That’ll do, Pig

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW - Lau­rel Glad­den I For The New Mex­i­can

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.

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