Those still traumatized by that climactic scene from Lord of the Flies should be warned that the Recess Room's signature dish is a deep-fried pig's head. Yes, a pig's head—with its tongue, teeth, gums, eyeball, snout and ear intact—served to you face-up on a butcher's block. And since the skull was bifurcated lengthwise by band saw before it was fried, when you flip it over, you get an MRI-like view of its bone structure from the inside.
Ordering the pig's head should be a litmus test for any self-professed carnivore. But more than that, the dish is the kind of viral marketing tool for the restaurant that no amount of advertising could match. Everyone who orders it takes a picture to post on social media. When our hog's head finally arrived, hot from the fryer, a customer seated at the bar came over and asked to take a snapshot. We obliged him—while taking the opportunity to take a few pics for our own feeds.
The fact that nearly every table was occupied and ordered the dish despite the Recess Room's current lack of a liquor license is proof the restaurant has hit the nail on the, um, head. The dish is its most popular item. In fact, after we ordered ours at 7 p.m. on a Friday, the party seated behind us was all frowns when informed the kitchen had just run out.
The dish is not cheap, either. At $55, the pig's head is more expensive than anything else on the menu, and asking for one can mean up to an hour's wait. It takes about that long to prepare—this on top of the 15-hour sous vide the head endured prior to being deep-fried. The platter, which includes a couple of Indian-style rotis, is enough to serve four, but bringing at least six people along is always advisable, in case, you know, a couple chicken out.
To ensure I wouldn't face it alone, I enlisted a few friends whom I knew could handle it. It was only when one of them plunged his fork directly into the ocular cavity, popping the eyeball out of its socket that I realized I'd brought the right people.
He then sliced it in two and dunked a piece into a vinegary dipping sauce. "Mmm," he said mid-chew. "It just tastes like pork!"
In the meantime, I carved off a chunk of flesh from the cheek, pre-scored for easier extraction. I realized then what I never knew about a pig's face: It's nearly all fat. My knife met layer after layer of quivering white blubber after breaching the crunchy crackle of its skin. The cheek, the jowls—where guanciale comes from—had the densest concentration of fat. But the truth is, everywhere we played Operation, we found only scant scraps of meat. And none of it had much flavor until we applied liberal amounts of the supplied dipping sauces. Though one of those sauces—a nearly exact copy of Zankou Chicken's garlic paste—was particularly great.
Still, it was an overwhelming amount of richness to take in. I watched as my tablemates' initial gusto turned into fat-induced fatigue. Compared to the whole-hog experience of Filipino lechon, eating just the deep-fried face of a pig turned out to be the equivalent of watching a Tarantino flick with all of the gore, but without any of the witty dialogue—initially titillating, but ultimately unsatisfying.
And my, was it greasy! Everything else we ate that night was light by comparison. The mac and cheese into which we scraped the wiggling marrow from a roasted bone was downright ebullient—almost a palate cleanser. Even the appetizer of oil-puffed beef chicharrón we used to scoop up a dip made of a trout roe-dotted crème fraiche felt like health food compared to the pig's head.
But with every subsequent dish we ordered, we saw the Recess Room was better than its gimmick. This is the Asian-leaning gastropub OC has been waiting for, with chummy waiters, a great setting and inventive food from chef Sergioivan Ortega, who used to cook at Arc and Providence. The octopus in his delicately constructed salad with potatoes and frisee was as tender as anything served in the San Gabriel Valley. Despite tasting boiled, we had fun dragging the sugar-bursting corncobs of his DIY elote through the four different toppings. And for dessert, he offered a Monte Cristo-like masterpiece of a fried sandwich filled with banana and peanut butter, covered with coconut flakes, of which not even Elvis could've dreamed.
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After dinner, it took me three hand washings to get the pig's greasy film off my fingers, and it was three days more before I was able to even look at a pork chop. But I'm glad it led me to the treasure trove of truffles that is the Recess Room. Head's up!
The Recess Room, 18380 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 377-0398; therecessroom.com. Open daily, 5-10:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$80, food only. No alcohol.