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This Place Best Left to the Carnivores

SANTA FE, N.M. — After early people discovered fire, I imagine their next culinary breakthrough was grilled meat, smoked meat and, shortly thereafter, barbecue sauces. Chefs have been tinkering with the types of wood, cuts of meat and a variety of rubs, marinades and seasonings ever since.

Perhaps because I grew up in northern New Mexico, I didn’t develop strong opinions about what style of barbecue is best and, even now, I like all kinds, from sticky pork ribs cooked with sweet sauce, to the spicy/vinegary pulled- pork served in the South, to the smoked beef brisket of west Texas.

As long as the meat isn’t dry and the sauce or rub or other chef-ly treatment adds something tasty, I’m in.

Whole Hog Café
WHERE: 320 S. Guadalupe St., Santa Fe, 505-474-3375
WHAT: Barbecue. Beer and wine available.
HOURS: Open 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and until 9:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
SERVICE: Order at the counter.
AMBIANCE: Casual

Whole Hog Café, located in an unassuming mid-block storefront on Guadalupe Street, specializes in barbecue. You can get the meat in sandwiches, wraps, as “plates” or “platters” and, of course, to go. The food here is fresh and good, the service friendly and the prices reasonable. A couple of friends and I stopped by for a quick bite, and found the restaurant relatively empty. Sometimes the staff slips into lethargy under these circumstances, but not here. The young man who took our orders and brought the food to the table was polite, efficient and very professional.

Ordering at Whole Hog involves studying the blackboard and deciding among the types of meat and choices of side dishes. No one will ask “Red or Green?” or “Do you want fries with that?” Side dishes include coleslaw, potato salad, chips, green salad or chopped cucumber salad. We tried the traditional favorites with BBQ, slaw and baked beans. Both were good. The cucumber salad gets a thumbs up, even though it was a bit sweet for me, because of its unusualness. The potato salad won the most points: creamy and nicely seasoned but not too full of mayo. “Plates” include two sides. Sandwiches come with coleslaw. Wraps consist of your choice of meat garnished with lettuce, tomato, onion, cilantro, sour cream and jalapeños cradled inside a flour tortilla.

I can think of only two downsides for Whole Hog Cafe. The owners attempted to create ambiance, adding an entry display of beautiful barbecue trophies won by the mother restaurant (in Arkansas) and upbeat recorded music including country classics such as Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” They get points for effort, but the space feels generic, especially at night. Secondly, if you are a vegetarian, choices are limited to a large tossed salad, side dishes, the potato and dessert. No hot veggies or meat substitutes here.

My two hungry friends and I tried four of the available meats, missing only the pulled pork, pulled chicken and the pork loin. Everything we ate left us smiling. I thought the sausage was especially yummy: sliced into rounds, well-seasoned, slightly chewy and totally delicious. The chicken also pleased me. I’ve learned from experience how quickly you can overcook chicken, but this half- bird avoided that problem. I appreciated the fresh juiciness. The pork ribs were tender with a nice texture and lots of fresh smoky flavor.

I was not crazy about the other meat we sampled: beef brisket. The flavor was a bit flat. But, on the good side, the brisket gave me an excuse to try each of the six barbecue sauces on the table in a Corona beer six-pack carton. The squeeze bottles have a labels explaining their taste, from dark, molasses-flavored to sweet tomato-based, or a slightly spicy concoction. My friends and I each picked our favorite, then tried them on the chicken with different results. It’s fun to experiment, and where else do you get six sauces? We didn’t try the seventh, the “heat speaks for itself” volcano sauce because it involved exerting ourselves to walk to the counter to ask for it.

Because of some confusion with our order, we did go back to the cash register earlier to request our baked potato. My friends and I surmised that because we had asked so many questions about the menu and changed our minds a few times, the young man didn’t realize we meant to order it. He brought one quickly and refused to let us pay. I applaud this customer-friendly thinking, which in exchange for the price of a spud bought lots of good will. The foil-wrapped potato was great – hot, soft and filled with butter, sour cream and chives with a nice handful of melted cheddar on top. All servings are generous and the potato enough for two.

Whole Hog had plastic-wrapped brownies and cookies on the counter as dessert. The to-go menu mentions cobbler, but I didn’t see it on the blackboard or in the cafe. Maybe I missed it.

Our dinner for three, with much chicken and half a baked potato left over to take home, was $34.17. Paying for the potato would have added $5.49, all before tax. In addition to the Santa Fe location, Whole Hog has a restaurant in Albuquerque.

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