For the love of bacon

by Larry Aylward
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People might think that Jed Taylor boarded the bacon bandwagon when he and three friends opened their Austin, Texas-based restaurant known simply as: Bacon, about two years ago. The bacon craze seemed to be at a crescendo then, and the bacon bandwagon was crowding and rolling merrily along.

Taylor doesn’t deny the timing was right to open Bacon, but he wants it to be a fixture in Austin’s cuisine scene for years to come.

“The concept already had a lot to push it,” Taylor says. “But we don’t want to be the place that’s known for having the crazy bacon concoction of the week.”

John Berryhill, owner and chef of Bacon Breakfast, Bistro and Bloody Marys in Boise, Idaho, understands where Taylor is coming from. Berryhill, who also owns Berryhill & Co., a fine-dining restaurant in Boise, opened his bacon-themed restaurant about two years ago.

“There’s nothing we’re doing that’s shtick,” he says. “I don’t want to do it that way.”

Austin’s Bacon is located in a descript, yellow building that features a neon sign touting “Bacon.” Its menu features an array of affordable breakfast plates, salads, sandwiches and appetizers featuring the iconic meat.

Berryhill’s restaurant is more upscale, but just as affordable. It features bacon varieties sold by the slice in addition to breakfast items, sandwiches, salads and sides featuring bacon.

Taylor and Berryhill say their restaurants are performing well after two years, although they didn’t release sales figures. Paul Perfilio, national foodservice marketing manager for the Pork Checkoff, isn’t surprised at all.

“People have shown an incredible appetite for all things bacon,” Perfilio says on the Pork Checkoff’s website.

Recent statistics, according to Perfilio, show that 69 percent of all foodservice operators purchase bacon, and that the foodservice market uses more than 1.7 billion lbs. of bacon per year.

But Taylor’s and Berryhill’s restaurants aren’t going overboard with their menu options.

“We have staple items that people already enjoy with bacon,” Taylor states.

Says Berryhill: “We want to be as edgy as we can, but we want [our products] to sell.”

Texas sizzle

Taylor and Bacon’s other three owners attended high school together. They saw an opportunity for the restaurant’s concept and after much research decided to give it a try.

Taylor, a graphic designer, had solid insight into Austin’s restaurant and nightlife scene, having designed many menus. Taylor figured the secret to success was to keep the concept and the menu simple. He also knew that bacon is a staple item .

“You can eat it every day,” Taylor says.

Bacon’s owners wanted to make great bacon, not offer wacky weekly products with no staying power.

Aware of Austin diners’ trendy and diverse tastes, Bacon also offers vegan options on its menu, such as its black bean burger.

“Austin is a quirky place, and it’s great to have a place like Bacon make it here,” Taylor says.

The restaurant usually offers two flavors of bacon daily. Recently, it offered a Tabasco-flavored bacon. It also offers bacon with a chili rub flavor and strips rubbed with Old Bay Seasoning. The restaurant hickory-smokes all of its bacon in an on-site smoker.

“We smoke twice a week to keep up with production, and we smoke 60 to 120 lbs. every smoke,” Taylor says.

Taylor likes to purchase pork bellies locally, and he buys from processors who track raw product origination.

Bacon’s owners hired two local chefs to teach them how to prepare their bacon-infused dishes. Then they hired “great cooks” to prepare the dishes, Taylor says.

They didn’t want a chef running their restaurant.

“There’s enough of that in Austin,” Taylor says.

The restaurant’s signature item is chicken and waffles, which includes bacon inside the waffle. Other items feature bacon front and center. The double grind burger is a ground steak and bacon blend – 65 percent beef and 35 percent bacon.

Taylor says it took time to find the right combination of proteins. Originally, it featured a 50-50 blend of beef and bacon, which resulted in a dry product after cooking.

The Bacon Reuben features corned bacon, which has a white color to it because of the brine in which it’s marinated. Some people confuse the white meat color with fat, which it’s not.

“After you taste it you’re blown away,” Taylor assures.

Bacon takes Boise

Berryhill’s Bacon Restaurant actually got its start in 1995. That’s when Berryhill cooked his first strip of Berryhill Bacon, which features a chile-sugar dry rub. The bacon gained a following at Berryhill & Co.’s fine but casual dining restaurant in downtown Boise.

“Over the years, people always liked it,” Berryhill says. “So when we were deciding on a concept for a breakfast-lunch place, it just seemed natural.”

Berryhill devised the recipe, which sports a slightly hot and spicy taste to go with the sweetness that comes from the sugar that’s caramelized during the cooking process. It’s the most popular flavored bacon on the menu.

But it’s not the only one. The restaurant also offers spicy hot-, herb-, maple-rosemary-, candied- and chocolate-flavored bacon. For nonmeat eaters, the restaurant serves vegetarian bacon made from fermented soybeans.

The chocolate bacon isn’t as far out as one might think, but the key is to not overdo it, Berryhill says. For instance, his restaurant’s version isn’t 50-50 on the bacon and the chocolate, which Berryhill says would be too much chocolate. The bacon is just drizzled with chocolate.

Signature items on the menu include the Kurobuta bacon mac, a penne pasta baked with Kurobuta bacon, and four cheeses. The dish received a top food award from Food & Wine magazine last year.

Two popular menu items are the scrambled burrito, featuring cheesy steamed eggs, salsa fresca, roasted potatoes and Berryhill bacon wrapped in a flour tortilla; and the turkey and Berryhill bacon sandwich, featuring roasted turkey, Berryhill bacon, provolone, lettuce, tomato and pesto mayo on a sourdough baguette.

Berryhill is careful not to be too progressive with his restaurant’s bacon offerings. He points out that Idaho is a very conservative state and one of the reddest states in the union.

“Boise is pretty much 10 years behind on everything,” he says. “We just got rid of bell bottoms a few years ago.”

But Berryhill doesn’t want to be too conventional with the restaurant’s offerings, either. He says he didn’t open the restaurant to take advantage of the bacon furor of the past few years.

“But we lucked out with our timing,” he admits.

Berryhill prefers pork bellies with “a good cap on them.” But he doesn’t require any particular marbling like he would from something like wagyu beef.

Consistency is the key, Berryhill notes. He wants the right amount of fat for taste, but not too much fat. Berryhill also takes into consideration what impact that smoking will have on the product.

“The longer you smoke it, the more flavor you’re going to add, but the more fat you will lose,” he says.

It took about a year for the restaurant to find its footing, Berryhill says, but he’s confident it will have staying power.

“We had to figure out what was working within the concept,” he says. “We want to make sure this is something that will last and not just be a fad.”

There’s a message from Berryhill on the restaurant’s menu: “The BACON bistro was born for those who love bacon. It was born for you.”

It’s probably safe to say there will always be bacon lovers.

Larry Aylward is a freelance writer based in Medina, Ohio.

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