If anybody out there has figured out a way to predict the weather in Arkansas, please leave me a message down there in the comments so we can discuss lottery numbers. Cold, drizzly, and feeling more like November than May, the day might not have been what we had in mind for the first Arkansas Times Heritage Hog Roast in terms of weather, but it was was everything a pork lover like myself could have hoped for in terms of food. Teams from the Argenta Market, Cafe Bossa Nova, the Capital Hotel, the Country Club of Little Rock, Lulav Italian Kitchen, the Root Cafe, Local Lime, Maddie's Place, Reno's Argenta Cafe, Ristorante Capeo, and St. Jude's Children's Hospital all braved unseasonably cold temperatures that reached as low as 34 degrees to cook their hogs to perfection. In addition to the competitors, around 500 folks made their way to North Little Rock in the rain to sample a whole passel of slow-roasted Falling Sky Farms hogs.
Our celebrity judges picked the Country Club of Little Rock for first place, Local Lime for second, and Reno's Argenta Cafe for third. I can't really disagree (much) with their selections, and the fact that the voting between first and third places was separated by less than two points shows how good the food was overall. I've got a few "honorary" awards that I'd like to present on behalf of Eat Arkansas, however, that are are a little more specific. These are all highly subjective and reflect no other opinion from my own.
*Best overall pork: With all the different presentations available, it was hard to pin down just who came through with the best single bite of pure pork that I ate. There wasn't a bad bite of food to be had at the event, but my pick for best pure pork flavor goes to Cafe Bossa Nova with a succulent, well-seasoned bite of meat that was everything I ask for from a piece of roasted pork. A close second was Maddie's, who paired their hog with a sauce that walked a perfect line between vinegary and sweet.
*Best overall bite: This is for the best prepared pork dish. Several booths served their hog with various accoutrement, but the stand-out entry was the banh mi crostini from the Root Cafe, who used their mastery of pickled vegetables and kimchi to wonderful effect. A close second was Local Lime, who presented their finished pig in a taco that had folks clamoring for more. Lulav also had a strong entry with a pork bruschetta that was surprising in its inventiveness and fresh flavor.
*Best side dish: There was more than pork available, and none of the entrants slacked on those sides. Of particular note was the tomato and mozzarella salad from the Country Club of Little Rock, the mac and cheese from Reno's, and my personal favorite, the blue cheese cole slaw from Maddie's Place. I'm a reasonably experienced cook and diner, but this cole slaw took me right out of what I expected in the best way possible. Fresh cabbage slaw with a tangy dressing mixed with small chunks of sharp blue cheese — if any of you had asked me if that was a good idea before today, I would have said no. Now, my answer is an adamant "yes."
I've attended a lot of these events, and I can't think of very many that managed to be as consistently good as this one. There are many more pictures from the event on Brian Chilson's Facebook page, so take a look at those if you missed out on the fun today. And if you think you can do better than these folks today, well, there's always next year.