Santa Fe isn’t exactly known as an international barbecue destination, but it still offers a few dedicated options to get your smoked meats and traditional sides on. There’s The Ranch House on the Southside, Cowgirl BBQ, and a few restaurants that offer a special barbecue dish or two. But no entity in town is more dedicated to the craft of ’cue than the Whole Hog Café (320 S. Guadalupe St., 474-3375).
With locations in New Jersey, Missouri, Arkansas, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, Whole Hog is synonymous with championship barbecue. A 2002 first-place win at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (plus other honorable standings in 2000 and 2008) and too many Arkansas Times reader's choice first-place awards to mention here attest to the business ownership's love of this particularly low-and-slow (and tricky) culinary art. Arkansas is Whole Hog's home state, sothey know a little something about BBQ. Business is good—So good in fact, that the owners have plans to eventually open an outlet in the now-defunct Gravy restaurant space in Albuquerque.
The décor at the Santa Fe location is heavy on brick arches and vintage prints of folks picnicking on, one supposes, some delicious meaty goodness. Guests peruse the menu written on a large chalkboard and place their orders at the counter in the main dining room, and the food is the brought to their table by the friendly staff. A roll of paper towels sits on the table, and trust me, you're going to need a bunch of them. Fountain drinks, eating utensils and to-go containers are fetch-them-yourself in an adjoining dining room. A small selection of wines and domestic and imported beers is available, should you choose to have a tipple with your brisket.
I always go for the Whole Hog Platter ($22.90), which is plenty of food for two people looking for variety but not an enormous chow-down. The platter contains a generous pile of smoked pulled pork, an equally bountiful heap of smoked beef brisket, three baby back ribs, baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw and a dinner roll.
The traditional country potato salad is chunky-creamy and well seasoned, with just the right amount of doneness to the potato chunks. The creamy slaw is a tad sweet for my taste, but it's a good excuse if you want to say you ate your veggies. The beans are standard baked-bean flavored: some tomato and a little sweetener. A dinner roll or white bread is a must for any respectable BBQ joint (for making sandwiches and soppin' up the good stuff), and Whole Hog's are fluffy, served warm.
The café offers up six housemade sauces at the table: a semisweet, molasses-infused variety and a sweeter one using the same basic ingredients; a traditional tangy tomato-vinegar sauce and a slightly spicier version of it; traditional vinegar and spice; and my favorite for pulled pork, a popular Southern mustard-and-vinegar concoction. If you're feeling invincible, go for the "volcano" sauce, available only upon request. These sauces are so popular, they're available to purchase by the six-pack at the counter ($29.95). All the sauces are worth trying, although as a brisket purist and Texas-born meat snob, I stick to nothing on the beef or just a little of the tomato-vinegar sauce.
The shaved beef brisket is super-tender and well smoked, not over-the-top, but aromatic nonetheless. The slow-cooked pulled pork is a thing of beauty: pink from the long smoking time, a little greasy, extra tender and modestly seasoned. I taste it naked before slathering on the mustard-vinegar sauce, and the troubles of the day melt away. It's those darned baby back ribs that give us some trouble. They come out pre-slathered in sticky-sweet barbecue sauce, which makes separating them from each other feel a bit like finger painting on a skeleton. The ribs are unfortunately not fall-off-the-bone tender. In fact, they're not tender at all. The meat has to be cut from the bone and sliced into small bites to avoid chewing on its tendon-like texture.
Whole Hog Café does many things well, from the sauces to the service and atmosphere to that heavenly brisket and pulled pork. But those baby backs could use some extra love from the championship-winning team.
Whole Hog Café
Open: 11:00 am-8:00 pm daily
Best Bet: Beef brisket
Don't Miss: Pulled pork and those addictive sauces