By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Chalk it up to our unquenchable taste for pigs as the reason why The Whole Hog has taken such fast root since opening in November. Add to the equation our age-old love affair with smoked meats, and you end up with an operation that potentially kills fad diets adopted by anyone living too close to the place.
The small eatery sits on a can’t-miss-it plot at the triangular intersection of Park Boulevard at Robinson and Indiana streets. Its modest, shed-like exterior leads into a bright dining space accented by lustrous marine wood and a smattering of tables accented with fresh flowers in Mason jars.
A chalkboard menu hangs above the order counter, where the aromas of smoked pork and fresh jalapeno cornbread renders you defenseless when deciding between Carolina and Kansas-style pulled pork sandwiches, Cubanos and pork belly sliders or braised collard greens and black-eyed peas, both flavored with pork, of course.
Chef Graham Fleming nails the recipes (and others) with careful smoking techniques and zesty house-made sauces. His business partner, Chris McAfee, runs the front of the house while dispensing fresh-squeezed lemonade and house-brewed ice tea from glass kegs.
Fleming is currently sourcing his pork in individual cuts from a local distributor, but shortly down the road he plans on bringing in a whole, butchered pig every week, at which point he’ll start cranking out sausages and headcheese.
A friend and I tapped into our inner gluttons with three sandwiches and a few sides. The Carolina pork sandwich was our hands-down favorite, mainly because of the zesty mustard sauce and snappy coleslaw crowning the tender meat. Fleming says it’s been the biggest seller so far.
The “KC” pork sandwich was subtler in comparison, probably because we ate it second. The tomato-based barbecue sauce carried a dash of spice and brown sugar, allowing the medium-level smoke flavor of the pork to stand on its own. A few crunchy pickle slices tucked inside bestowed tang and texture.
My companion loved the Cubano, a nicely pressed construct layered with roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and Dijon aioli. My only complaint was that the prosciutto-style ham, which serves as a salty accent, was sliced too thick for my taste. Fleming said afterwards that it was a mishap and normally sliced thinner.
Other sandwich options include smoked turkey with arugula, bacon, cream cheese, pickled red onions and cranberry sauce (oh yes!). There is also a smoked-salmon BLT with tarragon mayo and a trio of pork belly sliders with Napa cabbage and Sriracha slaw. Also, ribs are available on Fridays and sometimes extend into Saturdays if they don’t sell out immediately.
In the meantime, I await with bated breath the promise of a Rueben coming onto the menu in the near future. A good one is hard to find these days, although I’m betting three pigs that Fleming will turn them out with flying colors.
Side dishes are served in convenient cardboard boxes. The cheesy grits were stunningly creamy, thanks to the combined forces of Gouda and Velveeta at work. The same cheese mixture is used for the mac ‘n cheese, although the sauce in that case was stiffer in comparison.
The black-eyed peas were tender and terrific. They’re cooked in pork belly fat, onions and garlic, tasting true to the versions I’ve had in my limited visits to the South, at least to this Yankee palate originally from New York state.
Lucky for us, a batch of jalapeno bread was exiting the oven shortly after we arrived. So we got it hot enough to instantly melt the butter when applying it.
As The Whole Hog grows, Fleming also plans on creating a retail space within the eatery to sell sauces, rubs and pickled vegetables. But he’s taking it one step at a time while procuring so far a well-deserved fanfare.
—Contact Frank Sabatini Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.