The metal flying pig sculpture soaring atop the roof of Cochon Volant BBQ Smokehouse in Sonoma promises pork, as does the name Cochon, which is French for “pig.” And certainly that succulent meat is a hallmark of this friendly little eatery from chef-owner Rob Larman.
If the art piece from Glen Ellen talent Bryan Tedrick looks familiar, that’s no surprise, since Larman got his Cochon start with his food truck of the same name after owning Rob’s Rib Shack and La Poste bistro in Sonoma more than a decade ago. A smaller version of the sculpture did, and still does, decorate the top of his mobile fire-breathing trailer, which is now parked in the back of the restaurant on Highway 12 at the edge of Boyes Hot Springs.
For the past seven years, Cochon Volant BBQ has been a catering operation and an adjunct to the upscale Rob Larman Private Chef business. But this pig has powerful wings, and now Larman says Cochon has totally eclipsed Private Chef. That could be because of the pulled pork shoulder, which is moist and boasts satisfying chew and generous portions in its plain, slightly crusty bun ($10, including one side). It’s a very good sandwich, especially drenched in Carolina sauce, a thick, whole mustard seed and coarse ground coriander recipe the chef created just last year to please spicier taste buds without blasting us with burn. The sauce doesn’t sport the vinegar kick of a traditional recipe, which is why Larman calls it “Sonoma style,” but it’s certainly delicious.
Locals will remember Cochon’s stucco, metal-roof capped building as the former Hot Box Grill, but all vestiges of that fine dining enterprise are gone now, except for some elegant interior wood trim. We order at the counter, then park ourselves at polished wood tables with bright red stackable chairs, sipping crisp lemonade kissed with lavender ($3.50) and grooving to the piped-in blues music.
This is a fun touch, too. You’ll see pink butcher paper as your tray and plate liners, and if you look into the open kitchen, you’ll see the same pink stuff. That’s because Larman wraps meats in the paper after cooking, since it allows the barbecue to breath while preserving moisture until it’s sliced to order.
When the food arrives, the meat is smoky (but not too smoky, thank you), nuanced with almond wood and marbled with the fuchsia ring that smoke imparts. It’s quality protein, too, particularly the beef short ribs ($26 a pound; all meats available by the ounce) and 14-hour brisket ($22). They aren’t identified on the menu, but my counter server told me they are Creekstone Farms prime Black Angus cuts from Kansas, or Painted Hills grass-fed from Oregon.
The meat was a bit dry in parts on one visit, but perfect on another, and both times full flavored. The ribs are particularly nicely done, with a great crusty edge and beefiness that sings under splashes of the signature Sonoma sauce that’s slightly sweet, medium spicy from pasilla negro chiles, and a touch smoky from chipotles. Just plan ahead: These beauties are served on weekends only.
You can get the baby back pork ribs ($18) anytime, and they’re fine if fatty; the acids in the Sonoma sauce help here. Salty chicken breast ($17) is ordinary, but I’m happy with the catfish sandwich, a big fillet fried in orange-colored achiote batter to a crispy crust, served on a pillowy bun smoothed with chunky remoulade, shredded iceberg and sides of sweet-tangy pickles and pickled onion ($12).
Anyone who remembers Rob’s Rib Shack will recognize sides of “killer” fries ($4) and terrific mashed potatoes ($3) spiked with plenty of garlic. Spice fans will appreciate the fries, as the skinny spud sticks are showered in such a kitchen cabinet full of seasonings that there’s really just potato texture, not taste. Golden crusted skillet corn bread ($3) is more my speed, clean and cake-y, rich with butter and perfect for sopping up sauce.
Barbecue goes with beer, and four local brews are on tap, including Sonoma Springs Uncle Jack’s Kolsch, and HenHouse Saison of Petaluma (all $6 pint). In a nod to vintner neighbors, there’s wine, too, like Buena Vista Carneros Chardonnay ($7/$28), though I quickly caught on to the zero corkage fee and lugged in my own bottle the second time around.
For the little hiccups here and there, it’s impossible to not really like this little ‘cue joint.
Larman himself is usually behind the counter and is so hands-on that one recent week he was out of town, so simply shuttered the restaurant.
His wife, Lizzy Larman, works here, too, and is dangerous with her addictive homemade cookies. They’re pricey at $5 each but are huge, and the chocolate chip model could nearly be a crunchy-capped cake, overloaded with chips melting into gooey goodness.