That’ll do, Pig
In the ranks of contentious foods, barbecue sits near the top. At your next cookout, you should avoid seating a cantankerous Texan next to an opinionated Tennessean, and don’t you dare put a ketchup-based sauce on a South Carolinian’s pulledpork sandwich. Nothing spoils people’s appetite like a fight.
Barbecue lovers of all stripes can probably get along just fine at Whole Hog Café, though. The Santa Fe branch of a restaurant group based in Arkansas occupies a prime spot on Guadalupe Street. Undaunted, it stares down its rival across the road, the Cowgirl BBQ — the two places look ready for an Old West showdown. You can almost hear the theme song for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as you walk by.
It’s not really a contest, though, since Whole Hog serves barbecue and very little else. It puts both pulled pork and pork loin on the menu along with chicken, sausage, ribs (pork, not beef), and brisket. You can order a sandwich stuffed with one meat or a platter containing all six. Every table has been outfitted with bottles of half a dozen different sauces — some tomato-based, one vinegary, one with mustard’s biting tang, one dark and sticky-sweet with molasses. (For the record, #3 was the favorite of everyone at our table.) A spicier version, “volcano,” which has a fun but not overwhelming burn, is available upon request.
What Whole Hog doesn’t have are a lot of options for vegetarians. There’s a basic slaw, which, like many around town, is a little too sweet, but which distinguishes itself by not being grossly laden with mayo. The potato salad is studded with bacon, so that’s out (fine by me: It’s coated in an opaque sour-cream-based dressing with a strong dairy flavor I didn’t love). The baked beans are clearly industrial, which means they’ve probably crossed paths with meat at some point. (In their defense, I think they’ve been enriched with one of Whole Hog’s sauces, which makes them less insipid than the straight-out-of-a-can kind.) But the kitchen nails the cool, crisp, refreshing cucumber salad — lightly pickled, barely sweet pale-green cukes and hot-pink strips of onion. This is the sort of thing I want to eat every day in the summer months.
Eons ago, the day before I took up vegetarianism, I drove an hour just to get the ribs from a legendary place called Dreamland. Whole Hog’s don’t compare, but if you have an itch for ribs, they’ll scratch it. On one visit, the meat pulled away from the bone too cleanly and was oddly, disappointingly dry. Every other time I sampled them, though, they were satisfyingly juicy, smoky, and tender.
The same could be said of the tangled piles of threadlike pulled pork and chicken — both of which are good on their own or sandwiched with sauce (and maybe a little slaw) on one of the almost impossibly soft rolls. The pork loin satisfies in a lean, “other white meat” kind of way, and fans of Texas ’cue will appreciate the brisket for its deep, meaty muskiness. The only choice that underwhelmed was the sausage, which arrived at the table barely warm and had no distinguishable seasoning other than garlic, salt, and pepper. Most of the meats were short on — or completely lacking — that beloved charred black crust.
Just for the heck of it, try the barbecue nachos, a fun, campy take on the classic. Here, gloppy ballpark-style cheese sauce, baked beans, and your choice of smoky meat join jalapeños on a generous platform of red and blue tortilla chips.
Except for some vintage-feeling exposed brick, the space is pretty nondescript — generic chairs and tables in two open dining rooms. What it lacks in décor it makes up for in aroma, though: That primal smoky smell nearly knocks you out when you walk in the door. Employees are remarkably friendly and polite, and service is lightning fast. You’ll barely have time to fill your glass with sweet tea (which any self-respecting barbecue establishment should serve) before your food shows up at the table.
Banana pudding is another requisite for barbecue joints. This dish is really more about the super-sweet pudding, the whipped cream, and the vanilla wafers than the actual fruit, but you’ll see some slices of banana when you dig your spoon into this soft, smooth custard.
Garden & Gun magazine recently asked readers to vote for their favorite barbecue restaurants, and places from Washington, D.C., to St. Petersburg, Florida, to Austin, Texas, made the cut. Whole Hog didn’t, but there are trophies, ribbons, and printed accolades scattered around the place nonetheless. Santa Fe will probably never have a serious barbecue showdown, but if it did, I’m pretty sure Whole Hog would win.