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Squeal appeal

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TENDER AND JUICY: Whole Hog serves up succulent barbeque north of the river.
  • TENDER AND JUICY: Whole Hog serves up succulent barbeque north of the river.

As luck would have it, 2007 turns out to be the Chinese Year of the Pig. Always ahead of the curve here in good old Arkansas (when we aren't miserably behind it. Thanks, Mississippi!), it just so happens that a couple of years ago, some enterprising gents built a temple to the pig, right down in Riverdale. Go figure. While Whole Hog Cafe might not be heaven, they've surely caused more than their share of brushes with death. Serving up the tastiest, most expertly smoked pork, chicken and beef to ever clog an artery, Whole Hog quickly rose to the top of the smoky heap when it comes to Little Rock barbecue, and found a place in the hearts of Central Arkansas fans in more ways than one.

Even better, it's a love that the owners have been willing to share. Thanks to computer-controlled, gas-fired smokers that have allowed them to keep the quality and flavor consistent, Whole Hog is one of the few barbecue restaurants that have successfully made the jump to franchising. As early as this year, barbecue lovers were able to partake of Whole Hog's sweet, sweet 'cue in locales as far flung as Memphis and Santa Fe. Given that, it always struck us as a little weird that the only place Little Rockians could get their fix was at the original — the trophy-bedecked strip mall shop down on Cantrell Road. That didn't seem quite fair to our friends north of the Arkansas River.

Well, grumble no more, North Little Rock residents! You now have your own link in the Whole Hog chain at 5107 Warden Road. Even though it's kind of a pain in the ol' Boston butt to get to — thanks to both road construction and the one-way access roads along the freeway (our advice: those headed in from Little Rock take Exit 2 and then double back under the freeway on the Warden Road Loop) — we're happy to report that the decor is better than the original, they play blues on the sound system (something sorely lacking at the Cantrell Road location) and the food has suffered no discernible dip in quality in the transfer to its second Central Arkansas home.

Inside, the Warden Road Whole Hog is pretty much a leap over the original, done up in juke joint style, with polished concrete floors, texturized and faux-finished walls, track lighting, some really cool folk art knickknacks, and a sound system belting out the greats of the Delta blues. Best of all — especially for anyone who has ever tried to find a seat at lunchtime at the Cantrell Road store — the North Little Rock location seems to be a little bigger than Whole Hog No. 1, with both more seating and more room to spread out.

While ordering is still done at the front from a board over the counter, the menu is (wisely) unchanged from the original. An old hand at ordering there — “pulled-pork-plate-make-it-a-sandwich-slaw-on-the-side-with-double-potato-salad” ($6.99, plus .20 cents to have it put on a bun) — the writer had his usual. Companion, meanwhile, also got her tried and true: barbecue chicken nachos ($5.79).

Though the machinery behind the counter isn't running quite as smooth as it does at the Cantrell location yet, we got our food fairly quickly, fizzed up some drinks at the soda machine, then adjourned to a booth in the back of the joint. As always when we go to Whole Hog, there wasn't much dinner conversation. On my sandwich, the meat was just as fine as what can be found at the original incarnation: juicy, tender and perfect (especially when paired with a splash of my favorite, I'd-tell-you-but-I'd-have-to-kill-you blend of their six sauces). Ditto on the potato salad, which has long since become my favorite potato salad in the known universe (sorry, Mom). Ditto once more on Companion's nachos, piled high with smoky, juicy chicken (though, to be honest, I've never quite gotten used to the neon-yellow, straight-from-the-can cheese they slather over their nachos. Look, fellas: this is Little Rock. When are you going to get with the program and field a presentable cheese dip?)

In short, while I wish Whole Hog would move their dessert selection beyond the motel-Bible-sized brownies they sell on the counter (a wedge of sweet 'tater pie might be nice), we found relatively little to gripe over at the North Little Rock location (OK, the canned cheese dip. And the lack of desserts. And the way the counter staff and kitchen got their wires crossed over my ticket, with the young folks at the register finally demanding to see my receipt before they'd give up my side orders. Is North Little Rock really that full of miscreants out looking to score ill-gotten potato salad?). The long and the snort of it is: with identical fare, better decor and blues tunes to scarf by, the North Little Rock Whole Hog is more than just a chip off the ol' block. If the Arkansas Highway Department ever gets the freeway over there sorted out, its might even be the piglet that finally bests its champeen papa.

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