Kissing the Blarney Stone gives you the gift of gab. Kissing the Godfather’s ring shows respect. Kissing the feet of Jesus is an act of adoration. Kissing a slab of bacon? That’s the trifecta: eloquence, deference, and reverence – and damned sexy. No one in the City of Worcester knows this better than Chef Michael Arrastia, full-time master and sometime canoodler of porcine excellence at The Hangover Pub, the temple to the bacon gods on Green Street.
Arrastia’s deific tribute is ours to savor. In his hands, it has never been clearer that bacon truly makes everything better as it imparts flavor to pretty much all of his menu. Porchetta, fried chicken po’ boy, clam chowder. kimchi, Brussels sprouts, lobster roll, donuts… Arrastia’s house-made bacon touches them all in different ways. But scoff that this is a gimmick at your culinary peril. There is some serious high-level shit going down here both strong and subtle. Sure, the moment you savor a thick slice its sweet, salty, smoky flavor hits you hard. But consider then the local oysters. The texture of the meat would be strange to pair with bacon proper so Arrastia created bacon mignonette foam from the rendered bacon fat. The fat makes the bubbles in the foam stay together.
“You don’t want bacon on there. That doesn’t make any sense,” Arrastia says. “Local oysters are delicate, the bubbles are delicate, so I had to make the bacon delicate. I can be a ballerina and a linebacker.” And whether he is being Baryshnikov or Bruschi, Arrastia will be doubling down on the bacon – “Anything that I haven’t done, that’s what I want to do – focused even more on bacon but doing it artfully.”
That bacon fat also finds its way into the fresh steamed buns Arrastia uses in his braised pork belly bahn mi, which features slow braised pork belly, pickled vegetables, jalapeño, and country style pork pate that adds some deli meat flair. The idea was inspired by something Arrastia saw one of his culinary heroes, David Chang of Momofuku fame, do. He decided to replace the original pork belly sandwich on the menu just two months into the restaurant’s run. Not that the previous sandwich wasn’t amazing but as Arrastia says, “I have the freedom to do whatever the hell I want and I am going to do what I want to do. No more coloring in the lines.”
He’s certainly earned the right to do so. As we speak, Arrastia gestures to Jay Grey, the owner. “If you look at Jay, you can see that on his arm is a tattoo that says, ‘Jump.’ That’s me. I’m a huge risk taker. I came from nothing. We didn’t have much of anything when I was a kid. When I started to take cooking seriously and my son was born I started looking around the restaurant and asking myself, ‘How much does that guy make – that guy standing over there doing nothing while I am making $29,000 a year as a line cook? So, I started playing a game of chess and tried to be in the right position to do the right things, please the right people, and cook the right dishes at the right time. My only goal was to do more than the people working next to me.”
Arrastia soon made it up the line to sous chef in restaurants, including Rovezzi’s in Sturbridge, but the top job remained out of reach.
“I applied all around Worcester. My whole family thought it was ridiculous that I only applied for chef jobs. They told me to go out and get another sous chef job and work my way up. But I just wasn’t going to do that and finally have the opportunity to be the chef when I turned 70 only to watch some kid hired out of culinary school take my opportunity. I didn’t go to culinary school. All I have and can sell is myself.”
Finally, Allora in Marlborough gave him a shot, which is where Arrastia first started curing pork, which satisfied his half-Italian side (Arrastia is also half Puerto Rican). “I’ve been doing braised pork since I was five,” he says. “Where I’m from there is always a pork shoulder being cooked off and a pork roast in the summer. That’s what you do.” At Allora, he initially did salami, pancetta, and his own sausages. Then he decided to take one of the bellies he had been braising and make bacon out of it. He did that a few times but only enough to send out on a burger.
While he was at Allora, Arrastia met Jay, who was looking to get out of his job and open a restaurant. They talked about the food they loved and what Arrastia wanted to do. Ultimately, they settled on the bacon idea but most importantly agreed to be themselves every step of the way in creating Hangover. Their fidelity to self and bacon and indeed that of all the partners’ was sealed in ink: a skull and crossbones tattoo of a sunny-side up egg skull and a cross of bacon they all have on their arms.
“Before I met Jay, I knew I could do all the stuff I am doing now, but I needed someone to let me out of the box,” Arrastia says. “I was about to mortgage my house, move to Portland or wherever I had to open a restaurant and show the world what I can do. I don’t come from much. I wanted my kids to see me do something and be great now. Here I have partners and a place to help me do that. I wake up in the morning and even if I have worked seven days in a row or something terrible happened the night before I wake up and the fact that I get to drive to this building every day re-energizes me and I’m ready to go.”
That is if he doesn’t get pulled over along the way. Hangover buys its fresh pork belly locally and Arrastia will often drive and pick up 300 to 500 pounds – even 1,000 pounds – at a time. Tied and packaged up in white paper, the bellies look like bricks of cocaine. “Loading up the car,” Arrastia says, “it literally looks like we’re drivers for a drug cartel just waiting to get pulled over.” Which has happened.
But the curing process for those beautiful bellies once they get to the restaurant is no joke: A tiered system that takes about eight days and includes seven days curing to dry the meat and a five-hour rotation in the smoker, the last with no heat, just the perfume of apple wood. When Arrastia says he has tried to make sure every detail is just right he is beyond serious. He may be a linebacker in the kitchen but hearing the process and how it came to be is a whole other ballgame: the Moneyball of bacon.
“I spent six months in this room by myself or with Jay and a few others thinking about how to take over the world and I kept asking how am I going to make this bacon?” Arrastia says. “I would try it different ways and think I had it and say, ‘Guys, this is the day!’ And then we’d all say, ‘I don’t know’ and I’d start over.”
Arrastia laughs as he recalls fights they had over letting the perfect get in the way of the good: “What you want me to do?! You want me to compromise?” he would yell at Grey. “There’s got to be a middle ground!” Grey would reply. But there wasn’t for Arrastia. It’s just how he is built: all heart – he needs to love what he does. He may be willing to take risks (he made ginger bacon donuts for a packed Flying Dreams Brewing dinner even though he never made them before) but not with the ingredient that defines the restaurant and his culinary identity at the moment. So, he kept at it. He played with toasted fennel, coriander, and cracked pepper, creating artisan bacon crusts. Finally, he stopped and did a 180: “I said, ‘Here’s what we are going to do: We are going to make a perfect basic bacon with New England good flavor to it. That’s it. No curing salt, nothing’ And Jay said, ‘Show me.’ When it was done he agreed it was it: The apple wood smoke, good local maple syrup, sea salt, coarse ground pepper. It can be a vehicle for anything. We can go regional American, Korean, French, Spanish… really it can run the gamut.”
And it will. So will Arrastia and Hangover. Because “Jump” doesn’t just apply to a few dishes – it applies to the entire restaurant. Starting in July and then hopefully every first of the month after that, Arrastia will flip the menu to a specific cuisine – Italian, Spanish, Mexican – for a single day along with entire restaurant: the paint and photos on the wall, the music – everything. They are calling it “Chameleon Day” – named for the lizard that can change colors without changing what it is. Get the metaphor? He and Grey have more big things planned to take over the world starting this fall.
But for now, the focus is Worcester and the Canal District community they are a part of as they make Hangover more than just a place to eat but a place to feel good and have fun: “This area. Worcester. We came together. There is a reason it is all happening now. I go to Lock 50 and have a Nitro coffee or over to BirchTree for some bread. These guys are all like us – they are taking risks and chances and owning who they are. There is an authentic identity and it comes from the kitchen out.”