People always told Jim House he should open a restaurant. The pit boss — aka BBQ aficionado — made people’s mouths water for BBQ on a regular basis, but they could only get their hands on his tender brisket, moist pulled pork and lip-smacking ribs if they hired him or went to an event where his mobile catering unit — Pork Island BBQ — was in action.
House would always say opening a restaurant was a dream he hoped to achieve some day. Well, consider that dream accomplished. House, with help from investor Wendy Fabietti, opened Pork Island Grill on Asbury Avenue and 34th Street in Ocean City in May, and the place has been garnering a lot of positive buzz.
“People kept saying, ‘You gotta open a place, you gotta open a place,’ and that inspired me to do that,” House says. “I was introduced to Wendy through a mutual friend. I told her what I do and she told me what she brings to the table, and it’s been a great partnership since.”
Pork Island Grill offers a striking dining space that features gorgeous summer-themed murals and bright white décor as opposed to the down-and-dirty aesthetic many BBQ spots feature.
“We didn’t really have much of a choice,” House says with a laugh. “Those murals were here from the previous restaurant, and we aren’t allowed to cover them up. But the more we thought about it, the more we realized we could make it work. Yes, you usually think rustic and country when it comes to BBQ, so we just kind of have this feeling that our pigs are baking on the beach instead. We are a block from the beach, and you can have great smoked ribs and burgers and pulled chicken in an atmosphere like this, and it can be just as good … if not better.”
Of course, BBQ is the centerpiece at Pork Island Grill, whether you’re having breakfast, lunch or dinner. House’s BBQ can be found on everything from eggs to burgers to salads.
It starts at breakfast. The Pork Island omelet ($13.98) features pulled pork, bell peppers and smoked gouda and is served with corned beef hash and toast. The Pork Island Benedict ($12.98) substitutes Canadian bacon with choice of pulled pork or corned beef hash and a waffle for the English muffin.
The granddaddy of all BBQ breakfasts is The P.I.G. Boy Breakfast ($17.98), which lives up to its name with a waffle, pork roll with cheese, pulled pork, corned beef hash and fried egg piled high and topped with your choice of BBQ sauce.
For lunch and dinner, BBQ starters include Piggy Pops ($13.98), six 2-ounce ham shanks fried and tossed in BBQ sauce; mac and cheese topped with everything from pulled pork or chicken ($9.98) to brisket ($16.98); and their signature pork rind nachos ($12.98) with homemade, fried pork rinds, smoked pulled pork, tomato, onion, BBQ sauce, jalapeno, sour cream and homemade cheese sauce.
Platters ($18.98 to $23.9) of pulled pork, roasted chicken, brisket, smoked spareribs and mild Italian sausage can be purchased in a variety of combinations — depending how hungry you are — and come with choice of BBQ sauce — Irish whiskey, spicy or sweet — and sides such as mac and cheese, slaw, potato salad, fried and baked beans.
And, of course, House’s BBQ can be found on a bun, including the outrageous JC Pigdaddy ($14.48) with 10-hour smoked pork shoulder, pork roll, cheese, bacon and slaw; and the Pork Island Cheese Steak ($13.98) packed with 8 ounces of smoked brisket, fried onions, choice of cheese and sweet or spicy BBQ sauce on a Rando seeded roll.
“I think what separates our BBQ from others’ is our rubs,” House says. “When we started all of this, it took a few years to nail down exactly where we wanted our rubs. People always compliment our rubs and our sauces, and the sauces are real basic. We use the rubs in our sauces. I think the rubs really stand out in our ribs. People always talk about how it’s a bit sweeter rib than most, but it’s balanced, plus getting that smoke on there for a couple of hours makes all of the difference.”
Pork Island Grill has a lot more than BBQ, too. And that’s where Executive Chef Israel “Izzy” Rodriguez comes in. Some of those over-the-top BBQ dishes can be credited to his inventiveness, but he has more up his sleeve to make sure Pork Island Grill isn’t a one-trick pony.
The Academy of Culinary Arts in Mays Landing grad and restaurant veteran for Chickie’s & Pete’s at the Tropicana, Margaritaville at Resorts and the former Robert’s Steakhouse at Hard Rock, offers creativity and is an absolute kitchen workhorse.
“He’s amazing,” House says. “He’s the master ringleader and handles every aspect and brings knowledge how to make our food perfect and presentable so it doesn’t look like festival food anymore. It looks like great restaurant fare. The presentations are great, and his patience with me has been amazing because this was a big learning curve for me. His talents are unprecedented … he is just so creative.”
Rodriguez enjoys the kitchen camaraderie with House, as well.
“That back and forth has been the great part of it because we are teaching each other,” he says. “We are always students of the game, but more is on my shoulders because I know how to run the kitchen and cost out recipes and tweak recipes to add what was missing to make that dish even better. And I love showing all of that to Jim. And then I am the student when it comes to watching the pit boss and his smoker, learning techniques. I know I can braise and fry and saute, but I had no idea how to work a smoker. So that’s fun for me. We both learn something every day.”
On the breakfast side, check out the waffles and sausage gravy ($12.98) with corned beef hash, an array of omelets, breakfast sandwiches and more.
But Rodriguez — aka Izzy — really shines on the lunch and dinner side. Start with some homemade fried pickles ($8.98), fried Wisconsin cheese curds ($8.98) — mild or spicy. Impressive sandwiches include the thinly-sliced roast beef and provolone ($10.98) with horseradish sauce, a great cheesesteak ($9.98) made with thinly-sliced ribeye and a smoked turkey BLT ($9.98) with bacon, lettuce, tomato, smoked gouda cheese and spicy ranch dress on sourdough bread.
All of Pork Island Grill’s burgers are made with 8 ounces of angus beef and served on brioche rolls with a choice of six cheeses, but the House Burger ($18.98) with pork roll, cheese, bacon, cheese curds and a fried egg is a heart attack worth having. You can even get all-beef hot dogs — the Red Raider ($10.98) boasts pulled pork and slaw (add the homemade cheese sauce — and grilled cheeses that can be stuffed with some of that great BBQ or even corned beef.
“To me, it has always been about bringing a simple, fresh mindset to cooking,” Rodriguez says. “Get the cooking techniques right, make sure you toast your bread … all the little things that bring it together and put it over the top. Why bring in a jar of dried parsley when you can bring in fresh parsley and use it that way or dryit yourself if that’s what you need? We stay away from frozen product. All of our burgers are certified angus and pressed out fresh by us. Our cheesesteaks come right off the ribeye.”
Pork Island Grill can show its healthy side, too, with salads, but you can even add some fat and calories there, too, with more BBQ.
House still takes his smoker remotely for events and catering, but no matter if he’s on the road or at his new restaurant, he sticks to the philosophy of always making food that will make people happy.
Opening during a pandemic certainly presented challenges, especially since House’s background was mostly in catering and special events, along with some work in delis and pizzerias. But House says Pork Island Grill will come out stronger because of it.
“If we could open during that and still be successful, we know our future is bright,” House says. “The pandemic presented everything from us having to institute safety protocols to meat shortages and then astronomical prices once the meat became available. Plus, all of the festivals we planned to be at were canceled, and most people weren’t having parties for us to cater. Jumping into a new restaurant during this time was crazy, but we just can’t wait to see what comes in the next year. The sky is the limit.”
Rodriguez would like to see Pork Island Grill expand to at least one more location.
“I would really like to see this go to a bigger place with a bar atmosphere,” Rodriguez says. “This location is perfect for Ocean City and to do our catering out of, but I would love to see a stand-alone location with big smokers and a liquor license where people think about us not just for BBQ but as a place where they can have BBQ and great food in general plus they can hang out, watch the games and have fun. I know we would kill it!”
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