Monday, February 26, 2018
I had swung through Whole Hog Cafe last week to pick up a gift card for someone, and, while waiting my turn at the counter, I had an epiphany. Somehow, in all of the times I've eaten Whole Hog, I'd never had their pork loin. This would not stand!
Since I was already in West Little Rock today, I thought I might try out their location on Highway 10. But sadly, pork loin isn't a part of that branch's menu, nor the other spot on Cantrell. North Little Rock would have been the next closest location that I hadn't yet sampled, and that was a bit far out of the way. So even though the Markham Whole Hog isn't my favorite, I wanted that pork badly enough to give them a second run.
I arrived right at opening time, which meant there were only two other customers between me and the counter. This location is always clean and bright on the inside, with a yummy smoke-filled aroma. Super friendly employees and some great blues music also add to the fun, welcoming atmosphere.
While I've eaten the pulled chicken from Whole Hog on several occasions, I've never had their full bird either, so a half-chicken was definitely on my radar today as well. The most economical way to get my desired meats was with a half-chicken plate, plus an a la carte helping of pork loin. I picked cheesy corn and potato salad as my sides, going the safe route with one and exploring with the other.
My potato salad was definitely heavy on the mayo, but that added to its flavor and its creaminess. The skin-on potatoes were finely diced, and I saw a lot of green bits that I couldn't identify by sight or by taste. I'm thinking maybe chives or parsley? Either way, there was plenty of seasoning and plenty to like about this dish. The corn, on the other hand, confused me a little. It was basically corn tossed in their macaroni cheese. Not that it was bad by any means, but my brain kept anticipating, and therefore wanting, actual pasta. I'm also not sure that the flavors meshed together as well as they had hoped.
The pork lacked any real smoke ring, and it looked sort of gray and lifeless if I'm being completely honest. Looks aside, the tender pork tasted great. I couldn't pinpoint any smoke, but there was a hefty, savory spice blend on the crust. The best way that I can describe this as thin slices of a pork chop. Although I liked it in general, I wouldn't exactly call it barbecue.
Nice grill marks made the hunk of poultry very appetizing. The crisp skin had a slightly sweet marinade on it, and the chicken below was very juicy, especially the dark meat. In my opinion, this was more grilled than smoked though, and it certainly tasted that way. The chicken was good in its own right, but it was not the barbecue chicken I had hoped for.
I'm glad that I tried the rest of Whole Hog Cafe's offerings, but I guess I should stick to their ribs and pulled pork from now on, preferably at the Cantrell location.
Whole Hog Cafe
12111 W. Markham St
Little Rock, AR 72211
Saturday, February 10, 2018
This weekend I needed a little "me time," and what better way to accomplish that than with some "meat time"? I set my sights on Breitweiser's down south in Benton, Arkansas. I couldn't find much info about this butcher shop, but I knew I'd find barbecue there, and that's really all the info that I needed.
I arrived right around 10:45am, assuming that this kind of place would have things ready to rock by then. Sure enough, I smelled the sweet aroma of pit smoke through the morning rain. Breitweiser's is a classic small town meat market, plus they have a decent selection of deli meats and cheeses (although the latter two sadly aren't homemade). These guys also sell quite a few barbecue sauces and rubs, and beer, of course.
As you might expect, Breitweiser's sells their barbecue by the pound, but they were kind enough to make me up an awesome four-meat feast of brisket, chicken, sausage, and ribs with beans and potato salad. All this plus a Coke only ran me $18.00, which wasn't bad at all. The meats came from warming pans, and were then further heated up on a flat iron griddle. There isn't really a great spot to dine in here, so I ate things out in my truck.
I started lunch off with some pretty standard baked beans, likely canned. There was a slight spiciness here and there, but it didn't linger. My potato salad was a mustard-based variety. They also have mayo-based potato salad available if you're so inclined, although my options were presented as "white or yellow." Flecks of dill and intermittent pickles and pimento made this an enjoyable side dish. It wasn't nearly as mustardy as its bright yellow color suggested, and that's a good thing.
The brisket had some great bark and an adequate smoke ring. I found good hits of salt and smoke in each bite. The beef was also tender and super moist, despite the leaner cut. What fat there was had been rendered down nicely and oozed flavor. The griddle added a good char as well, but I would have rather just had my brisket sliced fresh.
I don't know if Breitweiser's makes their own sausage, but I would guess not. It tasted more like Eckrich to me, and considering that all of their deli meats come from this brand, that's probably a safe bet. The meat was also finely ground, with no visible fat or seasonings. There was a good sear to the sausage at least, and a very snappy casing.
At first I had trouble discerning what part of the chicken I'd been served, but I'm about eighty percent sure that it was a breast. The chicken skin was nicely charred, so you can imagine my disappointment when I didn't taste much of anything beyond pit smoke. I did appreciate the smokiness, which is often lacking in barbecue chicken. It could have definitely used a good dusting of salt and pepper at a minimum though. The meat itself was cooked well and was fairly tender. Maybe dark meat would have fared better.
There was a great crust on my ribs, and they were incredibly smoky. A rosy smoke ring was also instantly visible. Not much seasoning here either, but the other flavors made up for things in this instance. The pork was very juicy and quite tender. While I couldn't stand to eat more than a few bites of the chicken, I found myself wishing I had several more ribs.
Needless to say, Breitweiser's was a bit of a roller coaster ride. Four-star brisket, two-star sausage, one-and-a-half-star chicken, and ribs somewhere between a three and a four. I'm not entirely sure what to do with all of that, so I'll just call this place "average" and move on.
1113 W South St
Benton, AR 72015
Wednesday, January 24, 2018
I had tried to visit Capitol Smokehouse & Grill during my previous barbecue outing, only to find them closed due to lack of heat. Winters in Little Rock due tend to be a bit on the chilly side, so I didn't mind postponing my visit until today.
This place could seriously use a complete design makeover, or a fresh coat of paint at the very least. And that's coming from a guy who regularly eats at dives and shacks. Capitol Smokehouse has all of the knickknacks of a small, rural diner shoved into a relatively tiny space downtown. Well, downtown-ish anyway.
Here everything comes cafeteria-style, which means that all of the meats are pulled from warming trays rather than being cut fresh to order. I initially ordered their combo plate, slated to come with brisket, pulled pork, and baby back ribs by default, along with potatoes and "meaty beans" as my sides. Except today they didn't have any brisket, and for some reason they wouldn't let me substitute their barbecue chicken for the beef. So after much deliberation, they suggested that I take a two-meat "half and half" plate of pulled pork and ribs and add on the poultry for a $3.99 upcharge. All together, my lunch was almost $20.00, which seemed a bit steep.
The beans were both sweet and spicy, and nicely seasoned to boot. I didn't notice much meat in there, but at least they were tasty. My skin-on potatoes were crispy and loaded up with big hunks of onion. Although I tend to prefer my potatoes in salad form, these were a worthy and comforting side dish. The cornbread, however, was dry and crumbling at every touch.
My local Kroger generally sells chicken quarters for around $1.99 per pound, so for more than double that price I was expecting to be blown away. The skin was crispy and seasoned well, and the dark meat was juicy enough. There wasn't any discernible smokiness, but there was at least a good char from the pit. Something slightly sugary in the rub was also a welcome flavor contrast.
While most of the food at Capitol Smokehouse came from visible warming trays, my pulled pork came from a plastic baggie. It was sort of dry, though astonishingly tender. There was just a touch of smoke, and otherwise it was fairly bland. I didn't find any real bark to speak of, at least not in my portion.
I couldn't see where they pulled my ribs from, but it sure wasn't the pit. Their soggy crust suggested that they too had been "warming" for quite some time. The crust did showcase a surprisingly savory blend of spices, but there was only a hint of smoke, and it faded quickly. At least the meat was cooked well, it just needed to be served a lot fresher.
The ladies running Capitol Smokehouse & Grill were some of the friendliest you're likely to find anywhere, but sadly that only does so much to make up for mediocrity, especially considering the price tag. Even though I really wanted to give this place a higher rating, they don't deserve it.
Capitol Smokehouse & Grill
915 W Capitol Ave
Little Rock, AR 72201
Wednesday, January 3, 2018
My first choice for lunchtime barbecue was unexpectedly closed today. Apparently their heat went out, and since it was all of 19 degrees overnight, they felt like this might be problematic. Good call. I made a snap decision to check out Hawgz Blues Cafe in North Little Rock instead.
Best I can tell, this joint opened sometime in Spring 2017 or so. There was a surprisingly limited interior dining space, which is odd given the enormity of the building itself. A large group of customers had most of the tables gobbled up when we arrived, so maybe there's really more seating than it seemed. High ceilings and large open spaces made the room feel even more empty. It has kind of an old Nola house feel to it, and I assume that's what they were going for. Food aside, this is surely a great spot for live music and evening cocktails. Their big outdoor patio looked like it gets rocking quite often, at least in warmer weather. The bar area I saw probably has plenty of traffic as well.
Hawgz Blues offers a Southern Smoked Dinner with either brisket or pulled pork, but I was bold enough to request both. This combo automatically comes with baked beans and potato salad. Good enough for me. For the little guy that I had in tow, I ordered the kid's chicken tenders with mac and cheese instead of the standard french fries. All requests were happily accommodated.
I ended up with a side of unexpected coleslaw, too. There were nice hits of mustard and crunchy cabbage in each bite. I'm no fan of slaw in general, but this was almost enough to change my mind. The beans were pleasantly seasoned and had some sizeable hunks of meat throughout. Although their potato salad wasn't quite mashed, it was close. The creamy mayo base had plenty of veggies mixed in for texture. Each side had merit, and I was happy to have them all.
The brisket was sliced thin but still had evidence of bark and a rosy smoke ring, though the thin slicing didn't offer too much of either. The thinness did help keep things tender at least. A moderate smokiness was the most I could find. Their sauce added both acidity and a sweetness, but wasn't overpowering at all. It was actually a nice combination of natural and added flavors.
My pulled pork was even better. Big chunks of tender pork were a welcome change of pace from the stuff that's chopped into oblivion. I found it much smokier than the brisket, but I wished for more bark. Hawgz Blues uses a different sauce on the pork, and it had some definite heat to it. The spiciness lingered on my lips and tongue, as did the smoke.
Although chicken tenders and macaroni aren't exactly a gourmet meal, my son seemed to enjoy them both. That may not seem like a ringing endorsement, but he has a pretty discerning palate for a one-year-old. Take that as you will.
I like to read reviews from other customers both before and after trying out a new barbecue joint, mostly to see how my personal experience measures up. Yelp in particular has a fair amount of negative reviews for Hawgz Blues, criticizing both the food and the service. Honestly, I found neither one lacking all that much. I've already given my two cents on the food. As for service, every employee I saw was hustling hard, and two others besides my waiter checked to make sure that everything was ok at various points during the meal. I appreciate that kind of work ethic. Perhaps there were just some growing pains early on, but whatever the case may be, Hawgz Blues Cafe seems to have things under control now.
Hawgz Blues Cafe
5524 John F. Kennedy Blvd
North Little Rock, AR 72116
Thursday, December 7, 2017
I'm getting a bit low on new barbecue joints to investigate in Little Rock proper, so my one-year-old wingman and I ventured north across the river to Maumelle to check out Smoke Shack Bar-B-Q for lunch.
The faux log walls at Smoke Shack were reminiscent of an old-timey cabin, which is what I assume they were going for. Most of the decor is just old license plates scattered about, but the place was also decorated for Christmas this time of year. Don't let the small primary dining room fool you: there's a larger room in the back, as well as an outdoor patio. Maumelle tends to be a little short on restaurants, especially non-chain restaurants, so I bet Smoke Shack gets packed frequently.
I grabbed a brisket dinner plate with potato salad and tomato relish, plus a half-rack of pork ribs to round things out. I also ordered a quarter-pound of smoked turkey for my son, who is pretty much obligated to share with Daddy. A half-pound was the minimum that they would sell me, so leftovers were sure to be plentiful.
Smoke Shack's chunky potato salad was full of veggies and definitely full of mustard. Normally I'm a huge fan of potato salad, but this one wasn't really my style. The tomato relish, on the other hand, was superb. Big hunks of green tomato were bursting with sugar and spice, plus a tart acidity for balance. I had initially considered pinto beans as my second side dish, but I'm really glad that I went with the tomatoes instead.
This was sort of an odd presentation for brisket, particularly the half-bun accompaniment. I was also a little saddened by the mass of sauce-covered chopped beef rather than the Texas-style slices that I've grown so fond of over the years. The tender brisket was piping hot, a good sign. There was plenty of bark and plenty of smoke, which shone through nicely despite all of the sauce. I couldn't find a visible smoke ring, but I'm sure that it was there somewhere.
The pork spare ribs looked absolutely gorgeous. Their rosy black crust glistened with delicious grease and pork juice, beckoning me to dive right in. These guys were seasoned just right and had a great smokiness. The meat came off easily with a slight tug, none of this falling-off-the-bone nonsense. As expected, each bite was spectacularly juicy. A half-rack wasn't nearly enough.
My son's turkey came out deli sliced, rather than the thick pieces I had envisioned. Nonetheless, it was very juicy and well-smoked. The seasoning around the edges was even tastier. We both enjoyed it thoroughly, even though his less-than-dexterous fingers dropped half of it on the floor.
What the brisket lacked the ribs made up for in spades, and the turkey was no slouch either. Smoke Shack Bar-B-Q will definitely become part of our regular rotation.
Smoke Shack Bar-B-Q
20608 Hwy 365
Maumelle, AR 72213
Wednesday, November 22, 2017
I seem to be on a bit of a barbecue shack kick lately. That's ok, these humble joints often have unexpectedly phenomenal food. Today's smoked meat adventure took me to H.B.'s Bar-B-Q down in south Little Rock.
You'll find H.B.'s in a converted house smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood, where it's lived for over fifty years. The neighborhood is a bit sketchy, but there were quite a few signs inside and out which suggest that the owners and employees are all packing heat here. This place looked super old, from the wood-paneled walls to the country cow decor. Most of what I could see was also fairly dusty and grimy, especially the dish sink right behind their register. Frankly, I'm surprised that this joint passes health inspections.
There's only a small dining room, packed tight with a dozen or so tables and chairs. To-go orders would be more advisable here, so that's what I did today. Even then it took forever to order, and I was only third in line. By this point my one-year-old was as visibly exasperated as the overworked cashier/waitress/owner (I think). So I made a snap decision to forgo any questions or any attempt at a multi-meat combo. Instead, I simplified things down to a pork and beef sandwich duo with a side of potato salad. If I'm being completely honest, neither of these sandwiches looked particularly appetizing.
The potato salad was bright yellow, though less mustardy than I imagined. Pimentos didn't add much in either the flavor or the texture departments. It was creamy and tasty, but not my favorite.
I started the main course with the brisket sandwich, or at least the one that I thought was brisket. There was actually some nice charred bark mixed into the mass of chopped beef, with a nice crunch from the slaw as well. I found just a mild smokiness, but it was there nonetheless. The meat was also quite tender, although in its chopped form it would be hard not to be. The sandwich was only slightly sweet, less so than I expected given the heavy dose of sauce, which also happened to be somewhat spicy.
My pork sandwich came topped with slaw as well. The meat was juicy and tender, but chopped into oblivion and somewhat less seasoned than its beef counterpart. There was plenty of rosy bark beneath the surface at least. The sauce was poured on a little heavier here, such that that's pretty much all I could taste without really concentrating and focusing my tastebuds.
In retrospect, the sandwiches likely would have been much better without sauce, a request that I should have taken the time to make.
Little Rock, AR 72209
Friday, November 10, 2017
Six weeks is far too long to go without a barbecue outing. I wanted a place where my son and I could eat outdoors and enjoy some of the last remaining fall weather that Arkansas had to offer before things get cold. So we headed across the river to North Little Rock to check out Mick's Bar-B-Q.
Mick's is quite the literal barbecue shack, with nothing more than a walk-up window, a drive-thru window, and four picnic tables under an awning. Luckily for us, that's all that we needed today. I ordered a combo of ribs and pulled pork, plus potato salad and bbq beans on the side. A three-meat combo would have been more ideal, but I take what I can get.
The beans were sweet and somewhat spicy, with a nice mix of flavors. They were also cooked well, not mushy at all. A dusting of paprika on top of the potato salad added to the visual appeal, but there wasn't enough of it to enhance the flavors any. The mayo base stood out here, and I liked the medium-dice on the potatoes.
I took my pulled pork without sauce, and honestly, it was a little dry. There was a pleasant smokiness and a good amount of seasoned bark at least. I ended up sampling their mild barbecue sauce out of necessity. It was thick and sort of ketchupy, so much so that the pork wasn't really any better with it than without.
The ribs came apart with the slightest nudge, and while some people naively prefer theirs to be "falling off the bone," it's suggestive of overcooked meat. There was a very mild smoke level here, and the crust was barely seasoned. On the other hand, the meat was very tender and super juicy throughout, so I suppose that's something to be thankful for.
I had high hopes for Mick's Bar-B-Q, which has great ratings across the Internet. Either somebody knows something that I don't, or standards for barbecue in North Little Rock are a bit low.
3609 Mac Arthur Dr
North Little Rock, AR 72118
Monday, September 25, 2017
I was making great time blowing through the backroads of East Texas, where it seems like the majority of barbecue joints are closed on Mondays for some odd reason, so I just kept going until I hit Naaman's BBQ in Texarkana.
You'll find Naaman's in what was obviously an old filling station. They've worked hard to maintain that general vibe throughout, including tin walls, intentionally-peeled paint, and the trashcan housed inside a rusted-out car. All in all, the atmosphere was perfect for taking a nice lunch break from my long drive.
I was still in Texas by a matter of ten or fifteen yards, so I skipped the pulled pork and snagged one last Texas Trinity before crossing over into Arkansas. At Naaman's, you have to order a 3/4lb plate to get three meats, and I was happy to indulge. I took mine with brisket, pork ribs, and sausage, plus some potato salad and cheesy corn on the side.
The potato salad was dominated by mustard, but something spicy caught my attention almost immediately as well. The heat faded pretty quickly, so I'm not sure what it was, but it was definitely interesting. The cheesy corn probably contained more rice than corn, although the diced peppers were a nice addition. It was loaded with cheese, that's for sure, and it made for a nice, comforting side dish.
Fatty brisket is the only way to go, and they were more than willing to accommodate my request. The fat-filled crust was burgundy, bordering on black, and it was ever so tasty. Each slice had a visible, rosy smoke ring which was matched by an excellent smoky flavor. The brisket was tender and very juicy, and it fell apart with ease. I wasn't about to try barbecue sauce with this magnificent beef, and it by no means needed any.
My pork ribs also had a deep red crust and a pink smoky hue beneath. There was a moderate, yet enjoyable, smoke flavor. The meat came off with minimal effort, bordering on falling-off-the-bone, but the crust wasn't quite as crisp as I had hoped for. That said, I did enjoy their simple rub, which tasted like salt, pepper, and very little else.
Naaman's makes their sausage in house, and it shows. There was plenty of black pepper to go around, as well as the coarse-ground meat that makes homemade sausage so spectacular. I found a great snappy casing and lots of juice in the links. The sausage was slightly spicy and seasoned well. Normally I don't go for barbecue sauce, especially not with sausage, but my waitress insisted that I try their sausage and mustard sauce together. I have to say, it was excellent. The sauce added some heat and vinegar, plus a mild sweetness on the back end.
My lunch at Naaman's was just the pitstop I needed to make it the rest of the way back home.
5309 N. State Line Ave
Texarkana, TX 75503
Saturday, September 23, 2017
Back when I called DFW my primary barbecue hunting ground, there wasn't much of anything resembling barbecue in Dallas' Lakewood neighborhood. Certainly nothing worthwhile anyway. Lakewood Smokehouse opened up shop at the beginning of 2016, a smoke-filled oasis in a culinary desert. I was swinging through The Big D on my way south, and I couldn't resist a pit stop to check out Lakewood.
This place has reclaimed wood out the wazoo, paired with some contemporary furniture and industrial lighting. I dig it. There is also a nice bar area, with a Smokehouse Mary being the drink specialty. Think Bloody Mary with a pork rib in place of cocktail shrimp. I had another four hours on the road ahead of me, otherwise I might have indulged. Lakewood definitely smells like a smokehouse. They weren't busy at all at 11:30am on a Saturday, but I was sure that would change shortly.
I ordered up a two-meat plate of sliced brisket and poblano cheddar sausage, taking ranch potato salad and their six-cheese mac and cheese as my side dishes. Lakewood had giant beef ribs on special today, and if you think I had sufficient willpower to resist snagging one of those as well, then you clearly don't know me well enough. My order ended up being sort of a beef-centric version of the Texas Trinity.
The macaroni, as advertised, was certainly packed full of gooey cheese. Large spiral noodles were a nice choice here, since they offered plenty of nooks and crannies for the cheese to hide out. It was definitely comfort food. Chunky, skin-on potatoes made for a great potato salad, and of course bacon makes everything even better. I loved the ranch dressing mixed in, which really jazzed things up.
My helping of brisket was spectacular. The crust was black as night, complete with a pleasantly salty rub and rosy red smoke ring beneath. All of the fat was completely rendered down, making the brisket melt-in-your-mouth tender. Each bite was also super smoky.
The sausage was nice and spicy, but not overly so, with just enough cheese to temper the heat. I found a great snap to the casings, as well as lots of black pepper scattered throughout. I was told that Lakewood makes their sausage in-house, and the coarse grind on the meat was a good indication of such.
I saved the best, or at least the biggest, for last. The massive beef rib was covered in a glorious fatty crust. There was more meat on the bone than I expected, and it was moist as could be, even considering the size of the thing. A moderate smoke level was just enough to be interesting without masking the natural beef flavors. Needless to say, this really hit the spot.
There are many tried and true barbecue joints in Dallas where I could have stopped for lunch, but I'm glad that I gave Lakewood Smokehouse a shot. With food like this, they're certain to do well here.
1901 Abrams Rd
Dallas, TX 75214
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Desperately in need of some fresh air and some fresh scenery today, I made it a point to get out in search of barbecue. The Cross-Eyed Pig wasn't far from home, and it was also fairly close to our favorite park, so me and the little man could snag a tasty lunch and then go play. Not too shabby.
This East Little Rock joint is smack in between Allsopp Park and the Arkansas River, so you'd think that there would be plenty of business to go around here. I guess location isn't everything, since there were only two other tables of customers present the entire time at peak lunch hour. Oh well, more meat for me. The Cross-Eyed Pig doesn't look like much when you walk into the small interior dining space, but their big outdoor patio seems to be the main attraction. I'm sure it's a great spot for live music on warm summer nights.
Dining out alone with a baby is no simple task, but our waitress was a sweetheart and tried to make things as easy as possible for me. She even hooked me up with a special off-menu two-meat plate of pulled pork and ribs, recommending their baked potato salad over the mustard variety. Sold. I picked baked beans for my second side dish and eagerly awaited the food to come out. I caught the scent of delicious pit smoke the instant things hit my table.
The sides are my usual starting place, which was easy today since they both looked awesome. The baked potato salad was creamy with big slices of skin-on potato. It was rich and decadent, with a nice crunch here and there. I'm glad I listened to the waitress. Cracked black pepper was visible throughout the baked beans, with plenty of onions mixed in, too. The flavors were primarily sweet, but slight vinegar undertones added a nice acidity.
Pulled pork will never replace brisket as the king of meats, but it's been growing on me more and more since leaving Texas behind. Theirs was tender, juicy, and well-seasoned. I also found a considerable amount of smoke in each forkful, as well as lots of tasty bark. Perhaps just a tad more salt would have been appropriate, but that's my personal preference. Adding sauce to this pork would have been heresy, and I am no heretic.
My big, meaty spare ribs looked fantastic on the plate. They had a deep reddish-black crust which appealed to my eyes as well as my taste buds. These bad boys were loaded with flavor and loaded with smoke. The peppery rub had a good kick to it, but wasn't so overpowering as to mask the natural pork. The well-rendered fat was also a pleasure to eat, diet be damned.
The Cross-Eyed Pig was just what I needed today. My baby boy seemed to enjoy the nibble of pulled pork that I fed him too, but to be fair he's also partial to dryer lint for some reason, so take that as you will.
The Cross-Eyed Pig
1701 Rebsamen Park Rd
Little Rock, AR 72202