Step One: Put the Pig in a Box

Caja China

Take a look over your neighbor's fence, and you might find a barbecue-obsessed cook in the backyard. In addition to the professional types who compete around D.C., there’s also a crop of barbecue enthusiasts taking new approaches to cooking and what barbecue means. The world of barbecue today resembles other craft-driven pursuits, just like home-brewing and beer.

Wesley Tahsir-Rodriguez manages and runs a small Latin American-style catering business between the kitchen startup space, Union Kitchen, and his tiny Dupont Circle apartment. His business, Los Verracos, specializes in barbecue cooked in a variety of ways.

And while he doesn't compete at the competition level, he calls himself a barbecue groupie. He once traveled to upstate New York just to sample ribs at a barbecue challenge called Ribfest. “I’m definitely a fan. You learn a lot from the competitions by eating,” he says.

This love for barbecue has also led him down a rabbit hole of new cooking techniques.

He’s using sous-vide, a process that involves vacuum sealing meat, then placing it in a temperature-controlled bath of boiling water, heated to a consistent temperature. This method works great for cooking pork, he says, because the meat retains fatty juices and is almost impossible to overcook.

Tahsir-Rodriguez also recently purchased a caja china box to roast whole pigs. Sometimes this hobby carries a price: You can spend several hundred dollars on a sous-vide water oven, he says, and the caja china cost him about $300.

But there are also advantages to geeking out on barbecue. The caja china cooks a butterflied pig in three or four hours, much quicker than your traditional pig on a spit. The box is lined with metal and it cooks on a rack beneath charcoals. It’s a Cuban-style approach to roasting pig, and it’s also the preferred method of another barbecue hobbyist, Pat Hamm.

Pun or no pun intended, Hamm says he knows how to cook a pig. “I’m not claiming to be a barbecue pro, but I’ve got that pig thing down,” he says. He started cooking with the caja china because his Cuban family uses it at cook-outs.

On a recent weekend at his Bloomingdale rowhouse, he roasted a 50-pound pig that can feed about 50 of his friends. He’s also been traveling with his caja china, and he’s aiming to move into a commercial kitchen space to help grow his business, Hammbone Catering.

The caja china gives the pork skin a crispy finish, but the meat is succulent and juicy. Hamm also uses a 24-hour brining process and a pre-seasoning for added flavor.

Right now, his focus has been working on weekends and at private parties for family and friends, but he says there’s a lot of opportunity for hobbyists like himself.

“This is a weekend thing for me right now,” Hamm says. “I don’t have a kitchen space. So that’s the next step.”

Photo courtesy Hammbone Catering