To get to Pork-n' NAT, one travels through Cranberry's burgeoning future and into its disappearing past — past a gauntlet of strip malls, big boxes and chain restaurants, then by an idyllic, still-functioning farm, now pressed up to heavily-trafficked Route 19.
Fittingly, Pork-n' NAT's building is almost barn-like in its rusticity, creating a much more convincing impression of an authentic barbecue stand than a strip-mall venue would. If you squint, blurring the glass box of an office building at the other end of the parking lot and imagining the adjacent driving range as an open field, you can pretend you have arrived in the spacious Cranberry of the not-so-distant past for some good-old-fashioned country cooking.
Pork-n' NAT narrowly avoids the clichés that curse so much Western Pennsylvania grilling. First of all, there's a lot of smoke flavor in their meat: Whether it's pulled pork, brisket or ribs, this isn't oven-roasted (or steamed) meat that's been parked in a smoker for an hour or two.
Secondly, the kitchen takes its rub seriously. The ribs, in particular, were studded with cracked pepper and intensely flavored with spices and only a hint of sweetness (our guess: dry mustard, chili powder and just a bit of brown sugar). Too many half-hearted barbecuers add salt and pepper, relying on smoke and sauce to provide the remaining flavor. But these ribs — spicy and crusty without, perfectly moist and tender within — are a must.
Pork-n' NAT's third smart move is to offer four barbecue sauces. Three of them are variations on your basic, sweet, thick Kansas City style, one with added spice, another with added smoke. But the fourth was Carolina-style, meaning vinegar and mustard, in this case combined with some sweet, tomatoey base. The result was thin, but not watery; spicy, but not like a hot sauce; and vibrant, not drowning the meat but invigorating it. We'd still prefer the ribs dry, but next time we order a pulled-pork sandwich, we will have the mustard sauce on it.
We sampled Pork-n' Nat's namesake meat in a quesadilla — which, despite the name on the menu, was closer to a taco. Flour tortillas were folded over and griddled, but the meat was garnished with the cheese, rather than the other way around, and if you didn't hold it upright, the meat fell out. (Not to criticize: It was delicious.) The pork was smoky, tender, juicy and full of flavor. The dish also provided an excellent means of sampling the sauces by dipping the quesadilla into the four little cups our server brought. If the kitchen added some caramelized or pickled onion to round out the flavor, this substantial appetizer could be a marvelous meal.
Wings — the only form of chicken on the menu —were a letdown. We hoped that the kitchen's seriousness about meat would carry through to poultry, but the wings were scrawny and a bit dry. The garlic-parmesan sauce consisted of a little garlic oil plus mounds of white powder that could have been shaken from a green canister.
We had better luck with the brisket reuben, which is made with smoked, not cured, beef. The meat was shaved, but while this preparation sometimes enervates a well-smoked brisket, in this case the beefiness came through, as did the distinctive smoke. Several bites even included some crackly, crispy charred end — one of the delights of really slow-cooked meat. Homemade sauerkraut was a nice touch. It was crunchier and more vegetal than the canned or bagged stuff, and showed a bit of brown from a quick warm-up on the griddle.
Sides were mostly standards, although a few classics (such as greens of any kind) were missing. The fresh potato chips were hearty and satisfying, but Jason found the crispy sweet-potato fries a touch too sweet, as though they had been sugared. Both the smoked mac-and-cheese and baked beans were on the pasty side. But none were bad choices. For example, though the beans may have been too thick, they combined a mild sweetness with a winning touch of spice and bits of pork that, while big enough to matter, weren't so big as to distract from the beans themselves.
Pork-n' NAT provides a hearty, family-run, home-cooked alternative to the corporate fare available at Cranberry's chain establishments. Its excellence with smoked meats — the core menu items — makes easy to live with any shortcomings on the side.