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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Jumbo Pulled Pork Sandwich with Coleslaw, Jumbo Pork Loin Sandwich, Babyback Ribs, Baked Beans