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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
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Jumbo Pulled Pork Sandwich with Coleslaw, Jumbo Pork Loin Sandwich, Babyback Ribs, Baked Beans

Whole Hog Cafe & Catering Co on Urbanspoon

  • mike lee says:

    Having been to both Whole Hog and Josh’s in Santa Fe I find I mostly go back to the Whole Hog. The potato salad is the best I have ever had and the mustard sauce #6 is a reminder of the greatest sauces I had down south in the mid 1960′s when I was stationed there. The Whole Hog platter is outstanding with 3 meats , 3 sides and you can substitute, I often change the brisket for the great pork loin and sometimes get double potato salad or cole slaw – very flexible. All in all, I’de rate this place about a 25, plus the prices are somewhat lower than Josh’s which means I can eat there more often.

    November 3, 2008 at 12:20 PM
  • John L says:

    I was surprised to find you reviewing a national chain. I’ll surely stay away from the Whole Hog in Albuquerque. Might try the Santa Fe location when we’re in town.

    October 1, 2010 at 9:17 PM
  • Damian says:

    Whole Hog Cafe is the one place in town (Abq location) that my girlfriend will eat BBQ with me. She’s not into the sweeter, thicker sauces and she doesn’t like her chopped brisket or pulled pork to already be simmering in some type of seasoned mixture either. I introduced her to Whole Hog with a pulled pork sandwich and she really liked the flavor of the meat as well as the tenderness. The more we ate there, the more we fell in love with the food.

    Some of our favorites are the fully loaded baked potato with pork. The potatos are HUGE, with sour cream, butter, cheese, chopped green onions, and your pick of meat (beef, pork or chicken). I get sauce #4 (more vinegar based with some heat to it) and my girlfriend actually doesn’t get the sauce – she likes the flavor of the smoked meat and spices. Besides the #4, sometimes I’ll get #3 depending on what meat I’m getting and with what – potato, nachos, a plate, or a sandwich. Also, the barbecue nachos are out of this world. Multi-colored chips topped with a slightly spicy cheese sauce along with your choice of sliced brisket, pork, or chicken, topped with jalapenos. I usually stick with the pork but I’ve recently gotten the tender brisket and it’s amazing as well (with #4 sauce drizzled on mine). The chicken was moist and had a good smoked flavor to it but the beef and pork were better in our opinions.

    I’ve gotten the brisket plate, as well as the ribs and the pork. I liked the ribs, they had plenty of meat and were tender, but the sauce that basted them was sweeter and kind of clashed with the #4 sauce I usually get. Haven’t tried the sausage or the pork loin yet.

    I used to only get the nachos and the potato because I’ve never met coleslaw or potato salad that I liked. I got baked beans the first time and after my first bite, kind of disregarded them. My curiosity into the rib plate put me in a position to order the 2 sides so I got beans and this time, I gave them more of a chance and with every bite I liked them more and more. They have little pieces of meat in them and they’re not too sweet, with a hint of spiciness to them. I wish I could eat these baked beans everytime I eat some BBQ.

    Now that we moved to the westside, I find myself constantly finding an excuse to go to the NE Heights to get some Whole Hog. It’s excellent BBQ that made every other BBQ I’ve had in Abq and Rio Rancho seem like a distant memory.

    October 24, 2010 at 7:59 PM
  • Morgain says:

    This may be the best pulled pork in town.

    December 13, 2011 at 9:48 PM
  • Charlotte thomas says:

    Not only are the ribs sensational the restaurant itself lends itself to a southwest atmosphere without being cliche. Great spot for a private party during the holidays and owners Bo and Sara Barnwell are perfect hosts .

    December 19, 2011 at 4:27 PM
  • Jim Millington says:

    We stopped by the Albuquerque branch Friday. I took the unadventurous route with the pulled pork platte, beans and Potato salad. I loved the potato salad, not so the beans. I found them sickeningly sweet. I am somewhat mixed about the pork as it cooled very fast as though reheated by zapping but only heating the surface. I had the mustard sauce and while I am sure it is a traditional sauce it was not at all like the Carolina Q, and not nearly as good as, I had a few years ago in Aiken. Charming wife opted for a brisket sandwich alco with the Carolina yellow and Cole slaw. The usual left over half was a pretty good breakfast.

    I am unsure about the place. I yhink I liked it better than you but not nearly as much as Mr McGoldrick.

    March 1, 2014 at 12:23 PM

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