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Monday, December 27, 2004


Restaurant Review: Pork Chop Shop

Azeris are not very good Muslims. During their 70 years of rule, the Soviets did their best to scrub the stain of piety from the fabric of Azeri society. As a result, not many Azeris have a firm grasp on the five pillars of Islam, few visit mosques regularly and even fewer fast at Ramadan.

The Soviets were only partially successful. The rituals and theology have faded, but Islam's traditions still hold a great deal of sway over the culture. The social role of women, for example, is tightly proscribed. Many Azeris avoid alcohol. Pigs are very, very rare. In fact, I've seen fat sows lolling around only in the rural village of Nic, whose residents consider themselves Christian.

So where does the average Rashid go when he needs a pork fix?

The Pork Chop Shop, a tiny restaurant in the center city, is Muslim Baku's swine speakeasy.

Nothing about its dowdy exterior hints at the forbidden fruit served inside. The restaurant has a real name -- Xayal, which means "Dream" in Azeri -- but the informal "Pork Chop Shop" helps keep expections in check. No one will ever confuse the Pork Chop Shop with any of the countless Kebabarias and Pivesis that make up Baku's dining scene. Nor, for that matter, will it be confused with anyone's perception of a dream.

Other than its chops, the restaurant has little to recommend it. It's located on a chaotic street near the train station, tucked among cell phone vendors and currency exchanges. It's furnished, like nearly every other cheap restaurant in the developing world, with white molded plastic chairs and tables that tip over too easily and discourage lingering. When not full of jonesing expats, the clientele consists of Azeri men sit huddled in small groups amid clouds of cigarette smoke. Like most small restaurants, it is not a place for a respectable Azeri woman.

There is no menu and no choice. If you don't want chops, walk on by. There is no bacon, no tenderloin, no sausage and no medallions. Nothing but chops.

As a known swinophobe, I was skeptical of the ability of a Muslim cook to properly prepare a chop. I don't eat pork at home and when it comes to food on the road, my policy is to eat what locals eat and avoid things they don't. But for every rule there must be an exception and even I could see that these chops were worth the small risk of trichinosis.

All Azeri restaurant meals come with a plate of herbs, some pickles, bread and white sheep cheese, and depending on the season, salads composed mostly of cucumbers and tomatoes. These small plates at the Pork Chop Shop were completely unremarkable -- bread stale, pickled cabbage and tomato lifeless and portions of cheese skimpy.

Oh, but the chops. These are not your mother's chops (or, well, not my mother's. Sorry mom). They are as long as your forearm, with a thick fist of glossy meat at the end. This meat isn't dull white or gristly or dry as a dishtowel. It is carmel colored and dappled with the hot, rich fat that pools up in the pan after you fry up your bacon. Cooked over an open fire, the fatty edge of the chop has a thin crust, no harder to break than that on a creme brulee.

Pork Chops and Liquor

The meat falls off the bone, which is good, since there's no cutlery. Just grab a greasy chop of the platter and start to gnaw.The platters keep coming until to you cry "uncle."

Upholding its non-sectarian values, the Pork Chop Shop places no restrictions on smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka, either (though, truthfully, I've yet to find an Azeri restaurant that does). Customers can hit a Muslim trifecta without leaving their molded plastic chair.

Price is no obstacle, even for the most impecunious. All-you-can-eat chops along with all-you-can-drink vodka and beer will set you back no more than five Shirvan ($10).

This chop shop is worth going out of your way for. Even to Baku.

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