Review: Whole Hog Cafe (Bryant)

There’s a couple of things that might shock all of you that I have to get out of the way right here at the beginning of this post: first, I’d never actually eaten at any Whole Hog Cafe location before we tried their newest location in Bryant; and second, I’m really not that big a fan of barbecue.  I know, I know, how do I dare call myself a Southern food writer and say things like that?  But to me, barbecue is one of those things that is incredibly rare to find done well and very easily found done badly – and I tend to take my charred meat products very seriously. And Whole Hog? Well, I reckon that they aren’t part of that “bad” category by any stretch of the imagination…but I can’t really put call them anything unique or spectacular.  The best thing I can say about Whole Hog Cafe is that this is a barbecue joint made for folks who like a lot of sauce on their meat, and since I’m more of a dry-rub-and-smoke kind of guy, that might be a big reason for my disinterest.

But let’s talk about some things that Whole Hog does right: they serve big sandwiches piled high with meat and topped with a generous portion of tangy cole slaw.  Now I know that some of you folks don’t like slaw on your pulled pork and shredded brisket sandwiches, and I feel real sorry for how wrong you all are.  The slaw at Whole Hog is good – crisp and sweet with just enough salty, vinegary bite to add flavor, texture, and crunch to a sandwich.  As for the meat, it’s tender and moist, and a perfect vehicle for all those different sauces on the table.  Nothing special, but it’s a serviceable sandwich that has one major thing going for it: it’s pretty cheap for the amount of food you get.  Add a side of spicy beans or maybe a few fries and you’ve got yourself a pretty satisfying meal for well under ten dollars.

Another cheap option with substantial portions is the Half Chicken dinner.  I love half-chickens at barbecue places because you get it all – white meat, dark meat, and my favorite part, the wing.  The chicken seen over there on the left had a lot going for it – it was juicy, and the skin had a nice, crisp firmness to it that I take as a sign of a well-cooked bird.  The flavor was rather mild, though, and even here it seems that the meat is simply meant as a vessel for a puddle of sauce.  Chicken is a meat that really takes to a good rub and a lot of hickory smoke, and while I liked that the meat here wasn’t dry or stringy in the least, I could have used more smoky goodness.  Again, for the price, this was an excellent deal on a decent meal, perfect for a quick lunch or a take-out dinner.  But my picky self wants the barbecue to sing, to be redolent of spice and smoke, and Whole Hog just doesn’t get there for me.  That’s certainly a matter of preference and not an issue of quality; fans of saucy barbecue will love this stuff, and it’s head and shoulders above similar places like Famous Dave’s.

Whole Hog Cafe is located at 5309 Hwy 5 North in Bryant.  They’re open for lunch and dinner, and have a very reasonable price per pound on take-out barbecue.

Whole Hog Cafe on Urbanspoon

Snack Time: Dulces Mexicanos

I’ve been of a mind to do a series of snack reviews here on the blog for two main reasons: I need stuff to write about, and more importantly, I love snacks – especially candy.  Of course, it wouldn’t make much sense to review common snacks like Doritos or Snickers bars since pretty much everybody with a steady body temperature knows what those taste like. So instead, I’m seeking out some less well-known snacks; and since the owner of the local gas station I frequent has decided to stock an entire section of candy straight from Mexico, that’s where we’ll begin.

El Azteca Palanqueta de Cacahuate, or as the translation so helpfully puts it: “Peanuts Patty.”  This is basically peanut brittle, although the caramelized sugar that holds the peanuts together has a richer, more toasted favor to it than most American peanut brittle which I found to be rather tasty.  It wasn’t quite as crisp as a piece of peanut brittle, though, and it could have used that little extra crunch.  I’m not the biggest fan of peanut brittle, but this wasn’t bad at all, although the large disk shape makes for awkward eating – biting it means picking up four hundred thousand sticky peanuts off your shirt, while breaking it up in the package means picking those same peanuts up off the floor as soon as you open it.

Skwinkles Clasicos – This was my favorite out of all the candy I tried.  The ones pictured above are “chamoy” flavor (a flavor derived from pickled fruit) – but in this case the flavor was the classic “red” flavor – not quite cherry, not really strawberry, just “red.”  In appearance, the Skwinkles look like sour punch straws, but on closer inspection flecks of what look like red pepper can be detected – which is exactly what’s going on here: a sour punch straw with a kick of chili heat to match the sweet/tart flavor of the candy.  These have earned a permanent spot in my candy repertoire.

Mazapan Azteca, or as I like to call it, “vaguely peanut flavored sadness.”  I’m still not quite sure what to make of this candy.  The texture is soft, crumbly, and for lack of a better word, dusty.  To put it another way, Mazapan Azteca is like eating peanut butter dirt.  I dug around on YouTube and found a commercial for this stuff – there’s a kid at the end who takes a big bite of candy and says “Mmm! Me gusta!” That kid is obviously insane.  Give this stuff out for Halloween only if you have an insurance policy that pays double if your house is firebombed by angry kids in Star Wars costumes.

Lucas Gusano Hot Liquid Candy – And here I’ve saved the strangest for last.  I’m not even sure what to say about these bottles of liquid candy.  I’m not even sure that they are candy, despite the bottle’s assurances.  I purchased two flavors of Lucas Gusano Hot Liquid Candy, chamoy (which worked out so well with the Skwinkles) and tamarind, a flavor based on a type of date.  And the taste?  Salty, slightly spicy, sweet, sour – sort of like drinking the tears of a diabetic Satan.  This tastes like the result of a bunch of drunk people running low on liquor and deciding to just mix everything they’ve got left with the remains of the ice in the cooler and call it punch – whiskey, beer, bong water, Worcestershire sauce, expired orange juice, Love’s Baby Soft perfume, and that bottle of pink Himalayan salt mom was saving to use on “something special.”  My best recommendation for the Lucas Gusano is to keep a bottle in your pocket the next time you know you’re going to be playing “Truth or Dare.”  Just be sure to use it on somebody you didn’t want to remain friends with.

Well there you have it, an overview of a few South-of-the-Border treats.  My final results are mixed: the Skwinkles were awesome and I highly recommend them.  The Peanut Patty wasn’t quite my thing, but it was still tasty and perfect for peanut brittle lovers.  Mazapan Azteca wasn’t disgusting, it was just so bland and flavorless that I don’t see the point – you could easily get the same effect by making a peanut butter sandwich with old chalkboard erasers in place of the bread.  The Lucas Gusano was nothing less than a horrid Island of Dr. Moreau perversion of a candy that should be avoided at all costs.  Stick around, though, as I’m constantly on the look out for new snacks to try – and I think my next visit is going to be to the local Asian market.  Stay tuned!

Quick Bite: White Truffle and Pecorino Burger

Today’s Quick Bite review comes to us courtesy of West Little Rock’s best burger joint, Big Orange.  We’ve had our ups and downs with the service at Big Orange over the years, but if there’s one thing that’s always been stellar, it’s the food.  Out of all their tasty burgers, my personal favorite is the White Truffle and Pecorino: a juicy patty of 100% Black Angus beef topped with thick slices of pecorino cheese, crisp arugula, sweet fig jam, white truffle, and mayo served on a fluffy, chewy bun with just the right balance of softness  for texture and toughness to hold up to all those toppings.  The flavors working here are spectacular with the savory seasoned beef transformed into something else entirely by the sweet and earthy play of the jam, truffle, and cheese.  Be warned, though: this burger is large and very rich, so don’t hesitate to split one with a friend – that’ll just give you more room to try some of Big Orange’s excellent fries, shakes, or sample one of their very respectable selection of draft beers.  There are a lot of so-called gourmet burgers in Little Rock charging accordingly: the White Truffle and Pecorino at Big Orange is one of the few that live up to the name.  Enjoy!

Best Tuna Salad

Tuna salad.  The mere phrase is almost sure to conjure up images of crumpled brown bags and apathetic diner sandwiches.  But be of good cheer: tuna salad doesn’t have to be that way.  Made with a little time and some quality ingredients, boring tuna salad can become something that you’ll not only enjoy – it’ll become something you crave.  This method takes just a little more time than the average method of dumping some tuna, mayonnaise, and pickle relish into a bowl and stirring, but the results are so tasty that it’s completely worth it.  This salad can be enjoyed as a sandwich (as we’ve done here), or with crackers, on lettuce leaves, or as a filling for celery stalks.

Michael’s Best Tuna Salad

  • 2 cans of good tuna packed in oil.  I like Cento brand packed in olive oil – the tuna is tastier than regular store brands without being too expensive.  The Starkist pouches packed in sunflower oil are also good in a pinch.
  • 2 eggs, hard-boiled (method below)
  • 2 tablespoons capers, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons kosher dill pickle, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon shallots, minced
  • 1 tablespoon celery, minced
  • 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon pickle brine or Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

To boil your eggs, place them in a saucepan and fill until eggs are covered by an inch of water.  Bring the water to a boil and allow to boil for 2 minutes.  Remove the eggs from the heat and cover; allow the eggs to sit for 15 minutes.  Transfer them to an ice bath for 5-10 minutes.  This slower method of cooking makes for a more luscious mouth feel to the whites and creamier yolks.  While the eggs are setting up, drain your tuna in a colander, then place in a mixing bowl.

When the eggs have cooled, separate the whites from the yolks.  Chop the whites as coarse or fine as you’d like and add them to the tuna.  Mix the yolks with the mayonnaise, capers, shallots, pickle, vinegar, pickle brine or mustard, celery, and just a dash of freshly ground pepper until the yolks are incorporated and smooth.  Stir this dressing into your tuna mixture until well blended.  If added crunch or texture is desired, add some diced apple, pecans, pine nuts, or walnuts and allow to chill for at least an hour in the fridge.  Serve on a crusty baguette with fresh greens and tomato – and enjoy!

Quick Bite: Sticky Fingerz Sammich

I’d like to introduce all of you to a new feature on Arkansas Foodies: the Quick Bite.  We try a lot of different things, but we don’t always have enough material for a full restaurant review – which is a shame, because there are plenty of times where we eat something tasty that’s worth sharing.  The Quick Bite solves that problem, because this feature is limited to reviewing just one dish from a local restaurant.  So without further expository nonsense, let’s get on with the inaugural Quick Bite: the Sticky Fingerz Sammich.

This sandwich takes what Stickyz does best – fried chicken fingers – and crams them into a hoagie roll with mozzarella and cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, and what the menu calls “creamy dill dressing” (and what us normals call “ranch”).  It’s simple, completely unchallenging to the palate – and completely delicious.  The chicken is moist and juicy, breaded just right and fried to a crisp.  The bread is substantial and holds up well beneath the weight of all that chicken and cheese but it doesn’t get in the way of the flavors.   It’s a good, solid chicken sandwich; and for under eight bucks, it’s a great deal.  Add a batch of fries with it if only to experience the spicy ketchup.

Stickyz Rock n’ Roll Chicken Shack is located at 107 River Market Avenue in the Little Rock River Market.  In addition to the kickin’ chicken, they’ve been known to have a show or two. Enjoy!

Simple Homemade Cheese

While most of us might not have the proper set-up in our homes to store and age cheese, there are some cheeses that are ideal for the home cook to make and enjoy.  The most common of these cheeses is sometimes called farmer cheese, and is similar to the fresh cheese used in Indian cuisine known as paneer.  Unlike cheese made with rennet, this cheese is made by utilizing an acid to precipitate the curds from the milk.  The resulting curds are then wrapped in a cheese cloth and allowed to drain.  What I like about this cheese, apart from its fresh flavor, is that the consistency of the final product is something that you can judge for yourself – it all just depends on how much moisture you remove from the cheese.  Farmer cheese is a mild, slightly tangy cheese, and this means it is perfect for pairing with bolder flavors such as olive oil, red pepper, sun-dried tomatoes, or even honey or fruit preserves.  Best of all, you probably already have almost everything you need to get started.  This recipe makes between 1-2 cups, so feel free to increase it as you’d like to get a better yield.

Farmer Cheese

  • 1/2 gallon whole milk
  • 2 cups buttermilk. The acidity of the buttermilk will help form our curds, and it adds good flavor.
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar OR 1/4 cup lemon juice. Both acids make for a difference in flavor, so try both and see which you like better.
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • (Optional) Fresh herbs such as basil, cilantro, or dill.

Heat the milk slowly in a heavy-bottomed pan.  I have an electric stove-top, and I kept my burner on around 3; the goal here is to not scorch the milk.  Heat the milk to 180 degrees – this is just before the milk begins to simmer; stir frequently.  I used a candy thermometer to track the temperature, but if you don’t have one, stop heating the milk when small bubbles begin to form around the edges of your pan.  When the milk has reached temperature, remove it from the heat and add your vinegar/lemon juice and add your buttermilk in a steady stream, stirring constantly.  You should see curds forming in the milk mixture very quickly.  Once the curds begin to form, allow the mixture to sit undisturbed for ten minutes – afterward, it will look something like this:

If that doesn’t look very appetizing you to, don’t worry – it gets better.  You’ll have quite a lot of what looks like (and basically is) very wet cottage cheese floating in a yellowish liquid.  That liquid is called whey, and we want to get quite a bit of it out of our curds to make a nice, solid cheese.  To do this, place a large strainer over a stock pot and line it with several layers of rinsed cheesecloth.  Ladle the curds into the cheesecloth, letting the whey seep through to the stock pot below.  Let the mixture sit for another ten minutes to let much of the whey drain.  Add your salt at this point and herbs (if you’re doing herbs).  Once you’ve done this, you have a couple of options:  you can tie the cheese cloth off to the neck of your faucet and let drain for another half-hour to result in a soft, spreadable cheese with a consistency of ricotta; or you can let the cheese drain for that half-hour, then weight it down (I used cans on a plate) and force more water out, resulting in a cheese that is still soft, but firm and sliceable.

As for serving suggestions, they’re limited only by your imagination.  Like I said before, this is a mild cheese that takes to added flavor very nicely.  For our first batch, we sprinkled the cheese with freshly ground black pepper, a few red pepper flakes, and drizzled the lot with a very fruity olive oil.  Folks with a sweet tooth might enjoy pairing this cheese with strawberries, peaches, or just a drizzle of honey.  If you let your cheese drain under the weights for a few hours, you’ll wind up with true paneer, an excellent additive to many curries.  Left soft, the cheese can be used in almost any application where you might use ricotta, including lasagne or desserts.

Cheese making is true kitchen alchemy, and this soft, fresh cheese is a fun and simple way to turn one set of ingredients into something completely different.  And don’t toss that whey – we’ve got some things coming up for you to do with that! Enjoy!

What’s Going On

Sushi and ramen from Sky Modern Japanese Restaurant

Some of you wonderful regular readers have been asking me lately: where the heck have you BEEN? And it’s true – I haven’t been able to post anything at all in longer than I feel comfortable with, so I thought I’d share a few pictures with everybody and catch you all up on what’s happening in Arkansas Foodies-land.

As many of you may know, I’ve recently begun contributing some reviews and posts to the Arkansas Times through their print edition and their Eat Arkansas blog, and Jess has been contributing some photographs.  Because that’s an actual paying gig and this blog is not, I’m afraid that a lot of my spare time has been taken up with trying to hunt down content for over there.  I think I’m getting the hang out of trying for increased production (at least I hope so) – which should allow me to resume regular posting here.  Since Eat Arkansas is focused mostly on restaurants, festivals, and foodie news, we still need a place to talk about all the things we cook and love to eat – not to mention talk about the places we go that are outside central Arkansas.

Pate sandwich from Hillcrest Artisan Meats

We’ve been extremely happy getting to know all of you over the past couple of years – this whole food-writing thing really started off as a fun chance to combine my love of writing with Jess’ love of photography by focusing on a subject we both love – food.  It’s an exciting time to be a foodie in Arkansas, because we’re really at the beginning of a renaissance in food and food culture.  There have always been great places to eat in the state, but the people of Arkansas are now demanding more from their food purveyors, growers, and vendors.  People in this state are growing ever more adventurous in their appetites – and the chefs and shopkeepers are listening.

Mason jar of flowers on The Food Truck’s dashboard

I’d like to thank each and every one of you who have clicked on of our stories over the years, who have posted a comment (be sure to do that over on Eat Arkansas, too!) and who have sent encouraging e-mails, tweets, and Facebook messages.  We aren’t going anywhere – and we’re gearing up to get back into the kitchen and start cooking it up.  It’s the beginning of the farmers market season, and with the Hillcrest, River Market, Argenta, and new SoMa farmers markets all gearing up we’re sure to find some interesting things to make.  I’ve got plans to talk some about everything from foie gras to kombucha, from sushi to fried okra – so I hope that you all will keep checking back for what we’ve got coming.  Be sure to keep cool with hot weather around the corner (we recommend some Loblolly ice cream) and be sure to keep sending us your recipes, restaurant suggestions, and foodie news.  We’re planning on being at the Bernice Garden on May 10th for the Savory Pantry Tweet Up, so we hope you’ll all stop by and say hello.  And remember:  cook well, eat well, and BE well.  Cheers!