I could and ate Tatum's food at Jeffrey's when funds would allow. He then moved to Brio! on Sixth Street, where his imaginative cuisine was so popular that he was voted Best Chef in Austin by Chronicle readers in 1995's Restaurant Poll. By 2002, Tatum had joined the BackStage Steak House. While he could cook a delicious steak, it put his considerable skills in a cage, kind of like hiring Jimi Hendrix and telling him he can only play surf music.
Now, Tatum finally has his own business in a trailer called 3 Little Pigs, which serendipitously sits behind the exciting East End Wines (about which, more later). Tatum is now uncaged and can let his imagination go wild. This food gets my vote for the best he's ever made.
Three of us tried the six seasonal dishes on the menu, and all are outstanding. His pork belly slider with maple-soy glaze, sliced green apple, and fried onion with a side of sesame coleslaw ($6) is simply the best thing I've eaten in 2011. The crunchy, fatty pork belly's maple-soy glaze is impeccably balanced between sweet and salty, and the apples lend crispness and acidity. It's an unpretentious thing, but could not possibly be better executed.
Tatum's Cracklin' Meatloaf wrapped in bacon with cheese grits and collard greens ($6) is a delectable concoction where the sweet and bitter collards made magic with the grits and meat loaf. We also ate every bite of the Asian fried chicken with sweet chile sauce, wasabi mayo, and sesame coleslaw ($6), which may sound muy picante, but it was actually well-balanced and the chicken was faultlessly crispy.
Breaking the yolk of a fried egg over the chorizo on grits ($6) lent a saucelike texture to mix into the other ingredients. Again, it was a simple dish, impeccably executed. Tatum's most expensive dish was crispy fried pork and wood-grilled eggplant sandwich with pepper-jack cheese and olive tapenade with a side of arugula and black-eyed pea salad ($7). We liked putting the arugula inside the sandwich, which added a pleasant snap of bitterness.
The final dish of the six was the only one that didn't unanimously please us. It was the vegetarian dish of the day, a pan-fried leek dumpling with daikon and carrot salad and a sweet soy jalapeno dipping sauce ($4). One of our group (a knowledgeable soul who manages the food section of The Dallas Morning News) thought the dumplings were too dense. My wife and I both thought the crunchy salad and slightly picante sauce married just right with the strong leek flavors. And even though the dough was dense, we thought it was also rich and worked well with the other textures.
3 Little Pigs has three picnic tables, but as people start to discover Tatum's superb food, he will have to add tables.
The proximity of East End Wines makes it tempting to try out a few of their wines with the 3 Little Pigs' food. Unfortunately, that is stupidly illegal. They're working on getting permits to serve wine and have jumped through several hoops but are being thwarted by a lack of parking.
Still, I want to highly recommend this delightful little shop. Sam Hovland showed us around the Euro-centric, mostly inexpensive, and brilliantly selected wines. We bought three bottles that would have been stunning matches with Tatum's food. I told Hovland that we wanted a red, a white, and a rosé, and that I wanted the red to be something like a Spanish Priorat. I also wanted cheap, which meant no Priorat, since most of them are north of $50.
Hovland wasn't dismayed. He started with the Barth René Pinot Gris ($16.57), which was aromatic and fruity, just the picture-perfect match for Tatum's pan-fried leek dumpling. Castillo Perelada Cresta Rosa ($13.77) is the single best wine for Tatum's cuisine. It's cool to help tamp down any spiciness, slightly frizzy to cleanse the palate, and fruity enough to complement Tatum's onslaught of all things pork.
As for the impossible dream of an inexpensive Priorat, Hovland produced a D'Anguera La Planella ($21.77). It's not precisely a Priorat but is from the adjoining mountains. Its massive flavors tasted similar to Priorat and at a much cheaper price.
East End Wines is chock-full of obscure bottles just waiting to inspire anyone who loves wine. Add to that the knowledgeable help and gorgeous location – not to mention the ability to stop and get some of Tatum's food – and you have a pure gem of a wine shop. Both places are very highly recommended.
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