By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1998 Gourmet Magazine
Arkansas is roadfood-rich. From the oil fields of El Dorado in the south to the Ozark Highlands Trail through the mountains in the north, inconspicuous town cafés serve expertly fried chicken followed by flaky-crust pie. Alongside lakes and rivers throughout the state are rustic fish camps that feature eat-’til-you-drop catfish and hush-puppy feasts every evening—CATFISH N in Dardanelle and FRED’S FISH HOUSE in Mountain Home are two of the most popular. In the cities, you’ll find some of the Southland’s finest cafeterias, like FRANKE’S in Little Rock, where southern-style vegetables are served in abundance alongside ham and hot corn bread.
The most seductive country cooking in the Natural State is barbecue, a fact we reconfirmed on a recent eating tour that took us from the vintage health resort of Hot Springs up into the misty climes of the Ozark Mountains. Although superficially similar to the smokehouse fare east of the Mississippi River—pork sandwiches hereabout often include the layer of coleslaw de rigueur on a Memphis sandwich, and many restaurants serve that Memphis oddity, barbecue salad—Arkansas hickory-cooked pork is uniquely zesty and most often accompanied by extraordinary beans and/or potatoes.
The best place to appreciate the style of the local pitmasters is MCCLARD’S BAR-B-Q. Started in 1928 with a precious recipe that Alex and Gladys McClard accepted in lieu of rent from a tenant at their Hot Springs tourist court, McClard’s has become Arkansas’s premier house of barbecue. To call the old white-washed stucco building a busy operation does not begin to describe the ebullience of the place every evening as Q-hounds line up at all three entryways waiting for an open table or counter seats. There is no waitlist; regulars know to grab a booth when one opens up, and, amazingly, the non-system works. There can be a certain amount of hovering—the overly eager muscling through a door and toward a table where customers look like they are almost finished eating—but even the hungriest hoverers appear polite enough to hold back until the table is actually vacated.
Through the pandemonium the veteran waitresses of McClard’s shoulder their way, toting plates piled high with smoke-perfumed pork.
“Didn’t I know you when I was a child?” asks one middle-aged woman who has managed to secure a booth with her husband and two teenage boys.
“Yes,” says Wyona, a good ol’ gal with thirty-six years of waitressing under her belt and a talent for pushing through the dining room like a Razorback line-man. “I used to bring you half-spreads.”
“Why, that’s right!” the woman says in utter amazement. But Wyona hasn’t time to chitchat. She delivers the family’s spreads and ribs, then goes on her way to bring more barbecue to other hungry customers.
What is a spread? A spread is a tamale plate, a Hot Springs echo of the Mississippi River Delta’s fondness for shucks of spicy, warm cornmeal. McClard’s does serve plain tamales with beans, but the connoisseur’s way to get them is as a spread: two big hot tamales on a plate topped with sauce-sopped chopped smoked meat, beans, crisp Fritos, raw onions, and shredded orange cheese. Reminiscent of Cincinnati five-way chili, a spread is a Dixie-Mex kaleidoscope that is positively addictive.
Layering is a theme in the pitmasters’ kitchen. The menu lists “ribs,” but it also lists “rib and fry.” No special cooking technique here: A plate arrives on which the ribs are completely obscured by a huge heap of French fries. If they were ordinary fried potatoes, such a presentation might be annoying; but these are superb—thin and crisp with a lovely burnished complexion. The ribs are hefty ones, their chewy blackened crust painted with a red sauce that has a vinegar tang. Inside the crust is the tenderest sweet moist meat, which requires only a gentle pull to separate it from the bone.
Hot Springs is home to another smoke-pit delicacy, the “pit potato,” as served at MICKEY’S BAR-B-Q, a snug but on the north road out of town. Mickey’s operates cafeteria style: Customers select their meal from an incredibly appetizing array of pork rib-racks waiting to be severed; lengths of plump pink sausage; roasts of beef, pork, and ham all dark and crusty on the outside from their long, slow sizzle over wood smoke; and also bean pots and pit potatoes. A bean pot is a small bowl of shreds, chunks, and chewy debris off a ham roast combined with a vivid red sauce and soft beans. The pit potato, which is slow-cooked over hickory smoke along with the meat, has a leathery skin and cream-soft center. It is available as a side dish or stuffed with chopped beef or pork barbecue.
There are a few seats in Mickey’s front room, which afford a view of the handsome food being carved to order, but you can also dine in the adjoining “Hickory Nut Room,” where a half-dozen booths provide a measure of seclusion and the comfort of a rustic decor that includes napkin holders carved from tree limbs as well as wood paneling branded with scenes of the kind of animals—deer, ducks, pheasants—that hunters like to see behind the bead of a shotgun.
Aficionados of American fast food who head north toward the mountains through Russellville need to know about FELTNER’S WHATTA-BURGER. There are Whatta-Burger shops throughout the Southwest, but none like this one, which is independently owned and known for its delicious “custom made” hamburgers, gorgeous French fries, and milk shakes too thick to suck up a straw. The instant you enter the door of the low-slung brick building, an Ordering is a kick: Each booth in the wood-paneled dining room is equipped with an orange telephone. Pick up the handset and tell the voice at the other end what you’d like to eat. In a short while, a red light glows atop the phone, signaling your meal is ready. Go to the kitchen window, pay, and pick it up. Pork and beef are cooked in the classic southern way—ten to twelve hours over smoking hickory wood. “Whatta-Meal” sandwiches and rib dinners are notable for the wonderful homemade bread served in place of the customary white stuff. Slightly sweet, sliced thick, buttered and toasted, the hearty bread makes a perfect companion to the eye-opening sauce that glazes B&B’s succulent meats.
The side dishes here are something special, too: batter-dipped French fries with a pillowy texture; dill pickle chips with a briny smack encased in a luscious coat of batter and fried; and, for dessert, fried fruit pies that are cooked to order (“Please allow twelve minutes,” the menu cautions). The exquisite pies are dusted with cinnamon sugar, their delicate crusts enveloping warm lodes of peaches or apples.
The blue plate highways that took us from Hot Springs to the Ozarks were a banquet of wipe-your-hands-on-your-overalls meals. But north of Fayetteville we found something else: JAMES AT THE MILL, home of “Ozark Plateau cuisine.” Here, in a genteel, white-walled dining room overlooking the old Johnson Mill (now a cordial inn), Miles G. James is doing what creative chefs in other regions have done to revitalize their own vernacular cuisines: creating an upscale redaction using local ingredients, folk tradition, worldly techniques, and vertical presentation. Chef James serves braised Arkansas rabbit with a mash of root vegetables and local wild mushrooms; and his citrus-sauced pulled pork is served on potato rye bread.
It is exciting, aspiring food; and the sophisticated grace of the setting can be welcome relief after a steady diet of smoke shacks, fish camps, and Whatta-Burger joints. We laughed ourselves silly when an andouille sausage starter arrived at the table one evening. It was a piquant tube of pork encased in a brittle cornmeal-batter crust accompanied by mustard and served standing up with a see-through-thin potato paddle stuck in the top like a flag, all on a base of oven-dried-tomato relish. This hors d’oeuvre was not only delicious, it was a true Arkansas foodstuff and the ultimate culinary oxymoron: a sophisticated corn dog!
B&B Barbecue (permanently closed)
230 S. East Street
Fayetteville , AR
Catfish n (permanently closed)
210 Dam Road
Franke’s (permanently closed)
300 South University
Little Rock, AR
Fred’s Fish House
James at the Mill (permanently closed)
3906 Greathouse Springs Road