Whole Hog Cafe #2 (Little Rock, AR)
I've gotten a little bored with the traditional holiday turkey and ham, so I was hoping for something different this year. My wife's grandfather generously decided to order barbecue from Whole Hog Cafe for our Christmas Eve feast. Joy to the world!!!
I've been to one Whole Hog location a few times whilst visiting Little Rock, but this would be my first sampling of the Markham Street joint. Everything I'd eaten on previous trips was absolutely amazing, and I hoped the food would be just as delicious as from our normal spot. I tried to snag an army green t-shirt to round out my Whole Hog clothing collection, but sadly they were sold out.
We ended up with quite the spread: pulled pork, brisket, pulled chicken, sausage, baked beans, coleslaw, and potato salad. Too bad we didn't get any ribs, because Whole Hog smokes some awesome bones. The sausage almost didn't make it onto the order either, but as a Texan I was rather insistent that it be included. We also had an array of sauces to compliment the meat: Sauces 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Despite my overwhelming desire to dive face first into the meat, I started by taste-testing the side dishes. The beans had some tender bits of pulled pork mixed right in, but otherwise tasted like run-of-the-mill baked beans. I'm not usually a big fan of coleslaw. That being said, I wanted to give it a shot anyway. Visually it looked quite nice, with plenty of black pepper throughout. It had a rather potent smell to it and a good crunch, but I'm too biased against coleslaw to comment further. The potato salad, however, was excellent. The large-diced, skin-on red potatoes gave it the perfect consistency. It was a mayo-based potato salad, which allowed the individual ingredients to shine much more than with mustard-based salads.
I wasn't sure which meat to start with, so I eenie-meenie-miney-mo'd my way to the pulled chicken. This was my first go-round with chicken from Whole Hog. BBQ poultry can easily get too dried out, so I wasn't sure what I'd find here. As I feared, it looked pretty dry from the outset, with no smoky red hue to be found. I was also expecting large pieces of pulled chicken, but instead it seemed more like we got the scrapings from the bottom of the pan. The flavor was ok, but not as good as anticipated. There was definitely no smoke to it.
The pulled pork looked more visually appealing than the chicken, with at least a little bit of a smoke ring on some pieces. That's good, because the menu description specifies that their pork is dry rubbed and hickory smoked. The meat was incredibly tender, and I definitely found some smoke here. I only wish I had received a little bark so I could taste their dry rub. This was the clear front runner of the four meats.
Just like with the chicken, there didn't appear to be any smoke ring to the brisket either. Equally disappointing was the fact that all of the presumably delicious bark had been trimmed off. It looked like we'd been given mostly lean cuts from the flat, and all of the slices were cut razor thin. I didn't taste much smoke, and it was a tad salty for my liking. Whole Hog claims that their brisket is "fork tender." The meat was indeed tender and wasn't as dried out as expected, but overall wasn't very appealing.
As a Texan, sausage is a familiar part of my barbecue upbringing. This variety looked a little like store-bought sausage and definitely hadn't been made in-house. The casings had a decent snap at least, and a good amount of pepper too. I also noticed a touch of garlic in the blend. The sausage was tasty, but not outstanding.
I don't generally gravitate toward barbecue sauce, but I wanted to sample all of them anyway.
Sauce #1 is Whole Hog's classic barbecue sauce: sweet and mild. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary, and is probably the flavor profile that most people think of when they hear "bbq sauce". Sauce #2 is their tangy tomato, which is supposed to be smooth, sweet, and slightly spicy. I found a small kick to it, but there was more tomato flavor than anything else. Sauce #3 is the same as #2, but spicier. There was a little more heat, but not really enough to stand out. Sauce #4 is their traditional Southern vinegar sauce. It was the runniest of the four, probably from all the vinegar. I prefer their molasses-based #5 sauce and the #6 mustard and vinegar, but unfortunately neither variety made it onto this order.
Whole Hog Cafe has won many awards over the years (including several from Memphis in May), and is listed in Fodor's guidebooks as one of five "Don't Miss" restaurants in Arkansas. Their barbecue is pretty delicious, though I'd stick to the flagship branch on Cantrell Road.