Yeah, the pork product fits right in as one of those polarizing topics. You love it. Or, you hate it. There's no in-between.
And don't go getting all holier than sow, vegetarians, because there are enough different kinds of facon on the market to prove that you, too, have a soft spot for that sweet, sweet pig candy - even if it's made out of texturized soy protein concentrate, soybean oil with TBHQ for freshness, sodium sulfite and guar gum, among other unpronounceable ingredients. (Seriously, you're better off eating the real deal.)
"Bacon love is universal," says Angel Fabian, corporate chef for Noble Hops, 1335 W. Lambert Lane in Oro Valley. "It's sweet, it's savory. It's cool to work with."
Chef Travis Peters became a full-fledged foodie because of bacon.
Peters - one of the owners of new gastropub The Parish, 6453 N. Oracle Road - remembers watching that '60s TV show "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." as a 7-year-old. The marine misfit made bacon sprinkled with brown sugar and pepper, and his hard-to-please sergeant declared it the best he ever had. Peters tried that trick and hasn't stopped experimenting with bacon yet, as is obvious from The Parish's menu. Bacon's everywhere - in popcorn; wrapped around frog legs; on the burger, of course; and in its fattier, more decadent incarnation, pork belly.
"It's magical, really," Peters says of the stuff.
He considers bacon his secret weapon.
"If I'm doing anything funky with food, I always throw in something comfortable to draw you in a little bit," Peters says.
It really doesn't get funkier than frog legs. When The Parish opened, Peters says he actually had to give the frog legs away because no one would buy 'em. Now, they're a big seller.
"Bacon just works with everything."
Bacon makes everything better.
That's what bacophiles think anyway. Well, we decided to test that theory. Does it really make everything - every thing - taste better? Even a milkshake?
That's what Jack in the Box did - whipped up a bacon milkshake for its secret menu. How much more wackadoo can you get than squirting bacon-flavored syrup into vanilla ice cream and blending it up?
Well, we decided to see what would happen if we added bacon to foods that didn't exactly seem like a marriage made in hog heaven.
Here's a look at some of the more unusual items at local restaurants and stores involving everyone's favorite pork product:
• Bacon milkshake - Smoke and maple aren't exactly the first flavors you expect when you suck down a very vanilla-lookin', whipped cream-and-cherry-topped shake, but that's what you taste in this Jack in the Box secret-menu item (you have to ask for it). $3.19 and $3.69.
• Bacon scotch ice cream - One of the rotating flavors at Hub Restaurant and Ice Creamery, 266 E. Congress St., this vanilla-based flavor is laced with, duh, scotch and bacon. Serving sizes start at 4 ounces for $3.67.
• Maple bacon bar - A long, rectangular doughnut slicked with sweet maple icing and topped with a crisp bacon strip can be found daily at Mom & Pop Donut Shop, 7854 E. Wrightstown Road, for $1.50 each. If you've got a bad maple-bacon habit, you should call ahead and order because there are usually only a few in the case.
• Bacon popcorn - Chef Travis Peters says this $4 appetizer is The Parish's best seller. Popcorn is cooked in bacon grease along with bacon, and then the kernels are finished off with butter and chives.
• Mo's Bacon Bar - Nestled in a base of silky-smooth, sweet milk chocolate are nibbles of hickory-smoked bacon, which impart a smoky saltiness that, believe it or not, pairs well with the dark stuff. $6.99 at Whole Foods and Cost Plus World Market.
• Bacon-flavored syrup from Torani - It's the essence of bacon without the actual meat. Drink up, vegetarians! Find it at Cost Plus World Market, $6.99.
• Bacon-wrapped frog legs - Frog legs, which have a texture similar to chicken, are slathered in horseradish and fresh-cracked pepper and wrapped in bacon. $8 at The Parish.
• A bacon-laced martini - On its drink menu, Jax Kitchen has a little somethin' called "The Best." The martini is made with Ketel One Vodka and olives stuffed with Nueske's bacon, which restaurateurs swear is the Cadillac of bacon. $9.50.
Bacon jam smackdown
In the beginning - well, at least as far back as November 2010 - there was The Abbey's bacon jam.
It was the perfect, unusual twist to the bacon-topped-burger concept.
Smoky with a touch of sweetness, the spread ratcheted bacon to a whole new level: bacon as condiment. Slathered into the nooks and crannies of a griddled English muffin, the bacon jam along with two beef patties, caramelized onions and melted white cheddar made for a burger like no other.
Brian Metzger, who owns The Abbey, 6960 E. Sunrise Drive, had never even heard of bacon jam when Chef Virginia "Ginny" Wooters first served it as they were testing recipes. Bacon jam won him over.
Unlike a bacon cheeseburger, in which you invariably run out of bacon long before the last bite, bacon jam ensures that smoky flavor lasts the whole way through.
"I love the idea of bacon being spreadable," says Metzger, who also owns Jax Kitchen, 7286 N. Oracle Road. "This way, each bite is brilliant."
Two years later, bacon jam has popped up on menus across town with variations at new eateries Union Public House and Noble Hops.
"It's like a bacon jam war," says Angel Fabian, corporate chef of Oro Valley's Noble Hops.
But not everybody's battling with the same weapon.
The restaurants all call the spread bacon jam, but each offers a radically different take.
It's really not surprising, though, because if you Google "bacon jam," you'll come across tons of recipes - even Martha Stewart has one - and all call for different ingredients. Some use maple syrup, others vinegar and at least one tosses in some dark chocolate. But each essentially comes down to slow-cooking bacon with these other ingredients and blending it into a thick, creamy spread.
Bacon jam is apparently similar to a traditional Austrian appetizer: Verhackert, which takes months to prepare, is savory - minced bacon, garlic and salt - and served cold with bread.
Noble Hops' bacon jam is nearly black with bits of intact bacon and an ultra-peppery kick. Fabian says he uses molasses and marmalade in the jam, which is served on a burger.
Union Public House, 4340 N. Campbell Ave. in St. Philip's Plaza, also serves its jam on a burger.
"We wanted to differentiate the Union burger," says co-owner Grant Krueger. At his place, the buns are made in-house, and it uses a proprietary grind for the meat. Union's bacon jam is similar to chutney. It's tangy with apple cider vinegar and chunky with chopped apples and bacon.
As for The Abbey, which started it all, well, the original bacon jam-topped Abbey burger's been retired. Metzger's other restaurant, Jax, now serves a Kobe burger piled with heirloom tomato slices, lettuce, whole-grain mayo, and of course, a healthy smear of bacon jam.
"It's a condiment we love," Metzger says.
And never fear, Abbey fans, bacon jam could reappear on the menu there. "We're always trying to reinvent how to use it," he adds.
The Great Bacon Experiment
S'mores - No one thought this would work. We had to beg people to try it, but once they did, they had a spiritual baconing. A nibble made them believers into the transformative power of bacon. Wrapped around a toasted marshmallow and nestled between melted chocolate and crumbly graham crackers, the bacon was the perfect crisp, salty foil to its sweet partners. Just as we were recovering from a dislocated shoulder (from patting ourselves on the back about the brilliance of this idea) and were readying to apply for a patent, we discovered not one, not two but hundreds of different ways to make bacon s'mores floating around the Internet. Dang it. Some people even made from-scratch marshmallows with bacon in them. So much for that million-dollar idea.
Brownies - Take bacon, bourbon, toasted pecans and throw 'em together with fudgy brownies. What do you get? Breakfast! Just kidding. It's totally more of a late morning, brunch thing. Still, this recipe - ripped from a year-old Food & Wine magazine (yes, it took that long to work up the nerve) - was pretty darn good. The strongest flavor came from the toasted pecans while the bacon only sent up a smoky shout when you bit into a piece. The bourbon was subtle, almost imperceptible, probably because you shouldn't use supermarket-label alcohol. For anything.
Apple pie - Tart Granny Smiths, slightly softened by oven-cooking and spiced with a lick of cinnamon, paired well with a lattice crust made of bacon. It was tricky to cut, but kitchen shears did the trick. Bacon crumbled into the filling. Bacon sprinkled on top of a regular pie crust would probably produce a better, but less photogenic, version.
Coffee - This one's a natural pairing. If you've never used a strip of bacon as a swizzle stick in your morning brew, the deep roasted, bitter bite of coffee goes quite well with the smoky, maple-ness of Torani's bacon-flavored syrup. Pour in some milk and you've practically got dessert.
Tofu - And this is why you shouldn't make sweeping generalizations. Even bacon couldn't save this stuff. Cooked alongside bacon strips and full-on swimming in their grease, the tofu crisped up but none of the fatty, bacon goodness could bust through that healthy soybean exterior. So, it still tasted like tofu. Putting crumbled bacon on top only made matters worse - there was way too much contrast between the smooshy, healthy tofu and the crunchy, salty, tastes-so-good-but-is-not-so-good-for-you bacon.