Some of the best BBQ in the 505? Probably. Pulled Pork is King.
As we walked toward the Whole Hog Cafe from the parking lot, I noticed that the logo pig on the roof sign looked vaguely familiar. We entered, placed our order at the counter, and headed for a table. On the wall near our table was a poster from the Brandywine River Museum of Jamie Wyeth’s famous oil painting Portrait of a Pig.
Humor me while I descend into nostalgia and a bit of a travelogue. This is the poster that is on the wall.When we lived back East in Burtonsville, MD, we often would take day trips to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA. The slow (but beautiful) drive started in Laurel, MD, home of one of my favorite diners (The Tastee Diner), a chrome-and-linoleum redneck place with a walkthrough to a cowboy bar where everybody smokes unfiltered Camels, and ended just east of the Brandywine River where there sits another of my favorite diners, Hanks Place. Hank’s was a favorite of the Wyeths—a hangout for them and the locals. And yeah, the food is great in both these places. So this was a diner-to-dined drive along often picturesque and sometimes ugly Route US 1, the road that goes from Key West to Maine.
Along the way, we passed through Baltimore (stop for a crabcake—everyplace is good), Belair, past the historic Scott Family Octagon House, across the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna, past Kennett Square, PA, the Mushroom Capital of the World where the Phillips Inn and Mushroom Museum (now closed) was a regular stop for a Mushroom Burger, and on to the Brandywine River Museum, which we always called The Wyeth’s Museum.
The Brandywine River Museum houses a magnificent collection of not only the prolific Wyeths, but also others of the area and period such as Howard Pyle. Exhibiting American art in a 19th-century grist mill, the Brandywine River Museum is internationally known for its unparalleled collection of works by three generations of Wyeths and its fine collection of American illustration, still life and landscape painting.
Newell Convers Wyeth was born on October 22, 1882, in Needham, Massachusetts. On the advice of two friends, artists Clifford Ashley and Henry Peck, Wyeth decided to travel to Wilmington, Delaware, in October 1902, to join the Howard Pyle School of Art. Howard Pyle, one of the country’s most renowned illustrators, left a teaching position at Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry in Philadelphia to open his own school of illustration in Wilmington. Pyle was an inspired teacher and Wyeth an attentive pupil. The master emphasized the use of dramatic effects in painting and the importance of sound, personal knowledge of one’s subject, teachings Wyeth quickly assimilated and employed throughout his career. The astute young man recognized the value of Pyle’s instruction, writing to his mother just after his arrival, “the composition lecture…opened my eyes more than any talk I ever heard.” In less than five months, Wyeth successfully submitted a cover illustration to the Saturday Evening Post.Although known primarily as an illustrator, N.C. was a superb artist.
He sired a large family, most of whom became highly successful artists. His dynasty has been compared to that of J.S. Bach: the master begat an unbelievably good lineage of some of the finest talent of the period.
Andrew Wyeth was the youngest of the five children of illustrator and artist N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth and his wife, Carolyn Bockius Wyeth.In 1937, at age twenty, Wyeth had his first one-man exhibition of watercolors at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City. The entire inventory of paintings sold out, and his life path seemed certain. His style was different from his father’s: more spare, “drier,” and more limited in color range. He stated his belief that “…the great danger of the Pyle school is picture-making.” He did some book illustrations in his early career, but not to the extent that N.C. Wyeth did.
Wyeth was a visual artist, primarily classified as a realist painter, like Winslow Homer or Eakins. In a “Life Magazine” article in 1965, Wyeth said that although he was thought of as a realist, he thought of himself as an abstractionist: “My people, my objects breathe in a different way: there’s another core — an excitement that’s definitely abstract. My God, when you really begin to peer into something, a simple object, and realize the profound meaning of that thing — if you have an emotion about it, there’s no end.”
He worked predominantly in a regionalist style. In his art, Wyeth’s favorite subjects were the land and people around him, both in his hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and at his summer home in Cushing, Maine.
Dividing his time between Pennsylvania and Maine, Wyeth maintained a realist painting style for over fifty years. He gravitated to several identifiable landscape subjects and models. His solitary walks were the primary means of inspiration for his landscapes. He developed an extraordinary intimacy with the land and sea and strove for a spiritual understanding based on history and unspoken emotion. He typically created dozens of studies on a subject in pencil or loosely brushed watercolor before executing a finished painting, either in watercolor, drybrush (a watercolor style in which the water is squeezed from the brush), or egg tempera.
Jamie Wyeth has since adolescence attracted considerable attention as a third-generation American artist: son of Andrew Wyeth, among the country’s most popular painters, and the grandson of Newell Convers Wyeth, famous for his distinctive illustrations for the classic novels by Stevenson, Cooper, and Scott. “Everybody in my family paints – excluding possibly the dogs,” says Jamie Wyeth. And non-human subjects are a common theme: long a sensitive observer of his rural surroundings, he paints livestock and other animals with the same care and intensity he devotes to portraits of people. He won precocious fame, in fact, with Portrait of Pig, his picture of a pink and white sow. The technical facility Wyeth showed even in his early work helps explain why his first one-man show in New York happened when he was only 20, and a retrospective in Omaha, Nebraska, occurred before his 30th birthday.
OK. Back to the Whole Hog Cafe.
So, is the food any good? I think it is among the best BBQ in ABQ. Standard choices are available—ribs, pork, chicken, brisket, and so forth. We, both being on our Dukan diets, ordered without sides, so I don’t know if the beans or slaw are any good. We would have had a side if greens were available. Jane had a salad smothered with pulled pork and I had a two-meat combo with pulled pork and sliced brisket. The brisket was slightly dry, but with a fine smoky taste. I prefer brisket with a bit of fat in it, but Jane liked it a lot.
The pulled pork is another story. It is among the best versions of pulled pork I have had anyplace. Moist and smoky, it is a real taste treat. Delicate taste without being over the top. The slightly charred and crusty rind has a spicy rub and is unbelievably good. The only better version that I can remember was found in redneck rural Georgia outside Milledgeville in an off-the-road ramshackle smokehouse where the grinning toothless smoker said, “Dig in. Grab what you want.” The pig was belly up on a table, so we did.
Jane’s salad consisted of crisp, fresh greens with some carrot curls. Dressing came out of a Paul Newnan packet. Good, but not great. But there was a huge amount of pulled pork piled atop the greens. Don’t pour any of the six available sauces on this salad: the sauces are way too strong for the greens.
There are 6 (or 7) delicious sauces f or your barbecues. I recommend that you get another plate and pour a puddle of each into it. Don’t pour the sauces directly on the meats. Some may overpower the delicate smokiness of the meats (especially the wonderful pulled pork).
- Sauce No. 1: Sweet, mild, molasses.
- Sauce No. 2: Traditional tomato, vinegar, slightly tangy.
- Sauce No. 3: Same as No. 2, but much spicier!
- Sauce No. 4: Traditional Southern vinegar & spice.
- Sauce No. 5: Sweet, heavy, molasses.
- Sauce No. 6: Rich mustard & vinegar, Old South favorite.
“Volcano”: Available at the counter. Ask. Similar to #4, but very spicy. I like it.
How does Whole Hog Cafe stack up against the competition? First you need to know that Whole Hog is part of a chain (sorry, Ryan) headquartered in Arkansas. The chain has consistently won championship prizes over the last ten years or so. Much of the barbecue in ABQ is pretty lame stuff. Now that Mad Max’s in Rio Rancho, the very best BBQ in the area, is closed (sigh), my new favorite has become Gary West’s Smokehouse in Rio Rancho. They do brisket very well. County line is just passable, but the view and the music can give it a small edge, if that’s your bag. Johndhi’s on Rio Grande Blvd is very good. Powdrell’s on Fourth is very good and has by far the best sides around. Fantastic greens done right. Quarters is terrible. Whole hog is better than most, but the pulled pork is sensational. I like it with tiny splashes of the Sauce # 3.
What can Whole Hog do to rise above the rest? Serve greens. Serve cornbread made with pork fat—preferably from the mangalitsa (wooly pig). Open a place on the West side near Corrales [ a waiter told me that this may happen]. I would go there once a week for that superb pulled pork.
Whole Hog Cafe ABQ
Whole Hog Cafe Santa Fe
Added November 23, 2011
320 S Guadalupe St
Santa Fe, NM 87501