Latitudinally speaking, Wichita is north of Austin, Memphis and the Raleigh-Durham/ Chapel Hill triangle. But it’s also south of Kansas City and St. Louis.
Somewhere along I-35 between Joe’s Kansas City Barbecue and Franklin Barbecue (or Arthur Bryant’s and Stubb’s, if you’d prefer), the passion for great barbecue fizzles a bit. That’s not to say Wichita isn’t a town that loves its smoked meat, but it’s not something that defines us. Wichita’s barbecue scene is largely dominated by local chains, though every year, another few individuals try to make their way into the conversation.
One of the oldest and most well-regarded barbecue restaurants in the city, Pig In Pig Out, started in a small restaurant on South Hydraulic across from Linwood Park in 1995, moved to 13th Street in 2004, and has been churning out competition-level meats the entire time.
The restaurant’s pulled pork is the gold standard against which all Wichita ’cue is measured, and it comes down to a matter of fat and seasoning, both of which are provided in ample amounts. Too often at visits to other restaurants, the pork is served too lean, which causes a dry and chewy texture.
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The skin and fat is also where all of the seasoning is applied, so by keeping some with the rest of the pork on my plate, I get a pulled pork that’s flavorful and moist enough to not need any of the sweet Kansas City-style barbecue sauce that’s on the table. Eaten by itself or with a few pickles on a buttered bun, it’s as good as it gets.
Pulled pork aside, the other competition winners, judging by the ribbons on the wall, are the ribs, and it’s easy to see why: a sharply seasoned, golden brown crust crispy from caramelization, rendered fat that melts as soon as it meets the heat of your mouth, and tender meat that doesn’t fall off the bone (which is frowned upon in competition barbecue circles) but pulls cleanly away once you bite into it. There are absolutely no flaws to be found in the ribs, and if they’re available, you should get them.
I’ve come to accept that fatty brisket can’t seem to escape the state lines of Texas, but Pig In Pig Out’s version is fall-apart tender with more moisture than I would have expected and just a little bit of chew in the back of the mouth. Turkey is treated exceptionally well here: smoky, seasoned well and pillowy soft. The homemade red hots have a nice snap when you bite into them, an interior that’s not too mealy, and a little spicy kick on the back end.
The selection of sides is pretty standard, with a few exceptions. The macaroni and cheese is a surprising standout, again besting similar ilk at competing restaurants. The difference is in the thickness of the rich cheese sauce and the way it clings to the pasta without pooling at the bottom of the plate. Not overcooking the noodles helps, too, though the use of penne here is sub-optimal due to the size of the pasta’s holes. If you’re looking to overload on cheese, the corn casserole is surprisingly a better option. Taking a cheese-based sauce and swapping noodles for vegetables makes it feel healthier, though only in relative terms. Even a bag of Wichita’s own MSG- and sugar-rich barbecue Art and Mary’s chips work better here than you might expect.
The best barbecue is served with a little down-to-earth ambiance, and Pig In Pig Out excels here, too. Its location at the intersection of several different working-class neighborhoods, with easy I-135 access, ensures a variety of clientele. On a recent visit, I saw businessmen, construction workers and high-schoolers filling up the dining room. In that same dining room on many days there will be a man with a guitar singing the blues. Sitting in the small wooden chairs and taking all of this in while eating the food, you don’t need the dozens of ribbons hanging on the walls to know that this is the best barbecue in Wichita.
Pig In Pig Out
Where: 1003 E. 13th St., 316-263-7474
Type of food: Barbecue
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays