Forget about taking your vegan friend to Hoggy's: The name's carnivorous connotations alone will put her off her wheat grass and granola for at least a week. On the other hand, you may have to beat off the meat-eaters with a stick when you mention that you're on your way to this southern-style barbecue palace in Valley View, near the banks of the Ohio & Erie Canal.
Rife with dishes like the "3 Little Pigs" (a sampler platter of pulled pork, pulled chicken, and beef brisket sandwiches), "Big Ol' Fish" (a battered-and-fried-grouper sandwich), and "The Ultimate Smoked Meat Platter" (a mind-boggling array of ribs, kielbasa, Italian smoked sausage, and beef brisket), the menu is an unapologetic celebration of the flesh. And if there's slim pickings for vegetarian types, the kitchen happily accommodates the Atkins crowd by holding the bread, sauce, and potatoes on command on many of these items.
The manly menu is the creation of four Columbus-area guys who had previously honed their entrepreneurial chops during successful forays into the restaurant and sporting-goods biz. Their first Hoggy's installation opened in Cowtown in 1991; the Valley View location, launched in 2002, is restaurant No. 6, as well as being the first outpost beyond the bounds of central Ohio. (Plans call for another northeastern Ohio Hoggy's to open in Westlake's Crocker Park this fall, as well as for eventual expansion into Cincinnati, Dayton, and Kentucky.)
The Valley View spot is also the company's first honest-to-goodness red "barn," complete with eight-foot cupolas, piggy weather vanes, and a 1938 Farmall tractor suspended from the 36-foot ceiling. There's a windmill out front, a smoker out back, and inside, the meandering dining room and bar that holds as many as 400 diners at a time. (There is also a covered, wraparound porch, just right for outdoorsy folk.)
Despite the impressive square footage, the restaurant is surprisingly comfortable, with spacious tables, sturdy seating, and lots of visual warmth from the liberal use of such materials as weathered "barn siding," old brick, and roughly mortared stone. A free-standing fireplace and its soaring chimney serve as a room divider; tall-backed booths feel like snug little stalls; and for the ultimate in intimacy, diners can try to snag one of the round tables nestled inside the three false silos that separate the dining area from the kitchen.
Whimsy abounds, too, in the form of tall faux flowers crafted from rusted metal and tractor parts, an American flag made out of bottle caps, and the series of colorful, cartoon-style murals tripping across the walls, depicting Disneyesque overall-and-bandanna-clad porcine critters traveling on canal boats, frolicking in their gardens, and hefting whiskey barrels inside the old Dunham Tavern. Yet just when a diner might start to feel it's all just a wee (wee wee) bit too cute, he or she can find at least a whiff of stylistic relief in the black-garbed servers, the contemporary halogen pendant lamps, and the pop tunes (no hoe-down riffs here) playing in the background.
As with the ambiance, Hoggy's food is familiar, comfortable, and -- while varied enough to avoid boredom -- mostly nonchallenging. Pork, beef, and chicken dominate; nearly everything is grilled, smoked, or battered and fried; and flavors, while generally fresh and straightforward, never venture beyond the pleasantly piquant.
The smoked-barbecue technique -- applied to such cuts as meaty, moist baby-back ribs; heavily marbled prime rib; and plump chicken wings, buttery and succulent inside their crisp brown skins -- results in enticing aromas and deeply earthy tastes. The real fun, however, comes from experimenting with Hoggy's various homemade barbecue sauces. The signature sweet-sharp mustard-based sauce sits on every table, along with ketchup and Texas Pete's Hot Sauce; but friendly, attentive servers will produce several other varieties when asked, and dipping, dabbing, and comparing the assorted flavors is instructive. For the amply endowed pulled-pork sandwiches, for instance, we discovered that the slightly vinegary Carolina-style sauce is boss; for those jumbo wings, the not-too-hot "hot" sauce, with its echo of Buffalo-style Tabasco and butter, is right as rain. The aromatic Jamaican sauce delivers its featherweight punch from inside a cocoon of fruity sweetness, making it a proper companion to pork and wings. (For a little more oomph, try adding a few drops of the hot sauce, too.) But the childishly sweet barbecue sauce tasted like sugary ketchup, and the raw, bitter-garlic notes of the honey-garlic sauce seemed off-putting and odd.
Throughout the summer, Thursday night means "pig-roast buffet" at Hoggy's, and a heaping helping of the meltingly lush pork, either in a bun or slapped down on the plate, is the perfect medium for serious barbecue-sauce experimentation. Beyond the excellent pork, the all-you-can-eat spread also includes a variety of homemade sides -- sour-cream-and cheddar-enhanced macaroni and cheese, for instance, or perhaps chunky red-skinned-potato salad, along with sleek collard greens, sweetish coleslaw (perfect for piling on a pulled-pork sandwich, as they do down South), predictably bland corn on the cob, and fresh grapes and melon slices, as well as cute (but otherwise unmemorable) muffin-sized pineapple upside-down cakes. (But if young 'uns are among your posse, you might want to have a preparatory, pre-pig-roast word with them: The star of the show's handsome roasted carcass is on prominent display at the head of the buffet line, complete with maraschino-cherry eyes and a shiny red apple stuffed inside his gaping maw!)
The long list of side dishes -- available à la carte, as well as with most of the menu's entrées and sandwiches -- also makes for some amusing mix-'n'-match opportunities. Those who dig the savory flavor of smoky, thoroughly baked beans will love chowing down on the kitchen's dark, bacon-piqued version; while the fluffy whipped sweet potatoes, seasoned with brown sugar, will surely satisfy a sweet tooth. Soufflé-like creamed spinach tastes surprisingly sophisticated; and if that aforementioned mac and cheese isn't zesty enough on its own, try it decked out in a bit of beefy chili and extra cheddar cheese (PJ's chili-mac), for a little bit of rustic luxe. In fact, with all these other options, the sort-of-limp onion rings and the freshly cut but bland French fries (ordered without the optional "fry spice," which might have perked things up) seemed surprisingly run-of-the-mill.
Speaking of surprises, Hoggy's also offers a remarkably complete selection of booze, ranging from frothy frozen concoctions (such as the yummy but impotent $5.25 Miami Vice, a half-and-half layering of strawberry daiquiri and piña colada, topped with whipped cream and a cherry) to the somewhat more virile 10 Grand Martini ($5.20), made with tippy-top-shelf Tanqueray Ten, Grand Marnier, and pineapple juice. There are also 22-ounce drafts, spirituous coffees, and a small listing of inexpensive, mostly West Coast wines.
For a final taste of sweetness, Hoggy's kitchen bakes up a variety of cakes, pies, and ice-cream-topped brownies. Prices are reasonable, and portions are super-sized -- for instance, the pecan-studded ultimate brownie, topped with vanilla ice cream, chocolate and caramel sauces, and, inexplicably, a giant waffle cone, could have easily served three. And a massive wedge of triple-layered, super-sweet red velvet cake would have been enough to satiate the cravings of a small herd of sugar-holics.
The best Carolina-style barbecue we've ever tasted comes from the landmark Beacon Drive In, outside Spartanburg, South Carolina, where the hickory-smoked pork and thin, vinegary sauce, scented with nutmeg and cloves, has turned barbecued piggy into a sacred cow for thousands of devoted diners. So while Hoggy's glossy menu carefully promises "The Best Southern Cookin' in the North," we feel obliged to note that it pales in comparison to the real deal. On the other hand, Hoggy's is not 600 miles and 10 hours away, so barbecue fans may be willing to compromise. In other words, Hoggy's barbecue may not be the best in the country, but we're confident that Farmer Hoggett would second us when we declare: It'll do, pig, it'll do.
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