Saturday, February 11, 2012

Review - Whole Hog Cafe in Little Rock

This venerable Little Rock establishment has gained "legend" status in a relatively short amount of time based on its reputation of consistently serving up what is arguably the best pulled pork anywhere.

(LITTLE ROCK) - It's more than a decade now since a very successful team of barbecue competitors decided they might could make some scratch selling the stuff. In the ensuing years this original location in the Riverdale section which skirts the river a little west of downtown Little Rock has been joined by a passel of other locations making Whole Hog Cafe a respectable chain. 

There are now 8 locations across Arkansas as well as outlets in New Orleans, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Springfield. No...Missouri, not that other. I heard tell there was, for awhile anyway, a location in Houston and for around six glorious weeks there was a location about 3 miles from my old home over in Fort Worth. We ate there six times before they got shut down by the principals in Little Rock -- allegedly for breach. Seems they weren't doing it right and to be honest the barbecue was not an exact copy. But it was close enough that we went and we liked it. But we also understood when they did what had to be done.

It was nice to revisit the original location and find that the place is exactly the same. That has to be large part of the secret to the success of Whole Hog Cafe -- consistency. Any time I've visited there has never been a drop off in the quality of the meat.

One of the most prestigious awards in the world of competitive barbecue cooking
This past visit I decided I'd have some of it all. The pulled pork was a given. It's their specialty. They've won Memphis in May with it. They've won The Jack with it. It is that good. Always served with some beautifully tasty bark and never overcooked -- it is slightly toothsome but never chewy or mushy. I was introduced and learned the first things I knew about barbecue in Memphis and its suburbs -- I will always be a pork-first kinda guy -- and as such I've eaten a lot of pulled pork and in most of these United States. I will say without qualification that this is the best I've ever had. Ever. And it is just as good every time I visit.

I lived in Texas for nearly 9 years and it was there I got my education in brisket. It's served in the midsouth -- it just isn't a priority. Mostly pitmasters smoke a few for the Texans that may be passing through. So while living in Texas I ate a lot of bad brisket to get to the much harder-to-find good brisket (oddly, the best brisket I've had so far was at a now-defunct operation in Oklahoma City that had a huge number of loyal customers -- and even worse problems with the Tax Commission). But I digress. Whole Hog does the brisket right. It's not on the level of the aforementioned place in OKC or even with some of the legendary purveyors in central Texas -- but it is very good. Excellent smoke flavor. It passes the "pull test" with flying colors. It is moist and tender but not overly so. In short it is very good meat. For the brisket lovers out there I can heartily recommend it -- you can do a lot worse.

They don't just hand these out to anyone
The ribs don't fall of the bone. This is okay because they aren't supposed to. If they do that means they're overcooked which is no good for anyone. The ribs I had on this visit were smoky and delicious and came cleanly off the bone with just a bit of pull. This is a sign that the pitmaster was paying close attention to the ribs. They are served dry and they don't need sauce. There is no bigger indicator of barbecue excellence than that.

Ahhh, but if you want to complement the meaty, smoky goodness with a little sauce, they've got you covered. Covered 7 ways to Sunday. You'll find six of their sauces in six-pack holders on the tables (I'm partial to #3 which is a pretty traditional sauce but with just a little bit of heat in the back). They've got a seventh sauce called The Volcano -- they typically keep that behind the counter and make it available on request. I need to try it because I like the heat but as yet I have not on account of my fondness for Old #3.

I was pleasantly surprised by the pulled chicken. It was moist and tender and smoky and very good. I've found at contests that chicken is the most consistent category and cooks have told me it's the easiest to cook. They say the worst part of the chicken category is the prep. In the restaurant they don't have to worry about uniform sizes that will look good with six (or nine) other pieces on top of parsely in a white take-out box so they can concentrate on flavor. Which is evident here. If you're looking for a change of BBQ pace you might consider giving this yardbird a try.

Remember folks -- this is the mid-South and if you don't tell them otherwise that slaw will come ON the sandwich
The sausage is another BBQ meat that's largely made inroads in the mid-South by way of Texas where it is one of the Holy Trinity meats (similar to how pulled pork is finally making inroads in Texas -- finally). This is good sausage. It's got some good snap and some hearty spice. It's not highly remarkable. I wouldn't seek it out but on my return I'd certainly consider having it again.

Uh-oh. I wasn't completely honest. I didn't get the pork loin this time around. I can't recall a single positive experience with barbecued pork loin so I avoid it. It may be great here -- and I will try it some day -- but let's face facts. Pork loin is not a cut that lends itself to Slow-and-Low. If it isn't cooked quickly over a bit more heat then it will just dry out. It will resist the smoke on everything except the outer layer and take on the consistency and flavor of shoe-leather. If anyone can pull it off I feel it would be Whole Hog but I can't offer an opinion on that -- yet. I'll post an update when I take the plunge.


  • Beans are tasty with little chunks of meat. I really like them even if I haven't exactly written home about them. 
  • Potato salad -- couldn't say as I won't eat it. Of all the things one can do to prepare the noble spud for consumption this just seems wrong to me. Boiling, cutting and then drowning in mustard/mayo/pickle and who-knows-what-else -- heebie jeebies. In fact that's my only beef (pardon the pun) with this place -- No Fries. I love fries. Fresh cut and salty. But bringing in the deep fryer is a whole 'nother hassle so I understand and never hold that against a barbecue joint.
  • Slaw -- I hear tell it is pretty traditional, crispy and not overly mayoed. Not a big cabbage guy when that room can be better used to hold meat.
They also offer a side salad (might be good with some pork on it!), chips and the dessert menu is a brownie. Good brownie.

Notice the Diamond Bear six-pack holder -- you know you're in Arkansas if you see that
Finally, I guess if you don't believe me then look to the Arkansas Times annual best barbecue in the state awards. Whole Hog has won it every year since 2001. That's impressive and that many times ain't luck.


Whole Hog Cafe & Catering on Urbanspoon

 We are proud to award Whole Hog Cafe the prestigious PBR Top Rated award: