An Enchanting Barbecue Experience
Photography by Janet Warlick
[dropcap]Warmer[/dropcap] weather tends to beckon a desire for barbecue’s savory flavors and sharable sides as friends and families gather on patios for dining fun. That’s just what guests to the Whole Hog Café in North Little Rock will find. The café’s patio, embellished by a brightly painted outside wall mural, is just around the corner, and it’s a perfect setting to enjoy barbecue and brew.
In the restaurant business, owner Rich Cosgrove said, everyone strives to provide good service and serve good food. “To make a restaurant different from the rest you have to have the ‘pixie dust,’” he said. “The space has to envelope you. This is more than the hospitality industry, more than the food business. I like to say we have enchantment served daily.”
Immediately upon walking inside the restaurant, the unmistakable smell of smoked meat overwhelms the senses. To the right is a wall filled with awards and photos of Cosgrove and his wife, Nancy, with Pres. Bill and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other well-known figures, such as Jimmy Buffett. Pig-related trinkets are common throughout the welcoming atmosphere — some collected by the Cosgroves and others gifts from customers’ travels. Located close to the Little Rock Air Force Base, the restaurant is a popular barbecue spot for military personnel. On one wall is a “patch board” with various military patches from all over, Cosgrove said.
Barbecue pitmaster Rozchea Butler, a former professional wrestler and gifted poet, has been with the Cosgroves from the beginning and is always thinking of ways to improve the barbecue craft. With premium cuts of meat, Butler hand rubs and trims each piece, cures it until it’s just right and then slow-smokes the meat over pecan wood. From Butler to the jovial frontline crew, more than three tons of “competition-style” meat funnel up to the front window and into customers’ hands each week. Competition meaning the meat doesn’t fall off the bone until it’s touched by fingers or the mouth, Cosgrove said, who has been on the barbecue competition team Earthquake since his early 20s.
“I became fascinated as a young man with the ancient technology of the preservation and enhancement of meat through smoking, curing and drying,” he said, adding that Nancy didn’t become “hooked” until he dragged her to the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in 2003 as a member of the team.
The restaurant was a natural progression of the Cosgroves’ passion for barbecue. This July marks their ninth anniversary in business. Nancy, who chaired the Little Rock Marathon in March, keeps the vision alive while Rich is the executor, he said. A diving pig is the restaurant’s logo. When the two were dating, Nancy sent Rich a postcard depicting a pig diving into a body of water reminiscent of an Arkansas landscape. The image is now displayed in a painting that hangs on one of the restaurant walls among the many pieces of special memorabilia.
“That diving pig represents us diving off into the unknown muck with sheer exuberance,” he said.
When guests leave the barbecue joint, they appear satisfied and happy. As Cosgrove sat at a table describing the assortment of meats on the plate, he constantly was interrupted by complimentary words from regulars. They especially marveled at the large beef ribs, a specialty on Tuesdays. The ribs — both beef and pork — are so flavorful and juicy that they don’t require sauce, but any one of the eight sauces made in-house is a nice complement to any meal. This Whole Hog still serves the original Shack barbecue sauce, with its lighter consistency of just the right amount of vinegar and spice.
Pulled pork is the “star of the show,” Cosgrove said, adding that he sells more than two tons a week. The homemade desserts and variety of soups, which aren’t on the menu, like the “Baja chicken” featuring Butler’s crowd-favorite smoked chicken, are also popular choices. At Thanksgiving, smoked turkeys are available. Also unique to this Whole Hog location are the beef ribs, dry-rubbed ribs, sausage, and salads — using healthier greens like arugula and butter leaf lettuce — and the ever-changing assortment of craft beers. Add-ons like fresh pickles, onions and jalapenos sliced fresh daily help give the place its flair. Free Starbucks coffee is even available. The endless candy bowl accessible year-round deserves mention, and for tea connoisseurs, there are freshly cut lemons and fresh mint when it’s in season.
For the waistline-conscious customer, Cosgrove said his restaurant can be an ideal dining choice. “Current science, and fitness and nutrition gurus, seem to favor some type of Paleo plan, meaning lots of vegetables, a moderate amount of meat and the right types of fat,” he said. “What really puts the pounds on are sugar, starches and other simple carbs.” Bread, and the candy jar, can easily be avoided for more health-conscious consumers, he said, “but it really is all about moderation, and we’re pleased with the variety of foods we offer.”
With a background in engineering, Cosgrove quickly realized how many different parts it takes to operate a restaurant. “There are so many factors in this business that have to work together precisely like a Swiss watch,” he said. Twenty-four employees work for him, and no one is above busing a table. “We have worked hard to develop a culture, a self-weeding, self-cultivating garden if you will. Coach John Wooden said: ‘The two things you can’t coach are height and heart.’ To us, those are character and attitude. We know what to do and we get it done.”
This work environment makes Whole Hog more than a place to eat. “It’s become a community, a meeting place, a comfort zone,” Cosgrove said. “It’s a great place to conduct business. We host at least one large military or other party almost every day.” And their work goes beyond the restaurant’s decorated walls with their catering business and philanthropic work — they cater six events per day and donate food to nonprofit organizations and the homeless.
The special place they’ve created and the people who fill that space every day motivate the Cosgroves.
“In the morning, it’s like Ward and June Cleaver coming down to the breakfast nook — our employees are our family, and everybody is happy to see everyone else,” he said. “And there’s that incredible smell that hits you when you walk in. When the customers come in, the buzz, the vibe, really takes off. It’s just a really fun place to hang out, work, play and eat.”
It truly is enchanting.
Whole Hog Café – North Little Rock
5107 Warden Road / North Little Rock
501.753.9227 / wholehogcafenlr.com
Mon. through Thu., 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Fri. through Sat., 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sun., 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.