On a balmy June night just starting to turn pleasant, a hair before dusk, the patio at The Barking Pig is dotted with couples and families. At one table, a pair of tweens ignore each other over iPhones. A toddler, perched in a stroller, picks from her parents’ plates nearby. At another, a girl scarfs down slices of pizza. Dogs pop up here and there, urging their humans over to the table stocked with treats alongside the oversize Jenga stacks and cans of mosquito repellent. Between the strollers and leashes, it’s a safe bet that the majority of diners walked in from the surrounding Timbergrove Manor neighborhood.
While The Barking Pig is very much a neighborhood spot, it’s important to remember that the bar half of its bar and grill identity holds sway. Depending on the night and the staffing situation, you may well find yourself ordering at the bar. That’s the general idea here, though the staff accommodates patio diners when possible. Table runners oblige with food; just take your drinks and your number outside.
As far as the drinks go, the current menu is dotted with user-friendly concoctions perfectly suited to Houston summers. Take the brightly floral Summer Spritz, combining gin, flowery St. Germaine liqueur, pineapple and cucumber. It’s light and quaffable, even if you do have to sip it through a flotsam of muddled fruit. That same casual approach to straining leaves the Paloma awash in bits of grapefruit, but they’re small enough to fit through the straw without clogging it. Though you won’t be able to pick out the advertised pear liqueur, the drink is refreshing and well balanced. Steer clear of the frozen options, and the puree adders, both of which tend toward the overly sweet.
To complement the drinks, The Barking Pig offers a host of options centered on burgers and pizza, with shareable snacks and salads. As with the beverages, these aren’t bar-setting versions, but they’re perfectly serviceable for a light meal along with a few drinks at a friendly neighborhood spot.
Of the bunch, the thin-crusted pizzas are likely the best bet. Bronze-bottomed like a pan pizza, the pies are large enough to feed two or three people, especially if joined by a couple of appetizers to share. If you’re in the mood for meat and don’t mind your pizza with a side of gender binary, The Man is just the ticket. Full and flavorful, with nubby crisps of bacon and a scattering of chorizo providing a one-two punch of porky, fatty goodness, it’s a satisfyingly unpretentious pie.
The same is largely true of The Original, which tempts fate with the addition of truffle oil that (blessedly) finds itself overmatched by a garden’s worth of fresh, aromatic basil chiffonade. Sliced tomatoes and cheese round it out, the cheese finding a halfway point between milky white and browned and bubbly, in the American vernacular. From there, the pies get a bit more convoluted, throwing in barbecue and goat cheese and a kitchen sink or two. Stick with simplicity.
The burgers are about as dependable as the pizzas, if you follow the game plan of simplicity. You might be tempted to try the banh mi burger, for example, but find yourself disappointed by the clashing elements, which never coalesce. Overly large planks of pickled carrot and daikon jockey for position against a sweet-leaning sriracha aioli, which in turn amplifies the sweetness of the bun. Both the sauce and the fat wedges of jalapeño contribute what should be a balancing heat, but end up being a clash that does nothing but set the corners of your mouth aflame.
This isn’t to say that the burgers are bad, just that you’re better off going with a basic backyard version. In its most basic form, the burger here resembles the burger you’ve had at 1,000 backyard cookouts, likely doled out by a dad with a goofy apron. They’re well-seasoned, well-charred and well-done. That’s the default here, no matter that you ask for mid-rare, no matter that they’ll tell you they default to mid-well (already too far in my book). Still, it’s flavorful and enjoyable in its own way, bearing fresh and vibrant vegetables that include a comically large leaf of lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion. To that standard dressing, The Barking Pig adds pickled jalapeño. You’ll want to add a slice of cheese for fatty slickness, but don’t bother with the egg, which is liable to come out overcooked.
Like many bars, The Barking Pig offers a handful of nightly specials, ranging from a burger-and-a-beer deal to city standard steak nights. In a bit of a twist, the bar also advertises a chicken-fried special, listing both a steak and a chicken option. When I asked for one of each, I was told that the steak option didn’t exist. A shame, because if the beef were as good as the bird, it would be a real amenity.
The chicken-fried chicken comes as a plump split breast, juicy even in its thickest parts. The flesh is a bit under-seasoned, but the nicely crispy, craggy coat makes up for it. Its gravy is an odd pan sauce of mustard and what I’m assuming is gently thickened stock, and it might as well not be there. The bird doesn’t need it, and it doesn’t stand on its own. The mashed potatoes served on the side are well-seasoned and chunky, but not overly thick or stodgy. For $10, it’s not a bad plate of food at all.
I wish I could say the same of the chicken sandwich I ordered to replace the absent CFS. The sandwich was dry and bland, not really helped by its toppers of bacon, Swiss and mushrooms (along with standard LTOP + jalapeño). The mushrooms in particular were old, wrinkled and devoid of character.
Over on the small-plates side of the menu, things are a similarly mixed bag. Fried cauliflower shows up looking lovely and deeply browned outside, but winds up a little under-cooked inside, with too much vegetable crunch under the fried mantle. It’s okay at the edges, turning crunchier and crunchier toward the center and nearly raw in the squared-off stem. The sriracha aioli shows up again here, proving too thick and stodgy for the fried florets. Rather, I wish the kitchen would opt for a sprinkle of flaky salt and a squeeze of lemon, maybe a dusting of herbs, the better to let the vegetable shine.
Freshly fried chicharrones, still crackling audibly as they arrive, are whispers of pork essence, gently seasoned and reliant on their satisfying texture. It serves them well, but the industrial-tasting dipping sauces do not. Let them stand on their own or give them a more thoughtful companion, and the chicharrones could easily be the best item on the snack side of the menu.
The ceviche is by far the worst, and the only item that truly fell through across our visits (though the salads give it a run for its money). It arrives in its boat, bland and watery, mined with sad rubbery nuggets of cod and scallop. The shrimp is all right, the highest praise I can muster. Chopped onion and tomato, plus pickled jalapeño, float pointlessly along in the murky marinade, seemingly dumped from a tub of lackluster pico de gallo.
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This is not a place you’ll come if the meal or the drinks are the point. This is the place you’ll come to meet other people. In that regard, The Barking Pig knows just what it’s doing. Its shady patio has circulating fans and ample seating, and inside, the smallish space is set with generously proportioned bar-height tables.
The Barking Pig is a place around the corner that feels like an extension of your living room or your backyard. Both of the previous tenants of the little converted house, El Gran Malo and Lillo and Ella, had broader points to make; The Barking Pig feels exceedingly straightforward in its goals. It wants you to walk in from the neighborhood with your kid or your dog or show up at Happy Hour. It wants you to show up for steak night, because hey, a $15 rib eye and a couple of drinks isn’t exactly a bad way to spend a Thursday. Like any good neighborhood bar and grill, it’s a safe bet.
The Barking Pig
2307 Ella, 713-701-9150, tbpheights.com. Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight, Mondays through Wednesdays, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 12 a.m. Sundays
Summer Spritz $11
Barking Paloma $13
Texas-style fries $12
Fried cauliflower $6
Banh mi burger $12
Beef burger $12
Chicken breast sandwich $12 (add $1.50 per topping)
The Man Pizza $22
The Original Pizza $20