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Whole Hog Cafe – Santa Fe & Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Whole Hog Cafe in Santa Fe

The Whole Hog Cafe in Santa Fe

While the etymology of the expression “whole hog” appears to be American, its progenitor is actually an English slang word.  Americans in the new world employed the slang use of hog as a word for dime, intending the term to mean “spend the entire coin at once.”  The word hog had been previously used in the Mother Country as slang for a shilling and came from the depiction of a hog on one side of the English coin.

To barbecue fanatics, however, the term “whole hog” can only mean one thing–the whole hog category in Memphis in May, the annual world barbecue championships in Memphis, Tennessee, an event which has been called the “Superbowl of Swine.”  If you win the whole hog category in Memphis, you have every right to call yourself the very best in the world.

Two of the three Memphis in May championships earned in 2002

Two of the three Memphis in May championships earned in 2002

When we saw a restaurant on Cerrillos Road billing itself as the “Whole Hog Cafe,” we wondered if it was an audacious pretender to the pinnacle of pork or the real deal.  The restaurant’s trademark image of a portly porker subtitled “World Championship BBQ” cued us in to the fact that its ‘cue just might have the porcine pedigree to call itself Whole Hog.

Sure enough, the Whole Hog Cafe and Catering Company, which competes in Memphis in May as the “Southern Gentlemen’s Culinary Society” earned first place in the 2002 Memphis in May World Barbecue Championship.  It has also earned walls full of awards in premier pork events throughout the country.  Memphis in May awards alone include the 2002 world championship, first place in the whole hog category and second place in the ribs category.  In the millennium year, they also earned second place in the ribs category at Memphis.

The Whole Hog Cafe catering truck

The Whole Hog Cafe catering truck

Based out of Arkansas, the Whole Hog Cafe is but one of five restaurants listed as “Don’t Miss” as you travel through the Razorback state.  Aside from the original restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas, only Memphis, New Orleans, Santa Fe and Albuquerque (as of December, 2007) can boast of a Whole Hog Cafe, all licensed franchises of the original.  The Santa Fe restaurant launched in the summer of 2006 and has been pulling ‘em in like the pulled pork on the menu.

Pork–porcine perfection Memphis style–is the specialty of the Whole Hog Cafe.  Memphis style means dry-rub seasonings and sauces that are neither too spicy nor too hot.  When used, the sauces might contain tomato, molasses, vinegar or even mustard.

Pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw

Pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw

The Whole Hog offers a six pack of sauces at each table.  Sauce number one is sweet and mild with a molasses flavor.  Sauce number two is a traditional tomato and vinegar sauce and is slightly tangy and acidic.  Sauce number three is a spicier version of sauce number two.

The fourth sauce is more traditionally Southern and features vinegar and spices.  The fifth sauce is sweet with a heavy molasses flavor.  It is practically lacquered on when applied to babyback ribs.  The sixth sauce is reminiscent of the sauce you’d find in the Carolinas with a basis of rich mustard and vinegar.  It’s better than some of the best mustard-based sauce we’ve had in the Southeastern states. There’s a seventh sauce, too, but it’s available only at the counter.  It’s called “Volcano” meaning the heat speaks for itself.

A half rack of ribs

A half rack of ribs

The Santa Fe Whole Hog is cavernous.  Your immediate view when you step into the restaurant is of the order counter.  Trophy and plaque lined walls stand to either side of you as you stride up to place your order.  In fact, you won’t even notice how large the dining room is until you approach that counter.

Whole Hog sandwiches are topped with a sweet coleslaw unless you request otherwise.  This isn’t just Memphis style barbecue, it’s the way barbecue is prepared in Arkansas.  It’s the way former president Clinton loved his barbecue as depicted in a photograph near the restaurant’s entrance.  Sandwiches come in two sizes–regular and jumbo.  Each is abundantly packed with juicy, flavorful and fork-tender meat–either pulled pork, beef brisket, pulled chicken or pork loin.  Each is smoked to perfection for fifteen hours after a delicate application of dry-rub spices.

Barbecue brisket sandwich sans coleslaw

The pulled pork sandwich is something special.  Shredded, smoky bits of pulled pork marry with the sweet and tangy coleslaw and the sauce of your choosing to form a two-fisted, mouth-watering sandwich you’ll remember long afterward.  The pork is so full-bodied, you can almost imagine it as a carne adovada.  For being a Memphis style barbecue restaurant, the Whole Hog would do Texas proud with its rendition of a beef brisket sandwich replete with fork-tender sliced beef.

Whole hog plates include two side orders (baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw, chips or a salad) and a dinner roll.  Ribs are available in orders of four bones, a half slab and a full slab.  Unlike most Memphis style barbecue which is prepared with a dry-rub, the Whole Hog Cafe brings ribs to your table practically lacquered with a sweet molasses sauce.  It borders on too sweet, its saving grace being unbelievably tender and meaty ribs.

The Whole Hog Cafe in Albuquerque

Among the sides, the coleslaw and baked beans stand out.  The coleslaw is sweet and similar to the Colonel’s except that it isn’t swimming in dressing.  Both red and green cabbage are used and they’re crisp and delicious.  The baked beans aren’t quite molasses sweet, but they are sweeter than pinto bean addicted New Mexicans might be used to.  Frankly after my initial impression, I forgot about the sweetness and devoured them, barely taking a breath in between bites.

The menu features only a few desserts: brownies, cookies and banana pudding.  The latter is what the great South is famous for and a good choice.  It comes in a small Styrofoam container and the portion size isn’t quite big enough for two to share.  The banana pudding is served cool, but not enough for your teeth to chatter.

Smoked Pork Loin with Beans, Coleslaw and Bread

Santa Fe is one of America’s very best restaurant towns, but it isn’t known for barbecue.  In recent years only the Cowgirl BBQ & Western Grill has seen much success as a barbecue restaurant.  Successive years (2006 and 2007) have seen the launch of two barbecue restaurants–Whole Hog Cafe and Josh’s Barbecue–which might put Santa Fe on the barbecue map.  It’s much closer than Memphis.

Whole Hog opened an Albuquerque (9880 Montgomery, N.E., (505) 323-1688) restaurant on Friday, December 14th, 2006 at the location which once housed Marco Pollo.  In two visits to the Duke City location we have been as  disappointed in the quality of the barbecue as we have been happy with the Santa Fe location.  All the things we loved about the Santa Fe Whole Hog (which I rated 22) were poorly executed in Albuquerque.  The meats were desiccated and uneven in flavor.  The sweet barbecue sauce on the ribs competed with instead of complemented the inherently savory flavor of the ribs.

Whole Hog’s barbecue is the type I refer to as Ivory Snow in that it’s 99 and 44/100 percent pure.  You won’t find any fatty or sinewy meat here, but that type of meat is exactly what people love about restaurants such as Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City.  Whole Hog’s barbecue also doesn’t give you a whole lot of smoke, merely enough of a hint to leave your mirthful, another attribute of outstanding barbecue.

Whole Hog Cafe
3006 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, NM
474-3375
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Jumbo Pulled Pork Sandwich with Coleslaw, Jumbo Pork Loin Sandwich, Babyback Ribs, Baked Beans

Whole Hog Cafe & Catering Co on Urbanspoon

Luigi’s Ristorante & Pizzeria – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Luigi's, a mainstay on Fourth Street for nearly fifteen years

Braciole became a part of American pop culture when Debra, Ray Barone’s long-suffering wife on television sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, prepared a braciole dish everyone in the family liked too much. A notoriously bad cook who may have unintentionally ruined her husband’s taste buds, her braciole was better even than the version prepared by her competitive mother-in-law Marie, the bona fide chef in the family.   Quite naturally Marie didn’t share the ardor the  men in the family felt toward Debra’s culinary masterpiece.  That meant all-out war.

Luigi’s is one of the few (perhaps only) restaurants in town to serve braciole, a traditional Southern Italian dish featuring savory rolls of stuffed lean meat braised in a tomato sauce.  At least two other  Duke City restaurants serve Involtini, a Northern Italian version of the dish while Dagmar’s Restaurant & Strudel House prepares Rouladen, the closest thing to a German equivalent.  The point is Luigi’s serves a number of dishes you won’t find at other Albuquerque Italian restaurants.  In fact, its menu is a veritable compendium of Italian dishes.

The artistic interior of Luigi's

Luigi’s is the eponymous brainchild of Luigi Napolitano whose very last name translates to citizen of Naples, the city from which his mother Tina emigrated more than four decades ago. Tina is the bread-baking, pasta-making dynamo in the kitchen and is also responsible for many of the restaurant’s homey touches.  Tina painstakingly hand-sewed the delicate lace covering over each lamp as well as the curtains over each booth.  Other homey touches include viney plants hanging from pillars throughout the restaurant and a framed picture of the Mona Lisa hanging above the buffet.

The most eye-catching aspect of the restaurant isn’t the well-provisioned buffet, but the charcoal murals on the wall, most of which depict Roman life in the days of gladiators, spas, arcades and colonnades.  Seemingly out-of-place is  the section of the mural depicting the archangel Michael doing battle with Lucifer.  Despite Tina’s homey touches and the intriguing mural work, Luigi’s does show signs of being timeworn, but in a comfortable sort of way.   The only signage directing you to the restaurant is just off the street; there is no signage on the building itself.

Minestrone

Practically from its inception in 1996, Luigi’s has drawn in teeming masses for its weekday lunch buffet and its Friday night seafood buffet. Now, an Italian restaurant couldn’t possibly be good if it offers a dinner buffet, right? After experiencing Luigi’s rendition of a buffet, you might change your mind. That seems to be especially true of the Friday night seafood buffet which is extremely popular. Having lived near the water in Massachusetts and Mississippi, the seafood buffet isn’t something I’ll frequent, but it was worth trying once.

Luigi’s bountiful seafood buffet includes mussels, crab claws, baby clams, fried calamari, boiled shrimp, fried shrimp and other fruits of the sea. None of the crustacean offerings are as sizable as you might find at a casino buffet, but they’re well prepared and seasoned. The calamari is onion ring sized and chewy, not top tier but not bad either. Luigi’s clam chowder is better than you might prepare out of a can, but not of New England quality (in New Mexico, what is?). Had the cocktail sauce not been recently frozen, we might have enjoyed it on the seafood more.

Two slices of fresh, warm, yeasty bread

Two of the buffet highlights are Luigi’s bread offered with a garlic butter that  spreads easily and a salad bar with plenteous ingredients, some–such as beets, boiled eggs, pepperoncinis–not typically served on Duke City salad bar.  Several salad dressings are available to adorn your salad, including a passable blue cheese.  Interestingly, the salad bar also includes chocolate pudding which seems to be a staple at Chinese restaurant buffets, too.  Even if you don’t order the buffet, for a relative pittance you can have the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar.  Two soups, usually a minestrone and a chowder are also available.

One of the other atypical Italian offerings on Luigi’s menu is a carne adovada pizza.  Pizza has become a virtual canvas on which pizza artisans paint with a broad brush, the more creative the ingredients, the better.  There is virtually no sacred cow, no time-honored traditions left.  When it comes to pizza, anything goes.  Still, carne adovada pizza is one of those things that will have you doing a double-take.  Even as you’re eating it and proclaiming it delicious, you’ll be questioning the propriety of this unique pizza…and it is a delicious pizza.

An all-you-can-eat salad option is available with Luigi's dinner plates

The crust, in particular, is wonderful with a very out-of-the-oven, yeasty bread aroma and texture.  It has just a hint of char on a crispy crust replete in its outside edges with those airy holes that seem part and parcel of most good, thick pizzas.  The carne adovada itself has a chile marinated flavor with just a hint of piquancy.  It’s strewn across the pizza in small shredded pieces then topped with a cheese blend from which bits of the carne peek out.  If carne adovada is too outlandish for your pizza, the menu has several other options, including gluten-free pizza.

While the seafood buffet may not have possessed the boatload of deliciousness I crave from seafood, the Frutta Di Mare, does.  A mixed seafood (shrimp, crab claws, clams, mussels and squid) medley over linguine with your choice of a red or white sauce, the name of this dish translates to “fruit of the sea.”  That’s an appropriate name considering not only the bounty of sea-birthed ingredients, but the way they’re prepared.  The seafood is sweet and succulent, a perfect foil for the red sauce.

A rarity even in Albuquerque--Carne Adovada Pizza

Luigi’s offers several seafood selections including one sure to appeal to New Mexicans who believe pain is a flavor and who like our food to bite back.  It’s the Shrimp Fra Diavalo, shrimp in a spicy garlic sauce served over a bed of linguine.  The menu describes it as “HOT!”  The term “Fra Diavalo” translates to “Brother Devil” in recognition of its tomato-based sauce which employs hot peppers (maybe Cayenne) in its flavor profile.  It’s one of those dishes that red or green chile wouldn’t improve; they’re not the type of pepper which makes this entree good.

If you do want green chile on your entree, it’s available in the green chile chicken lasagna.  Alas, the green chile is almost decorative, or more appropriately garnish-like, for its lack of piquancy.  Come on, this is New Mexico!  The layers of pasta, rich bechamel sauce and molten cheese blanketing the lasagna are quite good, but the entire dish would have been much more flavorful with a fennel-kissed Italian sausage or even ground beef.  Chicken, even well-prepared breast meat, is one of the most boring meat additives to any entree.  Sure it might make you feel good about not eating a more fattening meat, but there’s not much you can do to improve its blandish flavor profile

Green Chile Chicken Lasagna with a Bechemel Sauce

As for the braciole,it’s rolled in herbs, marinated in marinara sauce and served with a side of penne.  It’s also tied with a string to hold in the delicious stuffing.  I’m not sure it’s quite as good as Debra Barone’s rendition, but it’s quite good.  If you’re not tired of pop culture references, check out the movies A Bronx Tale and Raging Bull where braciole is used as a slang reference to the male reproductive organ.

Other pasta entrees are available with a variety of sauces: marinara, pesto, meat, Alfredo, mushroom, carbonara and even a rich broccoli cream sauce maybe even George W. Bush would like (he of the quote “I do not like broccoli and I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it.  And I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”)  A number of hot and cold sandwiches are available as is a varied selection of domestic and imported beers as well as margaritas and wine.

Tiramisu

A panacea of Italian dessert favorites is available for diners with a sweet, but not too sweet, tooth.  That means tiramisu that doesn’t taste like a cloying pudding.  The tiramisu, served in a small bowl, is made with ladyfingers and is redolent with espresso, not quite enough for me, but sure to please most coffee lovers.  Cannoli, the wonderful Sicilian tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough stuffed with a sweet, creamy Ricotta cheese-based filling are also available, including a chocolate cannoli.  Lightly dusted with confectioner’s sugar, the cannoli is quite good.

Earlier in this essay, I mentioned the homey touches of the restaurant’s decor.  Homey would also describe the service at Luigi’s.  The wait staff is personable and attentive without hovering over you while you’re trying to eat.  Our waiter should have worn a big red letter “S” on his chest for the way he simultaneously took care of several tables–professional service with a smile, too.

Chocolate Cannoli

Luigi’s Ristorante & Pizzeria is still going strong after nearly a decade and a half in a relatively inconspicuous facade on Fourth Street.  Good portions, reasonable prices, excellent service and a diverse menu are the reason.

Luigi’s Ristorante & Pizzeria
225 4th St NW
Albuquerque, NM
343-0466
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 24 September 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Clam Chowder, Chocolate Cannoli, Tiramisu, Carne Adovada Pizza

Luigi's Ristorante & Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

The Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Grill on Menaul serves one of the best burgers in Albuquerque

I’m not telling you, ‘Never eat a hamburger.’ Just eat the good ones with real beef, you know,
like the ones from that mom-and-pop diner down the street, …
And it’s so good that when you take a bite out of that burger,
you just know somewhere in the world a vegan is crying
.”
- Homer Simpson

America’s favorite everyman philosopher may have had The Grill in mind when uttering that pithy pearl.  What, after all, is a burger if not the celebration of meat, a pulchritudinous beef patty sandwiched between glorious golden orbs and festooned with ingredients intended to bring out flavor combinations that dance on your taste buds?  Made properly–personalized for taste to your exacting degree of doneness and with your  unique choice of ingredients–a burger can elicit tears of rapturous joy among burgerphiles.

Though the corporate  chains offer convenience and consistency, few would argue that their copycat burgers could elicit raw delirium when bitten into.  Some, like me, would argue that they’re not even made with real meat, USDA definitions for meat be damned.  No, my friends, it’s solely the bounteous burgers at your local mom-and-pop diners down the street that elicit the carnal cravings and libidinous lust that make you want to rush over to visit your preferred profferer of  meaty happiness with great regularity.

Phil Chavez tends to his unique mesquite-fired grill (Photo courtesy of Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik)

For Duke City diners one of the best the mom-and-pop diners down the street has a burger which just might elicit swoons of joy as it quells the most rapacious of appetites.  It’s a burger that had Rudy Paul Vigil waxing poetic when he told me about it.  An advocate of homemade tastes, Rudy is the guy who introduced me to Lumpy’s Burgers shortly after it opened so he’s got plenty of down-the-street burger cred with me.  In describing The Grill, he expounded about a unique wood-firing contraption that imbues each burger with enchantment.

The Grill is the brainchild of veteran restaurateur Phillip Chavez, a man who knows and likes burgers as much as he likes bussing, or at least that’s the impression you might get in reading the menu’s claim of “food so good, you’ll wanna kiss the cook!”  Before opening The Grill, Chavez operated grill-oriented family restaurants in Gallup as well as Shiprock and Farmington.

Salsa and chips are on the house at Grandpa’s Grill (Photo courtesy of Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik)

The Grill launched initially on the western fringes of the Duke City just east of 98th Street and was then called “Grandpa’s Grill.”  From the restaurants east-facing windows you were treated to some of the very best views of the Sandia Mountains and downtown Albuquerque.  At night, the panoramic view of the city lights were absolutely inspirational.  In July, 2011, Grandpa’s Grill moved to Menaul (next door to Jennifer James 101) and rechristened itself “The Grill.”

Interior walls are festooned with period pieces–mostly kitchen related bricabrac, much of it donated by patrons of the popular restaurant. Old-fashioned coffee makers, blenders and other appliances make for interesting reminiscences among us seasoned diners and for strange curiosities among the Y-generation crowd. The most interesting period piece, however, is the restaurant’s signature grill. White hot and throbbing red embers of mesquite coals lay on a steel tray atop of which sits a metal grated grill which Chavez raises and descends via a hand-crank. He’s mastered the art of temperature control to prepare your burgers or steaks to the level of doneness you specify.

An eight-ounce Papa Burger with green chile and Cheddar cheese

The dining room is very much a protypical example of 1960s diner decor.  Red leatherette booths and belly-up to the counter stools provide comfortable and functional seating. An old-fashioned burger fixings bar, complete with sneeze guard, hosts sliced tomatoes, pickles, mustard, ketchup, lettuce and onions which means you truly can have your burger your way.  A deep metal serving tray holds salsa which you can ladle onto plastic ramekins.  Another holds crisp, homemade (but slightly salty) chips, both free with each order.

The salsa is exceptional–as in so good it should be bottled good. It’s so good that properly pureed, it would make an excellent bloody Mary mix. It’s so good, it would make the the key component of a great gazpacho. It’s so good, you’ll eschew ketchup and dunk your fries in it. It’s so good, you’ll finish two or three trays of chips before your order is up. Seriously, this is good salsa. Its components are rather typical–tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, garlic, salt–but Chavez mixes each batch up in perfect proportions. The salsa is pleasantly piquant, not so incendiary you won’t be able to taste anything else.

Chile cheese dog with fries (Photo courtesy of Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik)

You will want to taste the burgers!  Prolific eaters will opt for the Grandpa Burger, a whopping sixteen-ounces, but Rudy Vigil assured me the eight-ounce Papa Burger will be more than enough for most ordinary eaters.  A six-ounce Mama Burger and a four-ounce Little Rascal Burger are also available.  The beef patties are hand-formed and thick.  You can top them with green chile and your choice of Cheddar, American or Swiss cheese.  The buns are lightly toasted.  All burgers are available in combination with a drink and Fries.

The menu also includes two steaks–a sixteen-ounce Ribeye and a ten-ounce New York cut–both served with your choice of fries or beans and tortilla. Also available are a chicken breast platter, a chicken sandwich, a Southwest chicken sandwich (with green chile and cheese wrapped in a tortilla) and chicken strips with fries. Hot dogs, in either jumbo or regular sizes, with or without chile and cheese, can also be ordered. Deep-fried sides include French fries, fried zucchini, fried mushrooms and onion rings.

A sixteen-ounce Ribeye Steak with a side of beans

The Papa Burger with green chile is terrific, a true compliment to the grill master and his deft manipulation of temperature!  The beef patty is imbued with the kiss of mesquite heat, but not so much that the usually acerbic grilling wood imparts its characteristic bitter aftertaste.   The green chile is a bit on the mild side, but the other ingredients from the fixings bar are all fresh and delicious.  Fries aren’t much to write home about, but they’re much improved when you dip them into the salsa instead of ketchup.

A value-priced 16-ounce Ribeye steak prepared at medium is too good to pass up. Ribeye tends to be a well-marbled and tender cut of beef that is well-suited to dry-heat preparation style. That means Grandpa’s unique mesquite grill brings out the optimal flavor profile in this steak. Not quite fork-tender, the Ribeye cuts easily, juices flowing not quite copiously but enough. The only seasoning discernible is salt and pepper, but sometimes that can be enough. It is in this case. Value-priced means sixteen-ounces of steak for under a dollar an ounce, a good deal by any standard.

Red Velvet Cake

The steak is accompanied by your choice of French fries or beans and a tortilla.  At first glance, the beans look inviting, a hearty portion topped with shredded cheese, but as they approached our table, a malodorous emanation  wafted toward us.  It was the foul demon spice cumin, the bane of real Northern New Mexican cuisine.   As usual, I complained, urging our attentive waitress and Phil Chavez himself to take the beans and dispose of them at a nuclear waste dump site.  Phil indicated 99-percent of his customers appreciate the beans, some even asking for the recipe.

The chile cheese dog is only so-so. The wiener is just slightly thicker than a human thumb, not an oversized meat-tube that dominates the flavor profile. Alas, the chile had a canned taste which includes enough cumin to be noticeable, but not so much that it kills the taste. Hot dogs are also served with French fries.

The west-facing wall at Grandpa’s Grill on old Route 66

On the counter gracing your visage as you walk in is a domed cake platter holding the delicious cake of the day.  Fortune was with us during my second visit because the cake under glass on that day was a gorgeous red velvet cake. Red velvet cakes have been popular since the 1920s, experiencing a resurgence in the 1990s, but it’s never really gone out of style.  Essentially not much more than a chocolate cake with a dark red-brown color and layered with a creamy white icing, it is beautiful to look at and generally delicious to consume.  This decadent dessert isn’t prepared in-house, but you will want to take a piece home with you.

Grandpa’s Grill is an anachronism–a throw-back to the 1960s with prompt, courteous, unobtrusive service and a genuine spirit of welcome from the owner.  Ask Phillip Chavez for a tour of the kitchen and he’ll gladly show off his unique grill, the contraption which makes some of the very tastiest burgers in Albuquerque.  Somewhere on old Route 66, a vegan is crying.  That’s how good these burgers are!

The Grill
4615 Menaul Blvd, N.E. Map.994afc2
Albuquerque, New Mexico

(505) 872-9772
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 20 September 2010
1st VISIT:  17 August 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Papa Burger with Fries, Chile Cheese Dog, Salsa and Chips, Ribeye Steak, Onion Rings, Red Velvet Cake

Grandpa's Grill on Route 66 on Urbanspoon