Wednesday, July 14, 2010

All Bite And No Bark At Hog Heaven

Some friends recently returned from a wedding in southern Ohio, from the New Philadelphia area. When I stopped by to visit with them, they told me how the wedding reception had been catered by a favorite local restaurant chain, Hog Heaven. They waxed on for quite some time about how wonderful and delicious the BBQ had been. Something odd about the name stuck in my head and then I remembered that there was a restaurant of that very same name on Cleveland Avenue on the north side of Canton. I pulled out my trusty smartphone and loaded up Google. A few key taps later, I had confirmed that the restaurant I was thinking of was the third and newest location in this local chain.

Based on my friends' glowing reviews of the food, I decided to take a closer look. While I didn't realize that there would be the advantage of lunch specials the day I decided to go, I'm glad I went when I did. The Canton location of Hog Heaven was located at 2730 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, OH 44709 and they can be reached at 330-458-0904. Their website lists menus, hours, and pretty much all the other information you'll need. Parking at the Canton location was in a lot next to the restaurant.

Here was a shot of the restaurant's roadside sign:

Once inside, I was greeted by one of the servers and quickly shown to my booth. The interior has a definite "wood" feel to it and most of the tables, chairs, and decorations were some type of stained and polyurethaned variant of what I suppose a Texas-style BBQ joint would look like. After being handed a menu, I began to look around for the best way to try the most flavors for the least amount of money.

Here was a shot of the menu:

Additionally, since I was there during lunch hours, there was an additional placard announcing daily lunch specials:

When I saw that the pulled pork sandwich was being offered with one side for only $3.99, I made a point to ask my server about it. It turns out that it was the same pulled pork sandwich listed on the menu for $8.99, but with only 1/4 pound of meat on the lunch version. While regular diners might have scoffed at only being offered a measly 1/4 pound of meat, this was perfect for someone like me. I got to try a smaller version of the original for a much smaller price.

When I asked if any of the sides were homemade, I was informed that the only homemade item was the "real mashed potatoes" (which was how the menu listed them). Everything else, my server said, already came prepared. I ended up going for the real mashed potatoes, but because my meal was so cheap, I decided to add the baked beans as well.

I also decided to order a starter. Hog Heaven, towing the same line that many mid-level family-oriented chain restaurants do, offers appetizers mostly in the $5-$9 range. Which, if you are eating with a group makes sense because that splits out into $2-$3 per person. But eating out by yourself, it discourages a lone diner because a) it's too high of a price to pay for an appetizer at a place like this and b) it's too much food for an appetizer. Nevertheless, my sudden lunch discount made me reconsider and I ordered the much spoken of and ballyhooed Prehistoric Hog Eggs. Essentially a hard-boiled egg that was batter dipped and then fried, it was eerily reminiscent of another version, Scotch eggs, that I've had in the past.

The Hog Eggs came out quickly enough paired with a traditional Buffalo chicken wing hot sauce:

The main aroma coming off this plate was due to the chicken wing sauce (which smelled vaguely similar to a Frank's Red Hot-based sauce) and the blend of seasonings sprinkled on top of the fried eggs. The most recognizable scent from the blend was oregano, which was quite nice. I cut into an egg to check out its internals:

I was shocked to discover nary a gray or green ring circumnavigating the egg yolk. Given the plethora of pre-made sides, I was a bit hesitant to assume that they hard-boiled the eggs on-site, but at the very least, the eggs that they were using were nicely cooked. The fried batter on the eggs was thin and crispy and eaten without the hot wing sauce, these were fairly tasty. I dipped a bite into the hot sauce and while the hot sauce was good, it overpowered the more delicate taste of the egg. Personally, I think I would prefer this wing sauce on, well, their chicken wings rather than these fried eggs.

After finishing up most of my Prehistoric Hog Eggs, my lunch finally arrived. Here was a shot of my pulled pork sandwich, the real mashed potatoes, and a side of the homemade barbecue sauce:

I was happy to see that the barbecue sauce came by default on the side. This meant I could add it to my taste.

The barbecue sauce was definitely tomato based and had a more acidic taste than most barbecue sauces in northeast Ohio. This I liked. Sadly, though, it was still a little too sweet for my liking. The pulled pork sandwich consisted of a buttered bun and a mound of pulled pork. I'm not quite sure why they buttered the bun as it hadn't been thrown onto a flattop to toast it. I tasted a bit of the pulled pork just by itself and while it was tender and quite juicy, I was amazed to find the complete absence of and really assertive flavors of its own. Even the smoke flavor from the smoker was barely present. I dug around through the meat to discover the complete absence of any bark. Bark, for those of you who aren't familiar with true barbecue, is the outer layer that develops on a pork shoulder that has been thoroughly covered with a dry rub. It is usually a combination of spices, sugar, and herbs and it darkens up during the smoking process.

When the fully-cooked pork is shredded, bit of the bark are incorporated into the pulled pork itself, so that every bite gets just a little bit of flavor from the dry rub. Some purists even insist that with a good enough dry rub, there really isn't even any need for "sauce." Well, as tender and juicy as this pork was, it definitely needed a flavor boost. I added a liberal amount of the supplied barbecue sauce and it definitely helped to give the sandwich some flavor.

I turned next to the real mashed potatoes. There was definitely more here going on that just boiled mashed potatoes as they had a very rich flavor that coated my tongue. Based on the slight tang I was tasting, I was guessing at a minimum butter, but possibly also sour cream or cream cheese, too. As smooth as they were, they still had small bits of potato in them just to remind you that they were homemade. They were seasoned quite nicely and I didn't have to make any adjustments.

Finally, I turned to my extra side, the baked beans:

These were decent enough and I would order them again, but there wasn't anything particularly special about them. They were a traditional ketchup and molasses/brown sugar-based baked bean and they were sauced nicely and the beans themselves were tender.

Having completed my meal, I now had two questions in my head. First, did the barbecue sauce contain high fructose corn syrup in it? Most commercially bottled sauces do and even the fine folks at Old Caroline Barbecue, despite the fact that they are a local chain operation, obviously have their sauces bottled by a big name company because each and every one of their sauces contains the stuff. When I asked for a pre-jarred bottle of their sauce, I was surprised to learn that the label didn't list the ingredients. While I know that they make the sauce from scratch, I figured if they sold it commercially bottled, they would have to list all of the ingredients. Interestingly, no. So, I asked my server directly what the sauce contained. She confirmed with the kitchen that no corn syrup of any kind was used in the sauce.

My second question was where the pulled pork came from. She quickly answered that all of the pork, brisket, and other smoked items were done at the flagship store in New Philadelphia and then transferred to the other stores. Knowing how well pulled pork holds well in the refrigerator, her answer didn't surprise me. I think I may just have to visit the original location sometime and check out their smoking rig for myself.

In the end, I think that the Hog Heaven Canton location served up a decent-enough meal. Was it the best barbecue I've ever had? No, but it was decent enough for northern Ohio. While the Hog Eggs were an interesting appetizer, the pulled pork sandwich was definitely tender and juicy. The lack of assertive flavor just didn't make my mouth water as much as I thought it should. The sides were decent and the overall experience was enjoyable. I don't know that I'd be taking someone well-versed in barbecue here to impress them, but for your average Ohioan, it's worth the trip.

Hog Heaven on Urbanspoon

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