- FEEDING THE HORDES: Nineteen professional and amateur teams will compete in the hog roast; festivalgoers get to eat their efforts.
It's fall. Before long, the leaves will fall and the days will grow short and it will be cold. To prepare you emotionally for that dark reality and also because you probably need to start putting on a few pounds to keep you better insulated in the winter, you owe it to yourself to reserve a ticket to the Arkansas Times Whole Hog Roast on Sunday, Oct. 23, at the Argenta Plaza in North Little Rock.
This is the fourth edition, and like a seasoned pit master who's always tweaking his methods to achieve smoked meat perfection, we've updated our formula to ensure that this is the best fest yet. For one, we've got more teams competing than ever thanks to event wrangler Brian Kearns of Simply the Best Catering and the newly opened Canvas restaurant at the Arkansas Arts Center. So far there are 19 teams participating, including 12 headed by professional cookers (all those below, plus teams from Maddie's and SO Restaurant and Bar, which we weren't able to reach before our deadline) and nine amateur teams (all those below, plus a team from Onebanc, which we also weren't able to reach). Pro teams will cook whole hogs raised humanely by Farm Girl Meats near Perryville, while amateurs will cook pork butts provided Edwards Food Giant and two side items. Festivalgoers will be able to sample food from all the teams until it's gone, as well as sides from Ben E. Keith. In addition to manning a pro team, Lost Forty Brewing is sponsoring the beer and wine garden, where drinks will be available for purchase. Local food bloggers will judge both divisions. The pro teams should be especially motivated. First prize gets $1,000.
Argenta Plaza is at Sixth and Main streets in downtown North Little Rock. Doors open at 1 p.m. and food will be served at 2 p.m., rain or shine. Local honky-tonk heroes Bonnie Montgomery and The Salty Dogs will perform throughout the day. Tickets are $18 in advance via centralarkansastickets.com or $22 at the door. Proceeds benefit the Argenta Arts District.
And make sure you wear your finest bib: The Cooking Channel's "Big Bad BBQ Brawl" will be on hand to film. *This article has been updated.
"Don't ever open a healthy restaurant in Arkansas, no matter what anyone tells you," Donnie Ferneau volunteered when we called him up to see if he knew how he's cooking his whole hog. (He's leaning toward using a La Caja China Box, but otherwise doesn't know.) Before he became chef at the new, private 1836 Club, he owned Good Food by Ferneau in Argenta, which had a menu aimed at health-conscious diners. Now that he's heading up a supper club, he knows how many people he's cooking for on any given night, and he's gotten back to his roots using classic techniques as well as quality, local ingredients. The trend of high-end fast casual food is great, Ferneau says, but he's happy to be once again using his chef training for people who appreciate fine dining. LM
@ the Corner
At the Corner is a family affair. Sisters Helen Grace and Leila King co-own and manage the downtown diner with their soon-to-be sister-in-law, Chef Kamiya Merrick. The Kings' mother, Helen King, is the financial backer and a regular behind the register. Merrick is Canadian — she got to Little Rock through a soccer scholarship at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock — which is why you see poutine (french fries, cheese curds and brown gravy) and real Canadian bacon on the menu. Those items and the rest of At the Corner's menu have been well received in the restaurant's 18 months in business. Lunch is regularly packed (the diner is directly below the Times and this writer orders the best-in-town turkey burger at least once a week) and patrons have lined up outside for weekend brunch service. For the roast, Merrick plans on brining the hog for a few days, injecting it with Canadian Maple syrup and then smoking it, maybe using a Rock Town barrel if she can secure one. LM
Country Club of Little Rock
Blaine Burgess has two Hog Roast titles under his belt, and he'll be going for a third with teammate and Country Club of Little Rock chef Paul Frintrup, recently named Arkansas Chef of the Year by his peers in the American Culinary Federation. Burgess, a former chef who is now the general manager and chief operating officer of the club, trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.; Frintrup trained at the Culinary Hospitality School at St. Louis Community College. They will prepare this year's pig "low and slow" (12 to 14 hours at 220 degrees Fahrenheit in a cinder-block pit) in a variation on the Cuban-style Burgess won with last year. They'll inject their hog with mojo criollo, a sour orange, garlic and lime concoction, and also mix a little of that into the vinegar and tomato-based basting sauce. Burgess and Frintrup will be "taking our act on the road" next spring, Burgess said, going to New Orleans for the Hogs for the Cause event. LNP
Crush Wine Bar and Flight Thyme Catering
Joe St. Ana is inching close to the 10-year anniversary of Crush, the wine bar he opened in the River Market district in 2007 and moved to Argenta three years later. St. Ana, who's been in the business for 26 years, including 16 years at Colonial Wines, has enough of a reputation that many of his customers don't request to see a wine list, they simply ask what he suggests. His every-other-Monday tastings, a staple since the beginning, remain popular, especially now that the weather is ideal for hanging out on Crush's back patio. For the hog roast, he's partnering with Flight Thyme Catering and roasting their hog in traditional barbecue style, in a pit with a fire made of aromatic hardwoods. LM
Four Quarter Bar
Conan Robinson has been a participant in the Hog Roast for the last three years, but always with Midtown Billiards, where he worked for more than 15 years. This year, he's representing his own bar and restaurant, Four Quarter, located just down Main Street from the event (after-party!). Like Midtown, Four Quarter serves a late-night clientele. Its kitchen stays open later than just everywhere else, serving food from late afternoon until 1:30 a.m., 30 minutes before closing time. With Robinson's long association with Midtown, he knows how to make a burger, and those remain popular, perhaps only rivaled by the barbecue. Robinson gets all his humanely raised and chemical-free meat from Brown Chicken, Brown Sow in Mountain Home. Look for a new menu coming soon featuring his roast pork, including pork nachos, a Cuban and an Asian honey barbecue sandwich. And also keep an eye out for bigger acts playing music in the bar. Squirrel Nut Zippers played a sold-out show recently. For the hog roast, he'll use his signature rub on the pig and go from there. LM
Lost Forty Brewing
Lost Forty regulars and those who follow the brewery and taproom on social media may have noticed a recent trend: more barbecued meat. That owes to a recent investment — a 1,000-gallon, custom-built propane smoker that now resides out back. Brewery co-owner John Beachboard says it can fit as much as 25 racks of ribs or 30 briskets at one time. Once or twice a week, Lost Forty has been offering specials on brisket, pork shoulder or ribs. Look for it to become an even larger component of the menu in the not-too-distant future, Beachboard says. For the hog roast, Beachboard says he's planning on doing it over open coals. "It's a little more complicated [than in the smoker], but it'll be fun to try that method," he said. LM
Samantha's Tap Room and Cheers in the Heights
Chris Tanner, owner of Cheers and Samantha's, wasn't able to participate in the Hog Roast last year to defend the title he earned in 2014. Now that he's back he figures why mess with a good thing. He's going to season his pig with fresh rosemary, coriander, sage and lemon zest and serve it Italian-style, as porchetta. Life is good, Tanner says. Business at Cheers, which underwent a significant remodel earlier this year, is growing (patio weather like we've been having always helps), he said. And through Oct. 15, Samantha's is running a delectable-sounding special on bronzed black grouper, lemon grass custard, lump crab, Coursey's smoked bacon with a Kent Walker Cheese rice cake and Arkansas salsa (cantaloupe, watermelon, jalapeno, tomato and yellow bell pepper). It's the dish Samantha's chefs John Munday and Marshall Smith won runner-up with at the Great American Seafood Cookoff in New Orleans in August. LM
- PIT ROASTED: Look for pro teams to use a variety of methods to cook their whole hog.
Southern Reel Outfitters
Southern Reel Outfitters on Highway 10 may be a haven for fisherman, with 2,400 square feet of outdoor apparel, kayaks, tackle and hunting equipment, but Jon Bobo is turning his attention toward the pig for the Hog Roast. Bobo, executive chef at Fox Ridge Assisted Living, will use an electric smoker with a pellet-feed from Smokin' Brothers, blending hickory, cherry, oak, mesquite and applewoods. Bobo, along with his culinary schoolmate Brian Kearns, won the Whole Hog Roast in its inaugural year, but this year Bobo's striking out on his own, and plans to "stick with the oak and then add something fruity at the end to finish." SS
Boudreaux's Grill and Bar and Swinetology 101
Matt Morris is the mastermind behind the meat at Swinetology 101, sponsored by friends at Boudreaux's Grill and Bar, for whom he roasts the occasional hog for pre-Razorback game tailgating parties. The result of 12 years of barbecue competitions, Morris' approach is to infuse the pig with a blend of juices, spices and liquors and roast it belly-up, keeping the natural juices of the hog from escaping. He uses a traditional smoker — using his own sense of timing rather than digital monitors — and a blend of apple, cherry and hickory wood that he says results in a "savory sweet heat, with a sweetness on the front end and some heat on the back end." SS
Argenta Butt Rubbers
Josh Mills wants another shot. Last year, the Kansas City native did one butt in the style of his hometown and another with Asian flavors. He and his partner, Ricky O'Rourke, are both vets of other cook-offs, including Hot Springs' Great Park Avenue BBQ Cookoff. Once again, they're sponsored by the Argenta Neighborhood Boosters, and they're counting on the new judging method to bring home the bacon this year. LM
Billy Bob's Smokin' Butts
Steve Glaze of Billy Bob's Smokin' Butts cooks ribs and pork butt when he's out camping with friends and family routinely, but says he doesn't do many competitions. "I tried doing one over in Kansas City and didn't do too well — they said my barbecue was too tender!" That's likely to be a strength rather than a demerit for him at this year's Hog Roast, where he's smoking a pork butt with a blend of pecan and oak woods for about six to eight hours. Glaze is keeping the sides — cole slaw and beans — traditional, and plans to have plenty of help on hand to allow him to make the rounds sampling what's smoking at the other pits, something he says he didn't get to do nearly enough when he competed last year. SS
Golden Eagle of Arkansas
Richard McKinnie is alcohol distributor Golden Eagle's resident barbecue professional. He and his dad and two sons have participated in a handful of cook-offs around the area. "We try," McKinnie says. "We've got some trophies. But we've messed up a lot of pigs in the process." He'll cook his butt in a custom smoker he built out of a 200-gallon propane tank, dry rub the butt and use injectable marinades of his own creation. Black-eyed peas will be one side, he said. LM
Michael Reiser and teammates and co-workers Paul Russell and Heath Netzley had never done a pork cook-off before last year's Arkansas Times cook-off. They work in IT for a software company. But their butt, with homemade rub, injection and sauce and, as Reiser describes, "a rustic flavor," took home the top prize last year in the amateur division. Then earlier this year, they won the People's Choice prize at the much larger Buzz B-Q cook-off in North Little Rock. So how serious is this hobby becoming? "You never know what the future holds," Reiser said with a chuckle. "You've got to give the people what they want." LM
Pop Smoke BBQ
Fresh off winning grand champion at Jacksonville's Grill in the Ville cook-off, Rashad Pippen plans to stick to his traditional formula from last year's Hog Roast: a pork butt rubbed with brown sugar, salt and pepper and injected with a mixture of vinegar, apple juice and salt and sugar. For sides, the National Guardsman is planning to serve bacon macaroni and cheese and dill potato salad. LM
RB² — that is, Rebecca Brosius, Randy Schroeder, Bussie Robinson and Brenda Hopper — are not merely participating in the amateur division of the Arkansas Times Whole Hog Roast, they say; they're "going to win." The four friends, who met at Lake Norrell in Saline County, were cooking together for an event when Rebecca came across the hog roast announcement. "I handed it to Randy and said, 'We should do this,' " Rebecca said. Randy — a former hog farmer and once-owner of the state fair favorite The Pork Chop Shop — agreed, and the quartet is bringing what Rebecca calls an "uncommon" treatment to the pork butt, as well as some secret sides. "We are striving not to be ordinary. We don't want ours to look like anyone else's, we don't want it to taste like anyone else's. Call it the Saline Redneck Gourmet approach." SS