By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2004 Gourmet Magazine
The best food in Arkansas is served in the worst-looking restaurants. If you have a sense of adventure and an appetite for down-home meals, you will eat majestically in derelict shacks by the side of the road and tumbledown buildings on the wrong side of town. Our idea of a perfect road trip is to head west out of Memphis for a weeklong banquet of biscuits and gravy, hot tamales smothered with chili, all-you-can-eat catfish with baskets of hushpuppies, hickory-smoked ribs, Ozark baked beans, and sweet-potato pie.
The first essential stop is DeValls Bluff (population 783), home of CRAIG’S BAR-B-Q, a shack so unrepentantly dumpy that you’ve got to love it. Dim fluorescent lights hang over a half dozen rickety tables. Business cards and hand-penned ads of indeterminate vintage are pinned to faded wallpaper showing ducks in flight: “Lost: Black Lab named Cache”; “12 Gauge Steel Shot Cheap”; “Deer Processing”; “Emergency Gas and Rescue Assistance.” Diners’ attire ranges from still-wet camouflage waders to pressed pinstripe suits and also includes an astounding number of giant-size overalls on great big farm folks.
The ribs and chopped pork at Craig’s, certainly the best between Memphis and Little Rock, are spectacular—deeply smoky and brushed with a thick orange sauce that is long on spice and nearly sugarless. To balance the peppery sauce, which you can get mild, medium, hot, or (by special request) ultra hot, sandwiches are constructed with a layer of sweet coleslaw inside the bun. Dinner plates include beans and slaw; the only other side dish is a bag of potato chips. And the only proper thing to drink is iced tea—very sweet, of course.
When there is dessert at Craig’s, it is brought over from the FAMILY PIE SHOP, across Route 70. Mary Thomas, who used to be a barbecue cook for Craig’s, opened her bakery in 1977, and while it is nothing but a cinder-block garage hidden from easy view, aficionados consider it the finest pie stop in the state—high honor hereabouts, where pie consciousness is as elevated as Iowa’s.
Thomas’s dining facilities are even worse than those at Craig’s: four stools at a short counter in a disheveled storage room next to the kitchen. Most people get whole pies to go—and perhaps a small one to eat in the car on the way home. Governor Mike Huckabee sends his staff to DeValls Bluff to bring his favorite, chocolate cream, and his wife’s favorite, coconut, back to the governor’s mansion. Thomas tells us that when Bill Clinton lived there he stopped in all the time and ate pie at the counter with his friends. He didn’t have a favorite. “He liked them all,” she confides.
We love the simple sugar cream pie and luxurious “Karo nut,” a.k.a. pecan, and the sweet-potato is pie perfection. But it’s the crust that lifts these desserts above all others. Honey brown, ready to flake with slight pressure from a plastic fork, it is as fine as a Viennese sugar cookie. The crust’s savor is amplified in Thomas’s version of the Arkansas favorite, fried pie—apple, peach, or apricot filling inside a crescent of dough that has been deep-fried until it is so brittle it shatters at first bite. “Lard! That’s the secret,” we proclaim as we crunch into a hot peach fried pie at the counter.
Thomas shakes her head. “I will not speak of crust.” She does allow that it contains no lard, but she keeps mum about the recipe, a legacy from her husband, who was a cook on a Mississippi riverboat. Sitting at her counter, we eat two individual-size meringue pies, then take one full-size egg custard pie to enjoy in our Little Rock hotel room that night. We have it after dinner at Doe’s Eat Place, a downtown joint that looks like hell but serves magnificent porterhouse steaks accompanied by french fries sizzled golden in ancient cast-iron skillets.
In the morning, we call Tony Perrin to help us find more off-the-beaten-path meals. Born in the Ozarks and now supervisor for state parks, Perrin offers to introduce us to the most amazing hamburger we would ever meet. We pile into his car and head southeast on Highway 161, which shoots through the Grand Prairie, a mix of level rice fields and opulent roadside pecan groves. Just past a low-slung barn built for drying cottonseed, Perrin veers onto a dirt shoulder. Through the brush we spot a wooden building on pilings over water in which cypress trees droop and ducks paddle. Built in 1917, COTHAM’S MERCANTILE has been a general store, a jail, and a military commissary. It is now a plate-lunch landmark.
Cotham’s swinging door leads into a dining room packed with vintage household bric-a-brac. Bare wood tables are surrounded by people plowing into catfish, fried chicken, or chicken-fried steak with corn fritters, greens, and fried tomatoes. Big appetites order a Hubcap Hamburger, which is a circle of cooked ground beef roughly the width of a ’49 Fleetwood wheel cover and about a half inch thick. It comes in a bun that nearly fits, dressed with a salad’s worth of lettuce, tomato slices, pickles, mustard, and hoops of onion. Incredibly, lifting it with two hands from plate to mouth is actually possible. This is one delicious burger: Crusty and heavy with natural juice, it is brightly seasoned with Cotham’s own spice mix.
Eager for more proof that Arkansas is a serious pie lode, we ask Perrin to take us to his favorite stop between Little Rock and Branson: the WAGON WHEEL RESTAURANT, on Highway 65 in Greenbrier. Freshly baked, high-domed rolls rise near the kitchen. At the tables, regulars are eating breakfast sandwiches of eggs and Petit Jean ham and white toast as rich as cake. Watching us snap pictures of our perfect-looking meringue pies, they deputize a waitress to find out what’s wrong with us.
“We don’t see pies like this in Connecticut,” we tell Lynn Lockie. Hearing this, one of the guys at the table leans over with a grin and says, “You do sound northern!”
“And you sure sound Arkansan,” Michael replies.
“No, no, up there, they’re KANSAN,” a tablemate interjects with his finger pointed northwest. He does not like any variation of his state’s name that isn’t pronounced with saw at the end.
“Well, then, what do you call yourselves?” Michael asks.
“Razorbacks,” he says with a good laugh. “You know about razorbacks in Canada, don’t you?”
We don’t bother making the fine point that Canada and Connecticut are different places, and it’s of little consequence at this moment. Slices of coconut pie have arrived at the table and demand our complete attention.
Cotham’s Mercantile (permanently closed)
5301 Highway 161 South,
Family Pie Shop (Ms. Lena’s)