The State of the Spa City BBQ Scene

Very few places in Arkansas have as much history tied to their favorite barbecue joints as Hot Springs does. The Spa City, when it comes to barbecue, has something for everyone. The two oldest, and most well known are McClard’s BBQ, and Stubby’s, with McClard’s being the elder by 30 years. Along with those two are The Rib Cage BBQ, Mickey’s BBQ, Smokin N Style, Chuck’s BBQ, Midway BBQ and The Rollin Pit BBQ. The last year and a half has been great for some of these places, and not so great for others. As we all know, change is inevitable.

Everyone across the south, as well as other regions of the country, know the name McClard. When a restaurant has been open for close to a century, they will have a following of faithful customers. Those customers know the history, and the family that runs the place. Recently the McClard family lost J.D. McClard, a patriarch of the family and business.

The end of 2014 brought about a loss for the Smokin N Style family. Daniel Johnson, owner of Smokin N Style, passed away, and the Hot Springs BBQ community immediately felt the loss. Daniel not only was the owner, he was also a very accomplished barbecue competitor.

Chuck Lecompt, of Chuck’s BBQ, was a true pitmaster in every sense of the word. He started working for the original owner of Stubby’s BBQ as a young man, and eventually opened Chuck’s BBQ over 30 years ago. Taking an old school approach to cooking, Chuck made everything from scratch, from his fried pies and signature rub, to his flavorful and smoky sauce. His death a few short months ago has brought about the closing of Chuck’s BBQ, and the end of some of the state’s best hickory smoked barbecue.

There is no chain barbecue in Hot Springs. All of these places are family owned and family run. Each place supports the other, and it should be that way. The losses that each place has endured takes away from the barbecue family, but the state of the BBQ scene in Hot Springs is strong. Although Chuck’s, Midway, and Roland’s have closed their doors, there are others who are getting stronger. Mickey’s has been around since 1990, and is a hidden gem in our town. The Rib Cage BBQ and Catering is becoming a go to for more and more locals, as well as visitors. Some say we have too much barbecue around Hot Springs, but judging by the long lines and packed restaurants, I say the food is speaking for itself.


The Food Place. More Than Just a Small Town Store

Small towns and communities depend on the businesses that are there, but most important are the places that sell food and groceries. They are pillars of the community, and are absolutely necessary. When I was growing up in Sparkman Arkansas, The Food Place was the center of the community, and the lives of so many people.

It’s a typical Saturday morning in the small town of Sparkman Arkansas. A ten year old boy is riding his bicycle, as usual, but instead of going to meet up with his friends for a ride, he is headed to the store for his mom. He is headed to The Food Place. As he approaches the store, he sees the familiar site of a few of the town folks sitting outside sharing stories as they share a bench that was put there long before this boy was born.

Walking through the door, he sees people who are there to pick up something for dinner, or to get the groceries for the coming week. No one seems to be in a hurry as they mingle and stop to talk to the butcher at the back of the store. As he walks through the store, he is asked multiple times about how his mother and father are doing. He answers politely, and makes his way to get the things on his list, and his ice cold soda, which is the reward for making the trip to the store. He walks up to the meat counter, and the man hands him two packages of meat that is wrapped in white butcher paper, and it has the prices written on it. The boy’s mother had called ahead and told the store what she needed. The boy had no money with him, but the food would be added to the account that the store let the mother have. The boy dare not forget his ice cold soda, so before he goes to the counter to have the food put on the account, he goes to the old Coca Cola floor cooler that held the coldest drinks in town, and got his reward for making the trip to the store. On the way out the door, the boy says a goodbye to those who are still sitting on the bench outside, and grabs his bike and heads home. This is a scenario that happened on a daily basis in our little town.

Small town stores are so important to the people who live there, especially the elderly. All of us who live or lived in Sparkman and went into The Food Place have our favorite things that we couldn’t leave the store without. Mine was a barbecue loaf sandwich with cheese, a peach Nehi soda, and a package of Jackson’s Jumble lemon cookies. This was the type of place that you could walk into and buy a certain dollar amount of an item. Many times I went in with my daddy to get $5 worth of salami and $2 worth of cheese for a fishing trip we were about to go on. In the winter, we would go in so that we could buy shells to go on our weekly squirrel hunt.

As I got older, and moved away, I started to long for the experience of going to The Food Place. Everytime I made the trip down, I always made sure to stop in and get some lunchmeat, a cold soda, and those Jackson Jumble lemon cookies. Over the years, there were literally thousands who entered those doors. All of those people undoubtedly share my love for our small town supermarket. The owners changed, and the love for the Food Place didn’t, and the owner’s love for the town didn’t either.

The Food Place is gone, and we are left with just memories. The empty building is a reminder of those Saturday mornings that little boys rode their bikes to the store for their mom. It is reminder of the great customer service that we all received there. It is a reminder of those simple, but tasty sandwiches that we all ate with a package of those lemon cookies, and the coldest sodas we ever drank. Most of all, it is a reminder of the people, the bench they sat on, and it reminds us of the love that was in our small town.

Fast Food vs Great Food

We all love food. For some, it is just a necessity to fill the belly, but for others it is an experience. Great food brings back childhood memories and sometimes brings out emotions. The smell of a certain meal can spark these emotions and memories, and this is the food we crave. But this great food takes time, and in our society today, it seems no one wants to slow down enough to enjoy it. We want it to be great, we want it fast, but is this possible?

When I was a kid, families used to have “Sunday dinner”. We looked forward to it all week. Of course we had great meals during the week, but Sunday dinner was when we got to enjoy food that was cooked all night on Saturday, and most of the day Sunday. No matter what it was, you could taste the love in the food. The smell of fried chicken filled the house, and the thought of the chocolate cake sitting on the counter filled our minds. This is the food we grew up with, and as adults, we sometimes do not want to take the time to create. It is much easier to go to a restaurant that serves what they call “home cooking”. We know it is not the same as the great food of our childhood, but we are willing to sacrifice the flavor for the speed at which it comes.

As a food blogger, I hear all kinds of complaints about restaurants, but the most common is how long the wait was for the food. The folks that are happy with a place always comment on how fast they were seated, and how fast their food came to the table. Now, don’t get me wrong, when I go out to a place, sometimes the food coming out within minutes of me ordering is a good thing, because I am hungry. But, when I go to a place that advertises “home cooking”, or “soul food”, I really don’t mind the wait. To me, those words mean that the food is cooked to order. If I go to one of these types of places, and my food comes out within 10 minutes of ordering, it raises a flag to me. Those who are happy that their food comes out fast, never comment on how good the food was, or wasn’t. All they care about is that it came out fast, and their drink was kept full. Speed is what they care about.

Now, there is a whole generation of folks who are not in a hurry, and want to enjoy their meal. They remember the days of Sunday dinner, and the aroma of great food brings back those memories and emotions from a time that has long passed. They know what it means when someone says “you can taste the love in the food”, and the old country saying “you put your foot in the food”. They also want to find the places that serve the food that they love and grew up on, but sadly very few of these places exist. The influx of fast food places and places full of canned foods have taken over most of the food landscape.

As a general rule, fast food isn’t good, and good food isn’t fast. Sometimes we need to just slow down and take the time to enjoy the whole experience of a meal. Take the time to let all those memories and emotions take us back to a time when food brought families together. It was great food……and it wasn’t fast.

Thick or Thin. What’s Your Burger Type?

Let’s talk burgers! There are so many variables when it comes to burgers. Different condiments, buns, toppings, cuts of meat, or a veggie burger. No matter the list of choices, the most important question is, how thick do you like your patty?

I know it doesn’t seem all that important, but the patty on the burger is where it all starts. Those who like a burger with a really thick patty will tell you that a thick patty will stay juicy, and is a “man sized” burger. In my opinion, a burger patty that is ¾ to 1 inch thick should be grilled with an open fire. It is thick, so it will take longer to cook, and that gives it time to absorb some of the smoke flavor and get a good exterior char without having a severely undercooked center.

So what is the advantage of a thin burger patty? What I call a thin patty is one that is about as thick as my index finger, or thinner. I prefer a thin patty to be cooked at high heat on a flat top griddle, or a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. A thin burger patty needs to have the exterior crust that a flat top griddle gives. It has a crunch, followed by juicy interior. A burger with a thin patty lends itself to accept more, and different toppings. Things like bacon, onions, salsa, and avocado, work better with a thin patty. The bun also seems to hold up better with a thin patty.

So what is your choice, thick or thin?

BBQ Ribs. To Fall Off the Bone, or Not To Fall Off the Bone

We all have heard the saying “ribs that fall off the bone”. Restaurants advertise ribs so tender that they fall off the bone. But is this a good thing? Truth is, not everyone wants the meat to literally fall off the bone. So what does this term really mean?

In the world of barbecue, there is competition BBQ, and then there is “eating BBQ”. Now, when it comes to competition barbecue, there is a fine line between the perfect rib, and an overcooked rib. What’s a perfect rib? A perfect rib, when it comes to tenderness, is a rib where the meat holds tight to the bone, and when you take a bite, the meat comes clean from the bone. To a competition cooker, it is perfection. It takes a lot of time, effort, and patience to achieve this on a consistent basis. To a competition cook, this is as close to falling off the bone as you will get.

For the backyard pitmaster, who cooks for his family and friends, the description of” fall off the bone” ribs is usually taken literally. Chances are the family and friends aren’t judges or fellow competition cookers, so they aren’t looking for the perfect competition bite. What friends and family want is for the meat to fall completely off the bone with very little effort.  Some want ribs that can’t even be picked up and eaten, because the meat falls off so easy. Some comp cookers will say just make pulled pork, when it comes to ribs cooked like this.

So, to fall off the bone, or not fall off the bone. It really is a personal preference, and can be debated till the end of time. To me, all that matters is that they taste great!

What is the Secret to a Great Brisket?

Being someone who cooks a lot of barbecue, and loves it, I believe that there is nothing better than a great brisket. To me, and this is my opinion, brisket should be the measuring stick of a BBQ place. So what’s the secret to great brisket, you ask. Well, here’s my take on it, and remember, this is the way I do it, and it works for me.

There are two parts to a brisket, the point and the flat. The point is the thick fatty end of the brisket, and the flat is the lean end. Brisket flats can be purchased, at a higher price per pound, and are a little less forgiving because of the lack of fat content. Personally, I prefer to smoke whole briskets. I love the flavor and moisture the fat gives the meat. Also, when smoking a whole brisket, the point can be separated from the flat and used to make burnt ends.

So, what is the best way to season a brisket? Well, that answer will often vary from pitmaster to pitmaster. Some inject beef broth, and some use a rub containing multiple spices. My method is simple. I trim all but ¼ inch of fat, and rub generously with fresh black pepper and salt. Beef has a lot of flavor, so there really isn’t a need to overdo it and cover all the great flavor. After I give my salt and pepper rub, I let my brisket sit in a covered pan while I get my fire in the smoker ready.

When smoking my brisket, I prefer to use white oak to get a good bed of coals. White oak coals last a long time. Mesquite, hickory, and post oak are great choices for smoking and flavoring beef. My preference is hickory, and occasionally I will use a mixture of white oak and pecan for a less pronounced smoke flavor. Now, here is where some of my BBQ brethren will disagree with my method. I cook my briskets at temperatures above 300 degrees. Keeping the brisket far away from the heat source ensures a good smoke penetration, as well as no chance of charring the meat. I don’t flip or turn the meat at all during the cook. Of course at higher temperatures, the cooking time is reduced. For instance, a 12 pound whole brisket will cook for approximately 5 hours before I double wrap it in foil, and then let it go another hour before taking it out to rest. Why rest it? The reason for resting is simple. When a big piece of meat is cooking, the natural juices travel to the center of the meat. Resting allows the juices to redistribute throughout the meat, retaining all the natural juices and flavors. Resting time varies. If I am serving that day, I like to rest my brisket atleast two hours before slicing. If it is an overnight cook, and I am serving the next day, I will put the briskets in a clean ice chest to rest. They can stay hot for hours, and the extra time doesn’t hurt at all. Never slice a brisket, or any big piece of meat, without resting it first. All of the juices will be lost, resulting in a dry product.

Brisket is a tough piece of meat to get right on a consistent basis, but is definitely the most rewarding. It takes a lot of practice, and even more patience, but the time and trials are more than worth it.

Common Mistakes Caterers and Food Vendors Make

       Everyday people who are known for cooking great food decided to give catering or being a food vendor a try. Friends tell them that they are the best cook ever, or their food is the best. The problem that most will run into is that cooking great food is only a fraction of what it takes to be a successful caterer or vendor. There is so much more to it.
       The first thing to remember when serving food to the public is to hit them with your best shot. Whatever you’re best dish or sandwich is, hit them with it first. When it comes to food, you usually get one chance to impress and win people over. Don’t make the mistake of being conservative, and holding back.
      Another mistake people make is trying to make too big of a menu. A big menu means keeping more supplies on hand, and also means more waste. A small menu gives the opportunity to really concentrate on the few things that have to be prepared. This translates into a small menu of really good items, versus a big menu with hit or miss items.
      Pricing food correctly will literally make or break you. You want to turn a great profit, but at the same time give a great deal. One formula commonly used is “Cost x 3”. This means, whatever you pay for the product, charge three times the price for it. That way 1/3 is cost, 1/3 is overhead, and 1/3 is profit. In a perfect world, a profit above 35% is great. If you make the mistake of pricing too high, sales will be low. Price too low, and you will not make profit. Find the balance.
       The worst mistake a caterer or vendor can make is not being prepared. If you pay for a vendor spot at a festival, set up at least 3-4 hours before you plan to serve any food. This allows for time to do last minute prep, setup tables, and go get supplies that were forgotten. Also, setting up early means selling food early, which is always a good thing.
      Just remember, cooking great food is only a small fraction of what it takes to be successful. But with hard work and preparation, catering and vending can be very rewarding