There are a lot of things happening this spring. But how many of them feature pit-roasted, heritage-breed hogs; some of the finest chefs and pitmasters around; live music and cold beer and wine? Obviously we're biased (and not vegetarians), but there's really no better recipe for a party.
If you agree, we hope you'll join us for the second annual Arkansas Times Heritage Hog Roast on Saturday, May 3, at the Argenta Farmer's Market at Sixth and Main streets in North Little Rock. The event benefits the Argenta Arts District.
This year's cook-off involves 19 teams so far who'll be roasting a hog in the neighborhood of 130 lbs., raised at Scott Heritage Farm, over specially constructed outdoor pits.
Gates open at 5 p.m. and food, including pork and two sides from each team, will be served at 6:30 p.m. It's all you can eat, but we can't guarantee that the food that your favorite team whips up will last long into the evening. Your best bet is to be early-to-punctual and think strategically. Plan your attack with our preview of the participants that follows. What else do you need to know? Buy tickets — $25 in advance or $30 day of the event — and get more info at arktimes.com/heritagehogroast. The ticket price also includes a great slate of music by Memphis' Ghost Town Blues Band, Runaway Planet and The Salty Dogs. If you want to see the music and not pig, tickets are $10 after 8 p.m.
(If you read what follows and think all the teams are poseurs, holler at us! We'll squeeze you in.) The roast lineup:
Arthur's Fine Steakhouse and Oceans at Arthur's
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, Henry IV says, but Brian Kearns, winner of last year's Hog Roast representing the Country Club of Little Rock, sounds pretty laid back. Now with Arthur's Prime Steakhouse and Oceans at Arthur's, he said he's going to roast "the way I've always cooked my pigs. I might play around with some different seasoning. It's all in the time and temperature." Kearns will brine his swine in a mixture of sugar, salt, apple cider and "a few other ingredients that I'm not willing to disclose," and then he'll rub the pig with his barbecue rub the day before. Using coals he'll make from apple and oak logs, Kearns will roast his hog laid flat in a cinderblock pit. For the sides, he's thinking barbecued black-eyed peas and cornbread. About the time and temperature: What the great hog roaster has to do is "basically figure a way to get [all the parts of the pig] to finish at same time." Kearns, who'll be joined again by chef Jon Bobo, is looking forward to going up against South on Main's Matt Bell and other great cooks in the contest. He's also hoping it won't be a cold day in May this time around: Last year, he had to start the fire at midnight and wear a down jacket and a hat during the day. LNP.
Chris Tanner hasn't always worked in restaurants. He flew planes for a while after college, and later tried wholesaling wine. But with Cheers in the Heights, his "neighborhood joint" on North Van Buren Street, he found his true calling. "I like to cook and I like to drink," he says, which pretty much sums it up. He claims he can "count on two hands" how many times he's roasted a whole hog, and he isn't all that worried about the competition. "I think I'm gonna start it in my China Box and then throw it on the open grate and work it from there," he says. "Get some wood smoke to it and crisp it up." He's planning a homemade mojo sauce ("a dollop of orange juice, some pineapple, different spices") and envisions a porchetta with rosemary, sage and garlic. He also intends to bring a TV so attendees can watch the Kentucky Derby. For anyone who wants to do more than just watch, he plans to have "five or six" betting pools going as well. WS.
Cregeen's Irish Pub
Little Rock native Alex Kammerer has been general manager at Cregeen's Irish Pub for only a few weeks, but he's been at the restaurant for several years, working his way up from tending bar. When we ask, though, if he's at all worried about helming Cregeen's hog roasting team, he seems taken aback: "Hell no, I ain't worried," he said. He's never actually roasted a whole hog before, but he's come close. When he lived in Madrid for a 10-month stint teaching English, he spent most of his free time at a neighborhood bar where he learned to roast lechon (suckling pig). And anyway there isn't much to it: "It's all just meat and smoke," he says. "Food accountability" is a personal obsession, and his team, which will also include Trey Holmes and Bryan Dabous, will focus on fresh local ingredients, including organic spices. Though as Kammerer sees it, he wins either way, "If I can drink beer and roast pork," he said, "that's a good day in my life." WS.
Crush Wine Bar
How is a wine bar that serves only tapas going to crush the competition in the Heritage Hog Roast? Joe St. Ana, owner of Crush Wine Bar, and friend and experienced hog-cooker John Johnston, are going to party first. That is, St. Ana said, they're going to practice the weekend before — "we're going to do six different sections of the pig and figure which works best for us" — and they expect that will turn into a party. St. Ana participated in the Hog Roast last year as part of the Argenta Market team, and he said he learned a lot, such as how to split the pig so it lies flat on the grill, when to turn it, when to season it, etc. Johnston, an Air Reserve technician who flies C-130s and is from Texas, wouldn't reveal the spices he plans to use, but says he'll use a traditional pork brine injection (apple juice and salt) and will "play around with the spices," maybe add some paprika. Since Crush is about all things wine, will wine play a role? Maybe, Johnston said — to clean off the bone dust created when they crack open their 300-pound pig. LNP.
While other teams are coming heavy, bringing the maximum number of players to their show, the team fielded by Riverdale's hot new gourmet taco-and-Mexican-food joint The Fold plans on floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, with only three hands on deck. Fold owner Bart Barlogie said their lineup for the hog roast will be just him, plus chefs Chris McMillan and Alex Smith tending their pig through the night. "We don't need a lot of people," he said. "We've got a small team and we're going to do it." Barlogie said he can't say much about their strategy, methods or seasonings, but he promises "a special treat" from his trio. "Chris has cooked a whole hog before," he said. "Alex is new to the game, but she's a smart cookie." Considering the great things in small packages that emerge from the kitchen at The Fold on a daily basis, we're definitely not going to count them out just for traveling light. DK.
It's a good sign, we think, when you ask a team captain for his strategy going into the hog roast, and he says "probably not to drink as much as we did last time." That's the kind of honesty we like to hear from a second-year team. But seriously, folks: Brian Deloney, who heads the team from Maddie's Place, said that their real strategy is to just have a good time with a bunch of friends. Deloney said his eight-person team is stocked with old high school chums and loyal customers of Maddie's, which specializes in Cajun food. "We're not in it to win it," Deloney said. "We're just in there to have fun. If we win it, that's great. But we just enjoy being around each other and having a good time." Deloney said this year's hog roast will be the second time he's ever cooked a whole hog, but he learned quite a bit from the experience last year. "With those pits, you've got to be able to control the heat and move your pig around," he said. "I brine mine first for a whole day. We may inject it and season it up." DK.
Because, we presume, they're all daylight-shunning vampires (the friendly kind, of course) who don't rise until we're tucked under the covers, the Midtown team has proven damn near impossible to reach. All we know is that Conan Robinson, Lawrence Pickard, Matt Hester, Wally Redd and Leland Tucker are involved and they're calling themselves Los Cerdos Borrachos. LM.
Chef Alexis Jones changes the menu at lunch and then again at dinner every day she's open at Natchez, the inventive, Southern gourmet restaurant in the Tower Building. So you'll forgive her for not knowing how she's going to treat her pig. She'll decide a plan of action nearer to the event based on "what's available locally." Just because Jones has found success working spontaneously doesn't mean you shouldn't plan. Every Wednesday, she offers a three-course dinner and wine pairing for $40. Hard to beat that. Zara Abbasi, Danyel Kilgore, Katie Reno and Jose Juarez will join her on the Natchez hog team. LM
Last year, the Reno's Pit Crew was dominated by political bigshots — Arkansas Lottery Director Bishop Woosley, Arkansas Economic Development Commission Executive Director Grant Tennille, Arkansas House of Representatives Chief of Staff Gabe Holmstrom — but Reno's owner Louis France said he hasn't heard from them this go-round. Did the politicos know their pork, or was France's leadership the key in the Pit Crew's second runner-up finish last year? His plan this year certainly sounds mouth watering: He'll cook it over a pit in a La Caja China Box, an aluminum-lined wooden box, and occasionally take it out or finish it outside of the box in the pit "to get a little more smoke flavor into it." France said he'll likely marinate it with Jamaican spices and serve pale ale mac and cheese, Jamaican red beans and rice and mango salsa. Jennifer Reece, Ryan Allen, Jason Turner and Mic McKowen will join France in the crew. LM.
Chef Brian Isaac is a man of few words. How will Capeo's hog be prepared? His fractured-Haiku response:
"We're gonna cook it.
We're gonna nitrate it up really good.
That's all I'm saying." LNP.
The Root Cafe
The Root had one of the most popular offerings at last year's Hog Roast with banh mi bites with roasted pork, plus baked beans and smoked green onions. How will the team top it this year? They're going to go with a Moroccan pig roast. Jack Sundell spent a couple of years in Morocco in the Peace Corps and learned to love Moroccan cuisine. Of course, Morocco is a Muslim country, which means pork is a no-no. "We're going to do a cross-cultural culinary experiment," Sundell said, "with whole-hog roast and tagine." Tagine is a traditional North African dish stewed in a clay pot, featuring spices like cumin, turmeric and saffron. "I don't know that a pork tagine has ever been made before," Sundell laughed. They're calling it "forbidden tagine." The team is still hammering out the details, but will likely serve up their forbidden tagine with preserved lemon tomato sauce, mint gremolata and a carrot-cumin slaw salad. The whole-hog expert on the Root's team is Kelly Gee, the catering director for the Doubletree Hotel, who hosts an annual whole hog roast at his house. "He's our resident pitmaster," Sundell said. "We call him our two-pork-a-day smoker." The team also features University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences pharmacist Jerry Puryear ("a kitchen mad scientist") and Nathaniel Wills, a farmer at Felder Farm ("the future mayor of Little Rock"). DR.
Schlafly Tap Room
Arkansans will need to have their barbecuing game faces on: The team for the Schlafly Tap Room is coming in all the way from St. Louis to wow us with their pig-roasting skills. Andy White, the executive chef at the Schlafly Tap Room, which opened in 1991 as the first new brewpub in Missouri and serves up European pub food to go with 16 Schlafly craft beer styles on draft, said, "We've done a lot of Schlafly events outside of the St. Louis market, but we haven't done as much down there in Little Rock since we're pretty new to the market. I figured we'd head down there and cook some pig and drink some beer." White will be joined by another Schlafly chef, Adam "Wags" Wagner, who brings a wealth of experience in competition barbecue around the Midwest. White and Wags are still figuring out their approach; expect something spicy and something crunchy. That's all they would divulge for now. Will they have some Schlafly beer on hand? "Oh, we might bring a little beer in the truck," White said. Schlafly is providing the beer for the event's Beer and Wine Garden. DR.
South on Main
"My strategy this year is nothing short of genius," South on Main chef Matt Bell said. "I got Travis McConnell to head up my team!" Anyone who's ever sampled McConnell's whole-hog wizardry (including at last year's hog roast, when McConnell led the Capital Bar team) will readily endorse this approach. "He's got a really unique piece of cooking equipment," Bell said. "It's a splay — it's an Argentinian style cooking method where you split the hog open, almost crucified, and then you lean it gently over the fire. Rather than a spit or a smoker, we're going to do a natural, South American style." Bell comes with experience himself, having done the Cochon 555 whole-hog competition when he was at the Capital Hotel (he once deboned a pig's head and stuffed it with mortadella and sewed it back up). "When I was growing up in Montana, we had some friends that did a big pig roast every summer," Bell said. "It's always an incredible party." Bell said the team is still brainstorming for this year's roast, but right now they're leaning toward pulled-pork bahn mi. "We're going to try to get as much great vegetables locally as we can and do pickled vegetables on the sandwich," he said. One note for local foodies: Bell said they're considering doing a pop-up whole-hog roast event in the future featuring McConnell at South on Main. Stay tuned. DR.
The Southern Gourmasian
Does food truck king Justin Patterson have a plan for the hog roast? "Just a plan to win it," he said with a laugh. "I kind of started the food truck on a whim, just cooking food that I like and people around us were impressed with. We definitely don't overthink things." Even if he wanted to plan, Patterson couldn't. The Southern Gourmasian has become so popular that, with all the catering jobs and special events in addition to regular service, he can't catch up. As for when he'll move from truck into a brick and mortar space, all Patterson would say is, "It's encompassing my entire life right now. I need it to happen." Patterson's partner in Southern Gourmasian, Pat Beaird, will help him out in the hog roast along, likely, with a few other friends. LM.
"I'm very competitive," said Diana Bratton, who has owned and operated the Hot Springs restaurant Taco Mama with her husband, Shane, since 2009. "I might fall flat on my face, but I'm in this to win it." Born in South Texas, Diana was raised on Mexican food, and Taco Mama, which the Brattons opened in a renovated space once occupied by a 1920s hardware store, is her masterpiece, repeatedly voted Best Mexican Restaurant (outside of Little Rock) in the Times' Reader's Choice poll. Diana said she's never roasted a hog before, but her husband has, and anyway, she knows the basics: "You dig a hole, drink lots of beer, blah blah blah." She's planning a rub involving freshly ground dried chilis, a little oregano, some thyme, maybe cinnamon. "I'm just going to play with it," she says. Citrus and banana leaves will likely play a part, and for sides they'll have a chili-pecan slaw with mangos and a broccoli salad with apples, dates, celery and cilantro. Still, the hog is the focus, and she's anxious to get to it. "I do like to butcher," she says. "I'm looking forward to that." WS.
If there's a team to beat in this year's hog roast, it has to be Team Whole Hog, fielded by Whole Hog North Little Rock owner Rich Cosgrove and stocked with veterans from both the Little Rock and North Little Rock incarnations of the barbecue restaurant that has quickly become a regional favorite. As if that wasn't intimidating enough, Cosgrove is calling in a local legend to lead his team: Mike "Sarge" Davis, the Whole Hog co-founder who cooked up many of the restaurant's recipes. "He's the best meat man I know," Cosgrove said. "He has a couple of legitimate Memphis in May World Championships with Whole Hog to his name, as well as hundreds of significant barbecue awards." Let's just say that if this were a "Karate Kid" movie, Team Whole Hog would clearly be Cobra Kai Dojo. But Cosgrove said his 10-person squad isn't clearing a space in their trophy case just yet. "We've got some competition in this thing," he said. "We're not intimidated, but we're certainly far from cocky. We're going into this thing humble. We just really want to have a good time and compete and hopefully our pig turns out extremely well." DK