Cork & Pig Tavern: A San Angelo Surprise

A mozzarella-covered mountain called, what else, "The Pig."

Some restaurant names just come tripping off the tongue without even a thought: Buffalo Chip's, The Garden of Eatin', Nacho Mamas. They sound good; they feel good; they even taste good.

Then there's the Cork & Pig Tavern, specializing in wine and pizza, in San Angelo. Even owner John Nestor admits the name is a little odd. Turns out, it's the one he and his partners Felipe Armenta and Virginia Dalbeck hated the least.

"I joke about that a lot," Nestor explains. "When you start a restaurant with three chefs, there's going to be a certain amount of 'confidence.' It's difficult for three chefs to agree on things. We probably considered fifty names before we all agreed to that one."

While the name might be a puzzler, the qualifications of the three chefs involved aren't. Nestor was a corporate executive at the Hillstone Restaurant Group, which owns high-end restaurants around the country including the Cherry Creek Grill in Denver and R&D Kitchen in Dallas. He was classically trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris before moving on to Italy.

Dalbeck brings a touch of celebrity to the tavern after finishing as runner-up on the second season of Hell's Kitchen.

And Armenta grew up on the San Angelo restaurant scene, working for his father before opening his own restaurant called The Grill. Along with his share of the Cork & Pig, Armenta also owns The Tavern in Fort Worth.

The Cork and Pig came to be, although none of the partners knew it, while Nestor and Armenta were both climbing the corporate ladder at Hillstone's, Nestor on the management side and Armenta as an executive chef. When their paths crossed at the Gulfstream restaurant in Los Angeles, they joked that if they were still at Hillstone's when they turned thirty, they'd open a restaurant together.

"My dad was amazed that no one was capitalizing on the popularity of the wild west back then," says Lee. "This was at the time Bonanza and Gunsmoke and all those other westerns were on TV. Everyone was in love with cowboys."

Route 66 was America′s main drag at the time so that′s where Lee set up shop. Fifty years later, the restaurant and hotel, with their familiar long-legged cowboy sign, have been relocated to the more heavily traveled IH-40 and are still a major tourist draw in Amarillo.

"I′m the third of eight children and I literally grew up in the restaurant. I definitely remember there being a playpen in the kitchen pretty much all the time," Lee laughs. "We each had a milk crate with our name on it so we could reach the work surface. And you could always tell who was in trouble. They were the ones scrubbing the dirty pots and pans. It was truly a family operation back then."

Everyone was in love with cowboys.

"I kind of called Felipe's bluff on that," Nestor says with a laugh. "I was about halfway through Le Cordon Bleu when he decided it was time for him to move on from Hillstone's. That's when he and Virginia (by then, husband and wife) opened The Grill."

Once Nestor graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, he took the first of a number of unusual steps. Instead of doing an apprenticeship in Paris, he enrolled at another culinary school in Northern Italy. The only problem was a six-month gap between graduation in France and the start of classes in Italy.

"I didn't feel like it was right for me to go to work for a large-scale restaurant because I'd just be leaving in five months. I was talking with Felipe and he said he was looking for someone to work in the front of the house at The Grill, so I came back to the states to do that with the understanding I'd be leaving again in a few months."

It was while they were partnering in San Angelo that Nestor's and Armenta's conversation moved from "wouldn't it be fun," to "let's get this done." Armenta and Dalbeck (by then, no longer husband and wife) would keep their eyes open for the right opportunity while Nestor returned to Europe to finish his culinary training.

Cork & Pig Tavern
2201 Knickerbocker Road
San Angelo, Texas 76904
(325) 227-6988

Now locations in Odessa and Fort Worth

As often happens, the stars aligned before the team was ready. When the three got the chance to open a restaurant in California, Nestor cut his Italian training short and flew back to Texas. "Unfortunately, that deal didn't work out," he says. "But, just as fortunately, this space we'd been looking at for a year opened up in San Angelo.

"The truth is Felipe had been very successful with The Grill during its first year. The San Angelo market was very good to us, so we decided to open this location. And since the population here is only about 100,000, we didn't want to compete directly with The Grill which is a little more upscale."

Nestor explains the pizza and wine concept for the Cork & Pig, which opened in January, 2010, grew out of San Angelo's blue collar reputation and the team's desire to foster a wine culture deep in the heart of Texas.

"This location has its own personality and we didn't want to lose that. I understand a lot of these towns in Texas grew up around a gas station, and now that's the center of town. That's very much what happened here. Our building started out as a gas station and then was a used car dealership.

The Food, the Atmosphere and the Wine

"We've worked hard building our business and creating the ambiance we have here. We wanted to reflect the fun personality we saw in our favorite restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, the type of place you go on a Tuesday night. It doesn't have to be a special occasion or even the weekend. We wanted to create the sort of place where you can come in jeans and you might end up setting next to a group of businessmen in suits. To us, it's all about the food, the atmosphere and the wine."

And the wine is doing well in San Angelo. Nestor offers an approachable and affordable selection with an occasional surprise for the more adventurous. "We've got a really good relationship with a couple of wine outlets here. I've seen wines in San Angelo that I hadn't seen outside the Napa Valley and L.A. I was very surprised at the wine culture in little old San Angelo.

"My experience has been that there are two types of people who drink wine in this market," Nestor explains. "And it's divided just about 50/50. There are people who just ask for a glass of white wine, and we'll give them our house white, a Spanish wine that's very drinkable without being overly alcoholic or sweet. Then there are people who want to learn more about wine. So we provide them with an expansive wine list including some of the wines I discovered in France and Italy."

Pizza, as expected, dominates the menu but there are a few surprises. "As in any restaurant," Nestor adds, "the menu is constantly evolving." When the team rolled out a pan-seared salmon with spring risotto, the reception in San Angelo was lukewarm at best. After that, ratatouille wasn't expected to be a big hit either.

"I just thought if they didn't like the salmon, they're certainly not going to like the ratatouille, but it was a huge success. It just goes to show you, you can't make any assumptions about what this market is going to accept."

The tavern's biggest seller? A mozzarella-covered mountain called, what else, "The Pig."

Cinnamon Peach Pork Chops

  • 4 thick pork chops
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon each salt and pepper
  • One 16-ounce can sliced peaches

Trim excess fat from the chops, season lightly with salt and pepper. Place in skillet and brown slowly and well on both sides in their own fat. Add 1/4 cup water, cover tightly and simmer over low heat about 30 minutes until chops are tender.

In the meantime, in a saucepan stir together the cornstarch, cinnamon, nutmeg and 1/8 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Drain syrup (and save) from the can of peaches. Blend syrup in cornstarch mixture gradually.

Cook, stirring, over medium heat until thickened. Add peach slices and heat briefly. Serve with cooked pork chops.